Allowing failing teachers to pass

March 11, 2010, 7:59 a.m. | By Lauren Teixeira | 10 years, 11 months ago

Outdated teacher retention process needs revision

Long has it been known that the apple of every teacher's eye is tenure, a status obtained after a successful probationary period that ensures his or her teaching position. Historically, tenure was awarded to experienced and deserving teachers in order to protect them from discriminatory, unfair dismissals that prevailed during the early 20th century.

But one hundred years later, tenure has become an arbitrary practice that guarantees job protection to the most incompetent teachers. According to Sarah Brody, a junior fellow at the Nation Council for Teacher Quality, "Maryland awards tenure virtually automatically."

Maryland was forced to confront its stance on tenure policy in January, when the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation denied it $250,000 of "technical assistance funding" that would have enabled the state to apply for the first "round" of Race to the Top (RTTT) grants because, according to superintendent of schools Nancy Grasmick, the foundation withheld the funds because they thought Maryland makes it too easy for teachers to obtain tenure. As a result, Maryland is waiting until round two of RTTT to apply.

This most recent wave of education reform heralds a prime time to pursue serious discussion on tenure reform. Where previously states and education boards have focused their reform efforts on teacher hiring and compensation, they should work now to make tenure a meaningful and coveted position once again.

In large part the reason tenure has become so meaningless is that it is awarded based solely on the number of probationary years completed: on average the probationary period is three years, in Maryland only two. Across the nation there has been no attempt to link tenure decisions to teacher effectiveness - only two states have tenure laws that require districts to consider teacher effectiveness in tenure decisions. This general lack of attention to teacher effectiveness is counter to the original intent of the tenure system, which seeks to root out incompetent teachers and retain effective ones.

As it is, most states treat teacher evaluations as another formality. According to a 2009 study on teacher evaluation systems by The New Teacher Project, a national non-profit organization devoted to increasing the number of "outstanding" teachers on behalf of poor and minority students, probationary teachers reported being observed in the classroom two or fewer times for an average of 81 minutes in the preceding year. Under the current system, states may as well not evaluate at all, because what information is gleaned from these sparse sessions is ignored when it comes to making tenure decisions.

In order to restore to the integrity of the tenure system it is imperative that states incorporate into the process comprehensive methods of evaluating teacher effectiveness. The resources are in place: Reformers have studied this issue for decades and numerous schemes for teacher evaluation have been proposed in state legislatures. And the new standardized testing movement has provided plentiful data with which to analyze teacher performance.

Once tenured through the current system, a teacher is nearly guaranteed to stay firmly entrenched in the system until he or she opts out. Current state tenure laws, combined with aggressive local bargaining agreements, make the process of removing teachers for underperformance difficult, time-consuming and expensive.

In addition to being arduous, such endeavors tend to fail. According to data collected by the 2007-2008 federal Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS), 72 percent of administrators report tenure policy has been a barrier to removing ineffective teachers.

As such, dismissal for incompetence or ineffectiveness rarely occurs. The 2007-2008 SASS data reveals that school districts dismiss or decline to renew the contract of only 1.4 percent of tenured teachers each year, a rate that reflects mostly firings for "egregious conduct violations" like physical abuse or sexual molestation. This compares to a finding in the The New Teacher Project study that 43 percent of teachers believed there was a tenured teacher in their building "whose poor performance should have resulted in their dismissal." Meanwhile, the virtual guarantee of continued employment encourages irresponsible teachers to underperform.

States could pre-empt this troubling situation by denying incompetent teachers tenure in the first place. The National Council for Teacher Quality recommends that all states extend the probationary period for teachers to five years. Combined with a serious evaluation system, tenure could become an effective tool with which to increase student achievement. It's time to turn tenure into a measure of merit, not attendance.

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