In November of 1974, the school board of a rural school district in South Dakota voted to dismiss Kathleen Sullivan after deeming her incompetent to continue teaching elementary school. The board based its decision on a lone, indisputable fact: Miss Sullivan was a single woman who allowed a male friend from New York to move into her home “without any attempt to conceal their living arrangements.” Sullivan objected, and took her case to a federal district court.
The court ruled against her.
Sullivan is but one example of a teacher terminated for all the wrong reasons. In the past, teachers were commonly fired for reasons that had nothing to do with their work, like getting pregnant or because of the color of their skin.
Tenure was originally devised to give teachers the right to due process. "These laws were passed in state after state to protect good teachers from arbitrary actions. Due process is necessary in order to avoid the type of abuses of the past," says Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association.
Yet in practice, once public school teachers are granted tenure, administrators must clear so many hurdles to dismiss them that teachers become, in effect, immune from termination. In recent years, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles have each fired fewer than 1 out of 1,000 tenured teachers. Administrators complain about the laborious process, and about dismissal cases that take years to complete and cost tens of thousands of dollars.
OK, so tenure is good for teachers and bad for administrators. But what does tenure mean for kids?
During an interview with Ed Bradley on 60 Minutes, Harlem Children’s Zone President and CEO Geoffrey Canada explains the absence of tenure as one of the reasons his Promise Academy charter schools are so successful:
We could not run a school under the current rules and regulations with the unions. It’s impossible. It’s just impossible. You can't fire teachers. Look, we fired three teachers last year. Ed, I will guarantee you we fired more teachers than the whole island of Manhattan in all the public schools. Now that's crazy. You come in, you teach. The kids all fail. You get to go home at three, and you get summers off. Now what kinda job is that?
In response to public outcry, numerous states are currently experimenting with tenure reform, and are looking to strike a more even balance between protecting public school teachers while still holding them accountable to student outcomes.
RAISING THE BAR
There are two basic types of tenure reform. The first involves making it more difficult for teachers to be granted tenure by increasing the number of years it takes to win that right, and by ensuring that only effective teachers clear the bar.
"What's become so problematic about tenure is that it's awarded almost automatically, without regard to performance in student learning," says Sandi Jacobs, vice president of the National Council on Teacher Quality.
Colorado is looking to address the issue; Senator Michael Johnston recently introduced a bill requiring teachers to be deemed "effective" three years in a row before receiving tenure, with growth in student test scores a significant part of their evaluations.
Tying student test scores to tenure decisions, while an increasingly popular trend, is not without its critics. When a task force proposed that the Los Angeles Unified School District incorporate student test scores into the evaluation process, teachers’ union president A.J. Duffy replied: “We believe…that standardized test scores are not valid measures of student learning.”
Similarly, former education department member and education scholar Diane Ravitch claims claims that using student test scores to evaluate teachers is unfair “because student performance depends on many factors beyond the teachers' control (like regular attendance and student motivation), as well as the fact that students are not randomly assigned to classes and teachers.”
Citing Dr. Harry Frank, emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, Ravitch adds that telling teachers they will be evaluated according to the scores of their students will produce damaging effects by promoting cheating and teaching to the test. She concludes:
Put simply, tests and assessments should inform teachers about student progress and their own teaching, i.e., what can be learned from the test results. But it is inappropriate to use the same test results to hand out bonuses and punishments, promotions and tenure.
The second type of tenure reform streamlines the process of dismissing ineffective tenured teachers. Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana supports a bill which would require annual evaluations for teachers starting in the fall of 2011, and would make it easier to fire those who fail repeated reviews. Similarly, under the Colorado bill mentioned above, tenured teachers deemed “ineffective” for two straight years would revert to probationary status and could face dismissal.
While multiple states are actively engaged in tenure reform, it is unlikely that any will succeed in abolishing tenure altogether. Florida made a recent attempt, but the bill—which would have eliminated tenure for all new hires and linked teacher pay to student test scores—was met with such widespread protest that it was vetoed by Gov. Charlie Crist on April 15.
And so the experimentation continues, spurred on by federal initiatives like Race to the Top that encourage states to do a better job at holding teachers accountable to student achievement outcomes while still maintaining stakeholder support.
As Patrick J. McGuinn, an associate professor of political science at Drew University points out, we still don’t even know the impact of different tenure policies on student achievement. “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.”