Opinion
Teaching Profession Commentary

The Time Is Right for Teacher-Tenure Reform

By Patrick McGuinn — May 03, 2010 7 min read

The Obama administration’s Race to the Top initiative has begun a long-overdue debate on how to improve state systems of teacher evaluation and tenure.

Instituted during the early part of the 20th century, tenure systems established a set of guidelines to protect teachers from the arbitrary, unfair, and often discriminatory dismissal practices that were common in local schools. While these due process protections remain necessary today, their expansion over time has made it so difficult and costly for districts to dismiss tenured teachers that they now rarely attempt to do so, even when serious concerns about a teacher’s effectiveness arise.

Data from the U.S. Department of Education’s 2007-08 Schools and Staffing Survey reveal that, on average, districts dismiss or decline to renew only 2.1 percent of teachers (tenured and nontenured) for poor performance each year. The extremely low rates of dismissal for tenured teachers, and the fact that dismissal is generally pursued for egregious conduct violations rather than performance, mean that tenured teachers in most states enjoy the functional equivalence of employment for life.

This problem is further compounded by the fact that the process for granting tenure is itself fundamentally broken, as it has become virtually automatic and almost entirely disconnected from any meaningful assessment of a teacher’s effectiveness in the classroom. In 2008, the National Council on Teacher Quality gave 41 states failing grades for their tenure policies, while nine other states were given a grade of D. Not a single state in the country had even “partly” met the goal of developing a “meaningful” tenure-decisionmaking process by the council’s definition. It concluded: “Tenure should be a significant and consequential milestone in a teacher’s career. Unfortunately, the awarding of tenure occurs virtually automatically in just about all states, with little deliberation or consideration of evidence of teacher performance.”

The failure to develop more effective teacher-evaluation and -improvement programs, or to remove ineffective teachers from the classroom, has hampered the quest to improve student academic performance and reduce racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps. A 2006 Brookings Institution report, for example, concluded that “schools could substantially increase student achievement by denying tenure to the least effective teachers.”

To function effectively in weeding out poorly performing teachers, both the tenure-granting and tenure-revocation processes ultimately depend on the underlying district teacher-evaluation systems, but these are also deeply flawed. In the 2009 report “The Widget Effect,” for example, the New Teacher Project lamented “our pervasive and long-standing failure to recognize and respond to variations in the effectiveness of our teachers.” Yet even if regular and detailed teacher-performance information were readily available, existing norms and policies discourage—and in some cases explicitly prohibit—its use in tenure decisions. Nationwide, for example, only four states (Iowa, Minnesota, New Mexico, and North Carolina) currently require districts to incorporate even minimal teacher-effectiveness information into tenure decisions.

States must articulate a definition of effectiveness in order to create a system for dismissing “ineffective” teachers, and pair that with an assessment system that documents the extent to which teachers have or have not met performance standards. In the absence of such a system, it is very difficult for school officials to identify ineffective teachers, let alone assist them in improving or justify their dismissal. It should not be surprising, given this context, that most tenure reforms to date have had little effect on teacher-dismissal rates.

Historically, the political opposition and technical challenges that surround tenure reform have prevented efforts to achieve it from advancing very far in state legislatures. But both problems have diminished in recent years. The establishment of annual standardized-testing and data-collection systems at the school, district, and state levels has created an opportunity for policymakers to link teacher evaluations and tenure decisions to student performance in a way that previously was not possible. At the same time, increased public concern about the effect of underperforming schools on national equity goals and economic competitiveness has created new political incentives for policymakers to embrace innovative approaches to teacher quality, and school reform generally. As a result, the time appears ripe for a more sustained and effective effort to improve the process by which teachers are granted continuing-contract status.

In an important speech in January, the American Federation of Teachers’ president, Randi Weingarten, acknowledged the inadequacy of current systems of evaluating teachers. She called for replacing brief teacher observations by principals (which she termed a “perfunctory waste of time”) with “constructive and robust teacher evaluation” and “the creation of a system that would inform tenure, employment decisions, and due process proceedings.” Saying that too often due process can become a “glacial process,” she stressed her organization’s intention to help change that.

Weingarten hailed the contract negotiated in October 2009 by the New Haven, Conn., chapter of the AFT, which limits job protections for teachers in failing schools and includes provisions for performance pay and teacher evaluation based in part on student growth. Important details of the plan still need to be hammered out, but both Weingarten and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have suggested it as a reform model for the nation.

President Barack Obama and Secretary Duncan have supported their tough talk on teacher evaluation and tenure with some important steps to tie federal funds to significant reform. Through their blueprint for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, as well as the guidelines for the Race to the Top Fund competition, they are pushing states to improve their systems of teacher data-collection and evaluation.

Teacher-effectiveness reforms, for example, constitute the single biggest category of possible points (28 percent) in the Race to the Top competitive-grant process, and Secretary Duncan has highlighted their importance to the successful applications of the round-one winners, Delaware and Tennessee. Even to be eligible to apply for the grants, states must not have any law that creates a “firewall” to prohibit student-achievement data from being used in teacher evaluations. California, Indiana, and Wisconsin have already removed their firewalls in response to the federal grant guidelines, and other states are debating similar measures.

Yet the ultimate result of these changes will depend on what states actually do with this new information and, in particular, whether they use it to improve their systems of teacher evaluation, compensation, and tenure. Houston, New York City, the District of Columbia, and the state of Ohio have recently enacted reforms to do just that. In most states, however, teachers are currently given tenure automatically after three years in the classroom—with little evaluation of their teaching effectiveness—and are extremely unlikely to be fired during their careers, no matter how ineffective they are. And because the least effective teachers are concentrated in the poorest schools, the cost of leaving them in the classroom is borne disproportionately by the country’s most disadvantaged students. This situation is simply untenable.

States may reasonably differ in how they define and measure teaching effectiveness; in particular, they may place different emphasis on the importance of student scores on standardized achievement tests. But the upcoming reauthorization of the ESEA presents an opportunity to require that states incorporate some measure of teacher effectiveness into their tenure and dismissal processes or risk the loss of federal funding.

Intensifying public and federal pressure around educational accountability and the development of new systems for measuring student achievement and teacher effectiveness have created a propitious moment for K-12 teacher-tenure reform. Policymakers must seize this moment as part of a broader push to improve teacher quality and classroom instruction. Without such changes, the tremendous energy being invested in school reform is likely to yield only limited gains in educational achievement.

A version of this article appeared in the May 12, 2010 edition of Education Week

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