Confronting a Tough Issue: Teacher Tenure

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In 1993, North Carolina eliminated tenure for administrators, a step several states have taken in the name of holding principals accountable for school performance.

The same year, Michael E. Ward, who is now North Carolina's superintendent of public instruction, published a doctoral dissertation examining the much more contentious issue of teacher tenure and dismissal.

Ward, who was chief of the Granville County schools in Oxford, N.C., at the time, knew that there were few studies on the topic, partly because of difficulty in obtaining data.

He was able to persuade his superintendent colleagues in 30 districts that their information would be treated with strict confidentiality. What he found, he says, confirmed the widespread view that tenured teachers are rarely fired.

And of teachers who were, a fourth were rehired elsewhere in the state. Most of the teachers who found other teaching jobs were in high-demand fields such as mathematics, science, or special education. There was no significant difference in re-employment rates for teachers who were dismissed and those who resigned rather than be fired.

"Administrators are becoming increasingly cautious about performance issues and what they disclose in references," Ward says. "But it's a pretty sleepy administrator who can't read between the lines, even on a fairly neutral reference."

The 30 North Carolina districts he studied employed a total of 12,297 teachers. Between July 1989 and June 1992, they fired 170 probationary teachers, who had not yet earned the due process protections commonly known as tenure. Another 40 tenured teachers were fired.

The total proportion of teachers who were dismissed or persuaded to resign was less than one in a hundred: 0.64 percent.

As a doctoral student, Michael E. Ward, now North Carolina's schools chief, conducted a study in that state on teacher tenure and dismissal. His research confirmed the widespread view that tenured teachers are rarely fired.

Superintendents queried for the study thought that about 3.3 percent of nontenured teachers weren't up to snuff-and districts were removing 2.7 percent of them, the study found.

But superintendents believed far more tenured teachers deserved to be removed from the classroom than actually were. The "rate of involuntary separation" for tenured teachers in the study was 0.15 percent, while school leaders estimated that 4.1 percent of their faculty members should be dismissed for poor performance.

"Tenure itself may not be the barrier--the barrier in many instances may be the willingness of school leaders to confront unpleasant tasks associated with dealing with performance problems," Ward suggests.

He recommends that administrators conduct thorough background checks on prospective teachers to keep applicants with unsatisfactory work histories in other districts from landing jobs.

He also calls on legislatures to change tenure statutes that "unnecessarily inhibit the removal of unsuitable teachers."


In Oregon, lawmakers in 1997 eliminated permanent-employment status for teachers in favor of two-year contracts. Districts are still required to use a "fair dismissal" process that involves showing why a teacher should be fired, but the law makes it easier for districts to take action for substandard teaching. And for the first time, teachers' evaluations will focus on individual performance goals.

Administrators there now serve under three-year contracts and can be dismissed without cause.

Christopher L. Dudley, the executive director of the Oregon School Boards Association, estimates that fewer than two dozen teachers have been let go statewide as a result of the change.

"There were not a raft of nonrenewals or dismissals under this new statute, and we didn't expect there to be," he says. "Our teachers are very high-quality."

The changes assured the public that no teacher holds a job solely because of tenure and that teachers' evaluations are tied to students' performance, Dudley says.

Few Oregon administrators have been dismissed as a result of the changes, but a growing number of districts, including Portland, are establishing performance criteria for renewing their contracts.

In New York state, teachers who receive unsatisfactory evaluations are now required to undertake an "improvement plan" set by their school districts. Districts must publish information on the number of teachers rated unsatisfactory, the number who successfully completed improvement plans, the number who did not, and the number of dismissal proceedings initiated by the district.

New York's new state board on professional standards and practices, which advises the board of regents on teacher quality, also will review the licenses of all terminated teachers. Previously, the state could revoke teachers' licenses only for "lack of good moral character." Now, the state can take action against a teacher for incompetence, neglect of duty, and insubordination relating to its requirements for continued professional development and annual reviews.

"Every student has the right to be taught by caring and competent professionals," says a 1998 report of the regents' task force on teaching. "The present system does not adequately assure these rights."


One of the toughest approaches to teacher accountability has been pursued by urban districts that have shaken up the staffing of entire schools, a process known as "reconstitution." Typically, principals are dismissed and faculty members must reapply for their jobs, in the hope of giving failing schools a fresh start.

But even in such dramatic situations, most teachers wind up either rehired by their schools or teaching somewhere else in the same district.

In Chicago, district leaders reconstituted seven high schools in 1997 and announced that teachers who lost their positions would have less job protection. Two-thirds of the affected teachers were rehired by their old schools.

More significantly, 174 teachers who weren't rehired landed jobs elsewhere in the 413,000-student district. Another 58 were given a four-month extension to find work in the system, despite officials' promise to dismiss them after 10 months. The concession was widely seen as an olive branch to the powerful Chicago Teachers Union, which vociferously opposed the high school shakeups.

Vol. 18, Issue 17, Page 48

Published in Print: January 11, 1999, as Confronting a Tough Issue: Teacher Tenure
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