States Strive to Overhaul Teacher Tenure

By Stephen Sawchuk — April 05, 2010 8 min read
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Over the past year, a handful of states have begun to overhaul their tenure-granting processes by increasing the number of years it takes teachers to win due process rights, and by trying to improve the evaluations that are supposed to guide determinations of whether a teacher qualifies for the benchmark.

The recent efforts differ in several ways from prior waves of reform. With the lone exception of Florida, the states seek to change the tenure-granting process, rather than abolish it. The revisions are also being coupled with movements to tie tenure to student academic achievement, reflecting an increased emphasis in national policy circles on the importance of gauging teachers’ impact on student learning.

“More has happened in terms of tenure reform in the last six to 12 months, probably, than has ever happened before,” said Patrick J. McGuinn, an associate professor of political science at Drew University and the author of a recent paper on teacher tenure. “Some of this is simply the result of advances in the collection of student-achievement and teacher-performance data. That’s totally changed the debate about tenure.”

The mechanisms through which the states are approaching changes to their tenure policies differ. They range from a law enacted in Ohio last year delaying tenure-granting until a teacher has served for seven years to a regulatory overhaul in Delaware, completed in January, that more closely ties tenure to a teacher’s effect on student achievement.

Pieces of legislation that would delay tenure in Maryland—and abolish it in Florida—are pending, but appear likely to pass their respective legislatures this month.

Difficult Revisions

Though the details vary by state, tenure—sometimes referred to as a “professional service” or “continuing” contract—confers on teachers the right to due process before they can be dismissed. The challenges and costs associated with dismissing a tenured employee have caused some critics of current policies to press for a higher bar.

Length of Time Before Tenure Kicks In


SOURCE: National Council on Teacher Quality

Teachers’ unions have generally resisted attempts to weaken or delay tenure protections, and several of the recent efforts to tackle this most sensitive of school improvement issues have been coupled with legislative sweeteners.

Tenure reform was only one small part of a massive education overhaul bill passed by the Ohio legislature last year. The Ohio Education Association, a National Education Association affiliate, supported the overall bill because of changes to the school funding formula, a new graduated-licensing system that provides new teachers with induction assistance, and a class-size-reduction mandate, said Randy Flora, the union’s director of education policy and coalition relations.

“Teachers’ unions and others were probably convinced to accept the tenure language because, frankly, there was a lot of good stuff in the bill for them,” added Terry Ryan, the vice president for Ohio programs for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington think tank that generally supports a more rigorous tenure bar.

The end result of legislative actions to change tenure-granting isn’t certain yet in Maryland, where the House and the Senate—both under Democratic control—have each passed a bill that would lengthen the time for granting tenure from two years to three.

The endeavor came about largely at the insistence of state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick. She is trying to better position her state to compete in the second round of funding under the federal Race to the Top competition, which puts a premium on linking teacher pay, promotion, and tenure to evaluation.

Crucial details have yet to be reconciled. Ms. Grasmick supports the House of Delegates’ version of the language, but has concerns about the Senate bill, which would also add a new 90-day notice for teachers not on track to receive tenure. The provision, she asserts, would essentially create a new appeals process.

“Right now, there’s no grievance process [for nontenured teachers], and that will promote a grievance process, and that’s problematic,” she said. “It would take us backwards.”

Unions have been less successful in winning concessions in Florida, where a Republican-controlled legislature is poised to approve a plan that would all but dismantle teacher tenure for new hires.

The bill, which has passed the Senate, would do away with the current system of offering continuing contracts to teachers who have completed three years of service. All teachers would be placed on annual contracts. Those reaching their fifth year in the district would also lose employment unless they earned several successive ratings in the top-two performance tiers on a new evaluation instrument.

The bill also would require Florida districts to base teacher evaluations and compensation largely on student test scores.

