The Push for Tenure Reform—Not Tenure Elimination

TNTP's Dan Weisberg makes a case for giving teachers basic protections without the guarantee of a lifetime job.
TNTP makes a case for being able to fire poor performing teachers. (Photo: Richard Lewisohn)
Nov 15, 2012
is a freelance writer based in San Francisco, who writes about economic crises and political snafus.

Some feel that teacher tenure should be tossed out the window. Dan Weisberg, an executive vice president at TNTP (formerly known as The New Teacher Project), does not agree.

Tenure reform, not tenure elimination, is what he and TNTP hope to achieve.

“There must be a balance,” Weisberg tells TakePart. “There must be some way to provide protection against principals or district officials firing a teacher for reasons not related to performance.”

“But when the due process that prevents teachers for being arbitrarily fired becomes so burdensome that it becomes a deterrent in taking action with respect to teachers doing a really poor job in the classroom and dragging kids back academically—that is a problem.”

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Weisberg says a report they released in July called The Irreplaceables, which examined how high turnover among teachers is only a problem if the teachers leaving are high achievers, and other TNTP surveys prove that there are many teachers languishing in their jobs. Tenure laws, he says, are one reason why these teachers are not removed from their profession.

A single case of trying to release one poor performing teacher from tenure can last for years and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. “That’s more than basic protection, that’s guaranteeing a lifetime job,” he says. “That’s not good for the profession, and it’s not good for kids.”

There are two tenure situations where teachers need to be let out of their jobs: for misconduct and for poor performance. The latter is the area TNTP is most concerned with reforming because it is one that causes lengthy court cases and exorbitant costs. “We need to put limits on the process,” he says. He admiringly points to New Jersey’s new tenure law, which caps the process at 105 days and $7,500.

Weisberg also points to the Colorado tenure bill that was approved in 2010 as a sign of positive tenure reform. In this law, Colorado public teachers have to work harder to receive tenure—and tenure is not a lifelong guarantee. They can only remain tenured if they receive satisfactory evaluations. Two years in a row of poor evaluations will strip teachers of their status, which they then have to try to win back by three consecutive years’ of excellent work.  “I think this is a very promising approach,” Weisberg says.

Weisberg says he and the work they do at TNTP will continue to support reforms like those in New Jersey and Colorado, and to encourage states to stretch the time a teacher is given tenure to at least four years (in some places, it is only two years after a teacher starts working).

Tenure reform is beginning to make a difference—but there is still a lot of work that has to be done to remove the failing teachers from schools across the country. “We have to be careful not to descend into happy talk because in most districts across the country, tenure is still a heavily burdensome process that is a deterrent to removing poor instructors,” he says. “I’m definitely hopeful, but we have a long way to go.”

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