Effects Mixed for Ore.'s Contract-Renewal Law

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In 1997, a proposed law aimed at ushering bad teachers and principals out of Oregon's public schools was hotly debated in the legislature. Two years later, there is widespread disagreement among state and district leaders over whether it has worked.

Some say the law, which cuts into the presumption of tenure by requiring school boards to renew teachers' and principals' contracts annually, has stepped up the number of bad educators leaving the schools. Others say it has done little more than place a new paperwork burden on administrators.

"I've heard it has done nothing, and I've heard it's done everything," said Larry Austin, a spokesman for the Oregon Department of Education.

State Sen. Neil R. Bryant, one of the sponsors of the legislation, says the reality is somewhere in between. The law has brought an increase in the departures of bad teachers and principals, but not enough, he says.

According to the Republican lawmaker, school officials report that 6 percent to 10 percent of teachers and administrators should probably have to improve or be shown the door, and that about half of those would improve if given assistance, as the law requires.

A recent survey of 126 of Oregon's 199 districts by the Oregon Confederation of School Administrators showed that the turnover of subpar teachers and administrators was about 1 percent this year and last.

Paradigm Punctured

"Clearly, some of the school districts aren't using [the law] as well as they could be," Mr. Bryant said. "But it did do away with the paradigm that you are there for life."

Some of the controversy stems from the differences among districts. Portland--the state's largest system, with more than 52,000 students--proclaimed last month that it had just sent 27 teachers and four principals or assistant principals packing.

On the other hand, the 33,000-student Salem-Keizer district, the second largest in the state, reported that it had granted new contracts this spring to all eligible teachers, principals, and assistant principals. The much smaller Tillamook district, with about 2,300 students, showed two teachers the door, but a spot check of four other districts by The Oregonian newspaper in Portland found that those systems were extending the contracts of all eligible educators.

Statistical differences are also at issue. Portland leaders have emphasized the number of teachers leaving because of inadequate performance, whether they resigned or were fired. Other districts have reported just the number fired--a head count that requires less record-keeping and speculation than tracking teachers who are "counseled out" of the profession.

The survey by the administrators' group showed that out of about 20,200 experienced teachers in the state, 35 were dismissed in 1997-98, while 132 were encouraged to leave and did.

Another 91 experienced teachers neither had their two-year contracts renewed nor were dismissed. Instead, as the law requires, they were placed on an assistance plan with the hope that they would improve enough to win a contract again the following year.

This school year, 106 experienced teachers were placed on an assistance plan, and 96 were counseled out.

Teachers with less than three years' experience are on probation, and are easier to fire. The new law does not affect them.

Also this year, when the law kicked in for administrators, 22 principals and assistant principals, out of 1,400, were dismissed.

No Baseline

Ronald E. Wilson, the director of labor relations for the Oregon School Boards Association, said the increase in teachers with assistance plans, from 91 to 106, suggests that the law is working. "I'd say that's a very positive outcome," he said.

Yet the survey cannot link the improvements to the new law because it includes no data from before the law took effect. Few districts collected such figures before 1997.

Apart from the problems with the numbers, there is just plain disagreement about the law's effects. "I believe it has dramatically increased the number of [subpar] teachers who ... have been moved out," said Ron Saxton, the chairman of the Portland school board. He said he formed his impression from conversations with educators and the negative reaction to the law from the state and local teachers' unions.

"There's no dramatic increase" in fired teachers, and at most the law has produced 10 additional teachers under threat of being fired, countered Richard Garrett, the president of the Portland Association of Teachers, an affiliate of the National Education Association. The union president said he didn't know how the district arrived at its figure of 27 for those who left the system for performance reasons.

Mr. Garrett pointed out that the 1997 law did not alter the criteria for dismissing a teacher as laid out in state law, so the procedures for firing remain largely unchanged. Many districts, including Portland, did not have to add an assistance program because they already had one in place, he noted.

Many leaders agree that the greatest impact of the law is indirect, affecting mind-set and school culture.

With school boards providing greater scrutiny of performance, they say, and with contract renewals explicit instead of automatic, educators in general will be more on their toes.

That's the case in the Tillamook district, where the law has had some impact, according to Marvin L. Evans, the interim superintendent.

"I think it has probably helped us be slightly more aggressive in asking whether that person is really good for kids or not," he said. "But I don't think it's been nearly as big a deal as the legislature thought it would be."

Vol. 18, Issue 32, Page 3

Published in Print: April 21, 1999, as Effects Mixed for Ore.'s Contract-Renewal Law
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