Teacher Preparation Opinion

Follow-Up: Rethinking Tenure and Teacher Careers

By Dave Orphal — October 20, 2011 3 min read
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David Orphal

The myth about tenure is that once a teacher has worked for two or three years of probationary service, he has a job for life, and barring burning down the school or beating random children, there is no way of getting rid of that teacher no matter how lackluster or sub-par he becomes.

First of all, this is simply untrue. Currently, in California, a teacher serves two years of probationary status, during which time a school can choose not to renew his contract without having to state a reason. Simply not being a “good fit” is cause enough to let a probationary teach go.

Once this teacher begins a third year, he earns certain job protections. To fire a “tenured” teacher, the principal has to document a pattern of incompetent performance. The principal has to visit the teacher’s classroom several times to see the sub-par instruction. The principal has to give the teacher specific feedback on how to improve and the necessary support to improve. Finally, the principal has to show that despite the feedback and support, the teacher continues to perform at unacceptably low levels. Then, the school can begin a dismissal case. If the teacher agrees that he isn’t doing a good enough job, he can resign. If he believes that the principal is acting arbitrarily or capriciously in the review and dismissal case, he can challenge the case, and an independent reviewer makes the final call.

Overall, the process takes two to three years.

Perhaps this system is too cumbersome. Perhaps schools should be able to let teachers go more quickly. I’m not saying that I agree, but asking the question allows us to discuss alternatives in a calm and rational light.

Some might argue that principals should have free reign to hire and fire at will. They might argue that a principal would always be putting the best interest of kids first and would never fire a teacher for capricious reasons, like having a politically controversial bumper sticker on her car ...

or venting about her students and school on Facebook ... .

or allowing herself to be photographed having a drink while on vacation...

But let’s pretend for a minute that these kinds of things never happened, and that schools needed a way to let go of low-performing teachers while promoting excellent teachers into hybrid teacher-leader roles where they can continue to teacher children and share their expertise with their colleagues.

Enter the teacher career continuum.

Last year, some colleagues of mine from around the San Francisco Bay Area discussed what such a system might look like. We were part of a group organized by the Center for Teaching Quality called the New Millennial Initiative. Our goal was to imagine a system whereby teachers could grow in their profession and expand their opportunities for leadership. In a paper we are set to release in the next few months, we include a graphic representation of a teacher career path.

First we looked at the current system, where teachers stayed in the classroom for their whole careers, and had to leave teaching completely to pursue jobs in educational leadership ...

Then we imagined how a teacher might advance through a career. In this system, a teacher comes up for review periodically. The teacher undergoes a rigorous review process in which the school decides to renew tenure, let the teacher go, or promote the teacher to the next level with a significant increase in responsibilities and compensation. That system might look like this:

I like these ideas. I agree with Kilian Betlach’s comment in the book Teaching 2030: We ask far too much from our beginning teachers, and not enough from our mid-career teacher. A promotion/review system as imagined by the Bay Area NMI team would go a long way to supporting our young teachers and encouraging our veterans to share their valuable experience.

What do you think? Do you agree with Mr. Betlach’s statement? Would you be interested in working in a school system with fewer job protections but more significant opportunities for advancement?

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