What's all the fuss about teacher tenure?
by Stuart Singer, The Teacher Leader
At your next social gathering, bring up the currently hot topic of teacher tenure and you most assuredly will elicit many diverse opinions and emotions. Some people are adamant that it creates and retains bad teachers. Others are equally vociferous that without it good teachers are robbed of due process and are at risk of being fired on a principal’s whimsy. One viewpoint will espouse that lifetime employment destroys motivation; the response will be that job security allows experimentation and innovation.
There is no question that many high-profile educators are firmly convinced that tenure is an absolute necessity. In a recent post Tom Whitby, an invited participant at the MSNBC “Education Nation” forum, wrote about the critical need for tenure in all schools. Mr. Whitby was particularly upset by the comments of a young educator who received a great deal of attention when she stated that she did not feel a need for tenure because she was confident that her classroom performance would ensure her of continued employment. Clearly, Mr. Whitby disagreed.
“The sound of fingernails on the blackboard for that statement ripped into me. What she was asking for is what Tenure IS. It is a guarantee of due process. It guarantees that the only thing you can be fired for is that which you are responsible for in your teaching duties. What you CAN be fired for under the Tenure law is: Misconduct, Incompetence, Insubordination, Physical or Mental Disability, Neglect of Duty, or a Lack of Teaching Certificate. Additionally, it cannot be a blind accusation, it must be documented. It is also presented at a hearing with all parties under oath. This guarantees fairness in firing people. Why would any teacher say they don’t need that? If the world were as this young teacher assumes it is, having all teachers judged on the merits of their teaching, it would be a wonderful world. History shows us that it has not always been so.”
A difference of opinion
While I strongly agree with Mr. Whitby that teachers must be protected against unjustified dismissals, I am not convinced that tenure is the best approach. The ultimate goal of education must be to produce successful students. Every day that a weak teacher is in the classroom has the potential of inflicting significant damage to student progress. Any program that slows the termination process will have a potentially negative impact on academic success. Thus, based on my own professional observations and after reading about the “rubber rooms” in New York City, I believe there are better methods than tenure to produce a high quality teaching staff. What is needed is an efficient and effective plan to make good teachers more productive and reduce the number of weak ones. Here is a four-step approach to building a teaching staff that will give superior results to one that depends primarily on tenure.
A comprehensive hiring process. The act of selecting the correct candidates is one of the most important functions of a school. The math of the situation is simple. Hiring a higher percentage of excellent teachers dramatically lessens the need to find methods to remove poor ones. The job interview should include a sample teaching presentation by the applicant, multiple references, an on-site writing sample, and an extended question and answer period. Great care should be taken throughout the reference process. It should be the professional responsibility of all parties to be as honest and candid as possible when discussing the previous work of a candidate. Far too many times when contacting references faulty or misleading information has lead to inappropriate hires. The interviewing panel should include the department chair, assistant principal and a teacher from the subject area. A follow up interview should have classroom observations by the candidate and time interacting with potential colleagues. This approach will take a great deal of time. But every minute spent finding the right individual can save hours of suffering with the wrong one.
Have rigorous evaluations during a teacher’s first three years. The time to determine the potential of an educator is early in their career. After three years it is highly unlikely that one will improve appreciatively. But to be able to accurately determine a person’s potential requires a complex process. Five or more observations by professional evaluators should occur each year. Several of the sessions should be done by individuals who are certified in the subject area. Videotapes of classes should be taken and reviewed by both the evaluators and teachers. If at any point during this period a teacher is determined to be lacking the skills to be successful there should be a clearly established policy for termination. Again, while such an evaluation system will be time consuming and expensive, dealing with the results of poor teaching will be far more costly and detrimental to students.
Create a continuing system of collaborative “teacher growth”. After the initial evaluation period, the teaching staff should engage in an ongoing effort to improve each other’s skills. This program would include a consistent interchange of ideas from colleagues who will observe each other’s classes, share ideas and suggestions, and when appropriate, carefully analyze student test results. These groupings should include both teachers within a department and those from other subject areas. It must be clearly understood that this is not an evaluation process but rather an opportunity to improve and refine teaching practices.
Reduce the influence of the principal in the dismissal process. I strongly agree with Mr. Whitby’s concern with a potentially capricious decision by a principal to fire a teacher. (An example of this type of abuse of power will be presented in a follow up to this post) I endorse two initiatives to eliminate the potential of such an occurrence. Requests for teacher terminations would be the responsibility of a committee rather than the exclusive domain of the principal. In addition to the principal this committee could include the director of guidance, an assistant principal and the district coordinator of the particular curriculum. In addition, greater care must be taken in the selection process of principals to ensure that individuals who would perform in an unprofessional manner would be excluded. A process very similar to the one suggested for teachers should be adopted for administrative hiring. Once again, the extra time and energy required for such a plan would be ultimately less costly than the damage caused by the wrong person being in this position.