Accountability Opinion

Is Tenure an Anachronism?

By Marc F. Bernstein — March 21, 2006 4 min read
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School accountability and high-stakes testing have changed the face of public education. They will soon change teacher and administrator tenure as well. With two-thirds of the states granting lifetime tenure (and more than half of them doing so after only two or three years of employment), the process is in danger of becoming an anachronism. This is an age, after all, when failing test scores can keep students from graduating and cause schools to be closed.

Simply put, employing schools need significantly more time to evaluate their new teachers. We will never improve our schools if we ignore the most important factor in the education equation, namely, teacher effectiveness. We can pay teachers more money, we can demand more content mastery or graduate degrees of newly certified teachers, but it’s the ability of the classroom teacher to reach his or her students that counts most.

Tenure shouldn’t be eliminated for teachers or administrators, but the probationary period leading to tenure must be lengthened significantly.

As a profession, education is finally acknowledging that student learning is influenced more by teacher qualities (experience, educational credentials, certifications, licensure scores) and, even more so, by teacher effectiveness than by class size, per-pupil expenditure, and appearances. The Education Trust examined the issue of “do teachers matter?” and reported that students who performed the worst on state tests had the same set of teachers over a several-year period. Not surprisingly, the students who performed the best had also had the same set of (often different) teachers. So what explains the difference? What makes an effective teacher?

Until very recently, teaching and learning were measured solely through the subjective lens of the observer. The teacher’s own perception of her classroom performance, the supervisor’s classroom observation of the teacher with his class, and the parent’s comments of satisfaction with the teacher were the sum of our assessment of a teacher’s effectiveness. Today, because of the No Child Left Behind law’s requirement of yearly testing in grades 3-8 in math and reading, as well as the pervasive dissemination of student test scores (by school, district, state, and nation), we are looking at more-objective data—test scores. If students aren’t passing, does it matter if their teachers appear to be “good in the classroom”?

Only in the past few years have we begun to review student test scores as an element in the tenure decision. If all the subjective factors (classroom management, questioning techniques, homework procedures) feel right and a teacher’s students perform miserably on the year-end test for two consecutive years, do we grant or deny tenure? What if students do well one year and poorly the next? Most people would say we need more evidence. It’s unfair, both to the new teacher and to the employing community that will have that teacher for the next 30 years, to make an irreversible decision on such limited information. But we now have concrete information; test scores can’t be dismissed in this era of school accountability.

It takes excellent mentoring, supervision by knowledgeable professionals, trial and error, familiarity with diverse populations of students, preparation and revision of countless lesson plans, and experience in activities such as devising strategies for integrating technology and analyzing student test results to identify learning gaps, among other factors, for a newly minted college graduate to become an effective teacher.

Gaining these capabilities involves more art than science, and thus takes time. The skills of an excellent teacher cannot be learned and perfected in real classrooms in a period of two or three years.

The story is the same for school leaders. Research shows us that a school can’t succeed without an effective principal. Yet it takes at least a year for a new principal to know the school’s staff, students, and parents and to begin to evaluate the instructional needs of the school community. To implement specific, programmatic changes takes at least two additional years; evaluating the success of those changes requires another two or three years. An administrator should not receive tenure based on the introduction of creative programs, but rather on their success.

Tenure shouldn’t be eliminated for teachers or administrators, but the probationary period leading to tenure must be lengthened significantly. The reason for tenure’s being an integral part of education law still holds, especially in this day of politically charged issues such as the evolution vs. creationism debate. Tenure assures the educator’s right to free speech and protects against capricious dismissals. But we will never truly improve our education system if public policy requires us to rush to judgment on a decision as profound as who should be with our community’s children for the next 30 years.

If students aren't passing, does it matter if their teachers appear to be 'good in the classroom'?

By saying to all educators that student results count, that students’ success will be a significant element in deciding whether or not they receive tenure, and that educators must prove their effectiveness over a period of years before this unique recognition is granted, we will be making a critical statement about our political will to improve schools.

Political leaders may find opposition to this idea from teachers’ and administrators’ unions—just ask Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California. But only when the best, and most effective, teachers are with our children will American education improve.

A version of this article appeared in the March 22, 2006 edition of Education Week as Is Tenure an Anachronism?


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