TENURE BATTLES OF 2011 | Teachers College Columbia University

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Amid growing challenges to teachers' rights to organize, what will happen in schools if tenure goes?
Madison, Wisconsin, has become Ground Zero in what looks like open season on teachers and public employee unions, as Governor Scott Walker proposes to close a projected $137 million short-term budget deficit by severely restricting teachers’ ability to collectively bargain for salary increases and benefits. Teachers and their supporters are fighting back, flocking to the town by the thousands and filling the statehouse with chants, t-shirts and signs of protest.

Similar battles have broken out in other states, including Indiana, Ohio, Idaho and Florida, and, more recently, Tennessee and Oklahoma, where governors and state legislators – many of them newly elected Republicans – are hacking away at state budgets and deficit spending. They also are taking direct aim on K-12 teachers by trying to abolish tenure.

Teachers and their unions are quick to point out that tenure is not a lifetime job guarantee, but a system of due process designed to protect teachers from summary discipline or firing that is motivated by personality conflict, politics or cronyism. But some politicians and public officials decry tenure as the single largest impediment to getting rid of ineffective teachers. If a principal or school board wants to dismiss a tenured teacher, they have to follow a complicated process involving hearings, lawyers and years of labor, so Byzantine and expensive that many school systems don’t bother.

As president of the local school board in Edison, New Jersey, Gene I. Maeroff, a senior fellow at TC’s Hechinger Institute, has first-hand experience in firing a tenured teacher. He wrote in The Record of Bergen County that his board had spent “two years and a half-million dollars to get rid of a teacher whose own colleagues had condemned her performance. The cost of her dismissal included legal fees, her salary for not having to work, and the expense of a substitute to fulfill her duties.”

Tenure policies, which are either negotiated statewide as part of teachers’ labor contracts or written into state law, generally require that teachers laid off for economic reasons – as a number of governors and state legislatures are proposing – must be let go on a “last in, first out” basis. Teachers with the least seniority are the first to go. But some public officials, including Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York City, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles (a former teachers union organizer), and Chris Christie, governor of New Jersey, want to start with teachers deemed to be ineffective in the classroom, regardless of seniority or tenure.

Teachers and public officials speak passionately about what tenure means to them. But how does it affect students and the quality of teaching? Do tenure laws keep bad teachers in the classroom who have lost their enthusiasm for teaching and are unable or unwilling to step up their game? Conversely, if tenured teachers are removed, would schools lose the benefit of their classroom experience? Does tenure prevent schools from hiring cheaper, more enthusiastic new talent who are trained in the latest content and pedagogical techniques and earn less money, but need years of training and mentoring before they become proficient?

“The discussion has become so polarized that it’s become a political issue instead of an educational issue, and it’s really unfortunate,” says Michael Rebell, an attorney and professor of law and education at TC. “On the one hand, the unions hold that seniority is important. They are always fearful that principals have reasons why they want to get rid of people. From the Board of Education perspective, it’s terrible to have to fire [less experienced] people who have great potential.”

Rebell, an expert in education equity law, says layoffs of younger, inexperienced teachers hit high-need, high poverty schools the hardest, because those are the schools where newer, less experienced teachers tend to work. He points to the Reed v. California case, which the state settled by agreeing that up to 45 low income schools in Los Angeles would be exempt from budget-based layoffs based on the last in, first out rule. Rebell says more equity lawsuits might be filed in other states to stop layoffs in low-income schools.

Christopher Emdin, an assistant professor of science education who works regularly with teachers and students in low-income schools in New York, says the prospect of job security remains a big draw for college graduates who might otherwise not view teaching as a high-status profession. Eliminating tenure would make it harder to recruit and retain young teachers, especially for high-needs schools. “In a field where teacher recruitment and retention (particularly in urban areas) has been a perpetual issue, eliminating tenure is equivalent to telling aspiring teachers that advanced degrees, years of preparation, commitment, and passion are not enough to ensure that one will be valued and respected for being a teacher.”

Firing teachers, whether they’re effective or not, is not a solution for low-income schools that have difficulty hiring replacements, Emdin says. However, according to Rebell, the recession and programs like Teach for America may have alleviated some of that pressure by making teaching at least temporarily more attractive.

Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz, an assistant professor of English education who is a former corporate executive and former high school teacher, worries that the teaching profession, stripped of tenure, “will not attract the people we need” in the classroom. But she agrees with principals, school board members, and even some teachers, who say that sometimes tenure laws protect the small number of ineffective teachers as well as the good ones, and she believes it is too difficult to ease out tenured teachers who are burned out, unable or unwilling to keep up with the rapidly changing demands of teaching today.

The solution, Sealey-Ruiz says, is not to eliminate tenure but to retrain and support struggling teachers, as many private sector employers do, before letting them go. But that would be a challenge, she noted, for school systems having to cut budgets. “I don’t think there’s any way around it without spending time and spending money,” she said.

Some educators say that mentoring or rehabilitating ineffective teachers – tenured or not – will not stop some principals from abusing their power. “If you get on a principal’s bad side,” said one alumnus and high school teacher, “they will write you up for things that they have minimal documentation for.”

Some TC experts believe tenure could work better if teachers were fairly evaluated and received the support they need to improve. Even Randi Weingarten, president of the powerful American Federation of Teachers, has conceded that tenure rules need to be streamlined.

In some systems, tenure is granted to teachers with fewer than two years in the classroom, following evaluations by their principals that are cursory at best. Even some teachers say it should take longer to get tenure, and it should go only to teachers who have been rigorously supervised over as many as 10 years of service. That support should not stop after tenure is granted, says Karen Zumwalt, a professor of education at TC, who believes struggling or apathetic teachers should get “more systematic feedback and support throughout their careers so that continual professional growth is the norm.”

Many reformers, including President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, want to tie teachers’ pay and job security to their students’ standardized test scores. But teachers unions say doing so is unfair to teachers who work in high-needs schools where test scores may be stubbornly low or swing widely from year to year, for reasons unrelated to the quality of the teaching. They say test scores should count toward measuring teacher effectiveness, but they should not be the exclusive measure, as Joel Klein proposed when he was Chancellor of New York City schools. Teachers should be evaluated based on frequent observation by principals or experienced teachers, and not the “drive-by” evaluations that are the norm in too many schools, teachers say.

Mayor Cory A. Booker of Newark, New Jersey, a TC trustee and titular head of the school system in his city, takes a comprehensive approach to the problem. In a written statement, he told “Views on the News” that “we need to rethink the way we hire, retain, develop and remove teachers in Newark’s public schools. Our current system does not reward excellence in the classroom, provide teachers with the support they need to develop into highly effective educators, or provide administrators with real remedies, including removal, for consistently low performing teachers. It’s time to change our approach.”

Stephen Duch, principal at Hillcrest High School in Queens and an alumnus of TC’s Cahn Fellowship program, believes that, no matter who wins the great tenure battles of 2011, a principal can do a lot to make a good school, by juggling all the competing concerns and creating a simple, transparent and fair way to evaluate teachers.

Duch recalls that when he first got to Hillcrest 15 years ago, he inherited some “absolutely atrocious” teachers who have since left. Duch has hired about 80 percent of his current staff of 180 teachers. It comes down to creating a culture of excellence, he says, and that takes time, patience and commitment. “With my longevity in the building, I have brought together like-minded people. There are very few outliers.” But, he adds, “I feel it’s my responsibility as principal to make sure that those people remain fresh, remain innovative, remain strong teachers,” by “providing meaningful professional development that meets [their] needs,” as well as supervision and mentoring in the first few years.

Echoing many education experts at TC, Duch believes teachers should work on a contract basis of two to five years. Before their contracts are renewed, teachers should be reviewed carefully and fairly against clear benchmarks that are not entirely tied to student test scores. “Teaching is a true profession rather than a job,” he says. “You wouldn’t dismiss a doctor who has 30 years’ experience in favor of a doctor who has two years’ experience, but yet you wouldn’t go to a doctor who has been practicing for 30 years who is using the same techniques as he used 30 years ago.”

Published Friday, Feb. 25, 2011