The state teachers’ union, an affiliate of both the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers, lobbied unsuccessfully to amend the bill to maintain due process for those who successfully passed the five-year benchmark. But those amendments weren’t heeded, said Andy Ford, the president of the Florida Education Association.

“We’re in the fight for the long haul,” he said. “We’re looking toward the November elections,where we’d repeal and reform the legislation, if we can change some seats in the Senate and the House.”

Mr. McGuinn, the Drew University professor, points to the Florida situation as one of the dangers in transforming tenure. Georgia eliminated it for new hires, angering the teachers’ association, and a new governor quickly restored it in 2003, he noted.

“To the degree Florida is going down that road again, it may be somewhat unproductive,” he said.

Challenges Ahead

Even the states looking to make more-incremental changes to tenure than Florida have their work cut out for them.

“Changing the amount of time to [gain] tenure is not going to be helpful if you don’t have a good evaluation system,” said Joan Baratz-Snowden, an independent consultant who has written about tenure.

To Timothy Daly, the president of the New Teacher Project, a New York City-based teacher-training organization, many of the recent tenure undertakings don’t put enough emphasis on making sure that meeting the standard means that teachers are demonstrably successful in the classroom.

“Right now, the standard is that you haven’t been fired by your principal,” Mr. Daly said.

But in a day and age when effective teaching is increasingly being defined by student learning rather than teacher practice, making the standard meaningful is a proposition fraught with difficulties.

Maryland’s bill would allow the state to start crafting a unified, statewide evaluation framework that would be linked to tenure and include some consideration of growth in student scores in the system, Ms. Grasmick said.

But in Ohio, language tying test scores to evaluation was ultimately dropped from the bill. And districts in that state are only now starting to think through the complexities of teacher evaluation and its link to tenure, Mr. Flora of the OEA added.

“I suspect that as we get deeper into bargaining season this spring, we’ll begin to see some of the implications of the bill,” he said.

Ms. Baratz-Snowden, a former director of the AFT’s educational issues department, meanwhile, worries that the states aren’t focusing enough on the approximately two-thirds of teachers who don’t teach in grades or subjects covered by standardized test scores.

Those teachers, she said, must spend time defining the standards and discussing student work products so that they understand what evidence of student growth actually looks like.

Delaware is among the few states that have started to think through how to make the tenure standard meaningful. The state recently made a measure of student learning the primary benchmark in determining whether a teacher should be granted tenure.

State law says that teachers must earn one “effective” rating in the three-year period before earning tenure, but it leaves many of the details to the state education department and board of education to flesh out through administrative rulemaking.

Under new regulations adopted in January, only those teachers who garner a satisfactory rating on the student-achievement component—one of five total elements on the statewide evaluation instrument—can be deemed effective.

Delaware officials will work with the state teachers’ union to determine how to measure student growth as part of the system, which is set to take effect in 2011.

In their successful Race to the Top application, state officials also indicated that they planned to require Delaware’s beginning teachers to demonstrate that their effective performance is consistent over time, by earning at least two successive “effective” evaluations before receiving tenure. That change, however, requires legislative action.

Whether the current experimentation will continue in other states, spurred by the Race to the Top and other initiatives, remains to be seen.

Sherman Dorn, a professor of education at the University of South Florida who has been closely following the action in that state, said he’s surprised states haven’t attempted to capture an escalating tenure model similar to that used in higher education—a three-year, at-will period, followed by several years of annual contracts, and then the conferral of due process.

“It seems like sort of an obvious hybrid,” he said.

But Mr. McGuinn of Drew University remains optimistic that more states will look carefully at their options.

“What might it look like if we had a lot of tenure policies and tried to assess the impact of that on student achievement?” he said. “We haven’t had the variability in policies or the kind of data to support that research. But I think we’re going to begin to get that.”

Coverage of policy efforts to improve the teaching profession is supported by a grant from the Joyce Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the April 07, 2010 edition of Education Week as States Strive To Overhaul Teacher Tenure


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