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States weaken tenure rights for teachers

Wednesday, January 25, 2012 | 12:01 a.m. CST; updated 11:16 a.m. CST, Wednesday, January 25, 2012
Frank Church High School biology teacher Lane Q. Brown is seen in a classroom Tuesday in Boise, Idaho. Brown has been vocal in her opposition of the elimination of teacher tenure in the state of Idaho. Brown, 56, a biology and horticulture teacher who moved from a private school a few years ago to a public alternative high school to seek new challenges after three decades of teaching, said her school's climate has dramatically changed. "There's nobody in this building that doesn't understand it could be one of us, not just the newest teacher or the teacher with the fewest number of students. It could be anybody... which is scary. Every teacher here is saying, `I don't know if I'm going to have a job next year,'" Brown said.

WASHINGTON — America's public school teachers are seeing their generations-old tenure protections weakened as states seek flexibility to fire teachers who aren't performing. A few states have essentially nullified tenure protections altogether, according to an analysis being released Wednesday by the National Council on Teacher Quality.

The changes are occurring as states replace virtually automatic "satisfactory" teacher evaluations with those linked to teacher performance and base teacher layoffs on performance instead of seniority. Politically powerful teachers' unions are fighting back, arguing the changes lower morale, deny teachers due process and unfairly target older teachers.

The debate is so intense that in Idaho, state Superintendent Tom Luna's truck was spray painted and had its tires slashed. An opponent appeared at his mother's house, and he was interrupted during a live TV interview by an agitated man. Why? The Idaho legislature last year ended "continuing contracts" — essentially equivalent to tenure — for new teachers and said performance, not seniority, would determine layoffs. Other changes include up to $8,000 in annual bonuses given to teachers for good performance and parent input on evaluations. Opponents gathered enough signatures to put a referendum that would overturn the changes on the November ballot.

Luna says good teachers shouldn't be worried.

"We had a system where it was almost impossible to financially reward great teachers and very difficult to deal with ineffective teachers," Lunda said. "If you want an education system that truly puts students first, you have to have both."

Tenure protections were created in the early 20th century to protect teachers from arbitrary or discriminatory firings based on factors such as gender, nationality or political beliefs by spelling out rules under which they could be dismissed after a probationary period.

Critics say teachers too often get tenure by just showing up for work — typically for three years, but sometimes less, and that once they earned it, bad teachers are almost impossible or too expensive to fire. The latest statistics from the National Center for Education Statistics, dating to the 2007-08 school year, show about 2 percent of teachers dismissed for poor performance, although the numbers vary widely by school district.

The analysis by the National Council on Teacher Quality, a research and policy group that seeks to improve the quality of teaching, documents the shift in laws. In 2009, no state required student performance to be central to whether a teacher is awarded tenure; today, eight states do. The analysis also says four states now want evidence that students are learning before awarding tenure.

Other changes:

  • In Florida, tenure protections were essentially made null and void with policy changes such as eliminating tenure-like benefits altogether for new teachers, but also spelling out requirements under which all teachers with multiple poor evaluations face dismissal.
  • Rhode Island policies say teachers with two years of ineffective evaluations will be dismissed.
  • Colorado and Nevada passed laws saying tenure can be taken away after multiple "ineffective" ratings.
  • Eleven states now require districts to consider teacher performance when deciding who to let go.
  • About half of all states have policies that require classroom effectiveness be considered in teacher evaluations.
  • Florida, Indiana and Michigan adopted policies that require performance to be factored in teacher salaries.

A growing body of research demonstrates the dramatic difference effective teachers can play in student lives, from reducing teenage pregnancies to increasing a student's lifetime earnings. Meanwhile, while controversial, teacher evaluations have evolved in a way that proponents say allows better accounting of students' growth and of factors out of a teacher's control, like attendance.

The Obama administration has helped nudge the changes with its Race to the Top competition, which allowed states to compete for billions of education dollars, and offering states waivers around unpopular proficiency requirements in the No Child Left Behind education law. To participate in either, states have to promise changes such as tying teacher evaluations to performance.

"There's a real shift to saying all kids, especially our most disadvantaged kids, have access to really high quality and effective teachers. And, that it's not OK for kids to have ... an ineffective teacher year after year," said Sandi Jacobs, vice president of the National Council on Teacher Quality.

Jacobs said tenure should be meaningful, but that in 39 states it's automatic.

"That's the problem with tenure, everybody gets it," she said. "If you're held to a high bar where you've really demonstrated that you are effective in the classroom, then there's nothing wrong with that as long as the due process rights that you do get are reasonable."

But many teachers feel under siege. They argue the evaluation systems are too dependent on standardized tests. While teachers' unions have gotten more on board with strengthening teacher evaluations, they often question the systems' fairness and want them designed with local teachers' input.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said unions understand the tenure process needs change, but that too often, school administrators have used it as an excuse to mismanage. "They want teachers to basically do exactly what they say, give them no resources and then blame them if they don't in a time of tremendous fiscal instability and fiscal pressures," Weingarten said.

In Boise, Idaho, Lane Brown, 56, a biology and horticulture teacher who moved from a private school a few years ago to a public alternative high school to seek new challenges after three decades of teaching, said her school's climate has dramatically changed.

"There's nobody in this building that doesn't understand it could be one of us, not just the newest teacher or the teacher with the fewest number of students. It could be anybody ... which is scary," Brown said. "Every teacher here is saying, 'I don't know if I'm going to have a job next year.'"

In Florida, teachers fear expressing what they feel is best for students, said Andy Ford, president of the Florida Education Association.

"Teachers see positions not being filled, class sizes increasing, more demands, more testing, and you add all that together with their economic uncertainty about continued employment, and it certainly doesn't allow you to go out and plan for long term investments like a home," Ford said.

Kathy Hebda, the deputy chancellor for education quality in Florida, said the contract-related changes were not done in "isolation," but as part of broader changes that improve accountability and provide teachers feedback.

Michelle Rhee, the former schools chancellor in Washington, D.C., acknowledged widespread mistrust among teachers about evaluations, but she said once teachers are brought into discussions, many are won over.

"If we know who the effective teachers are, if we know what kind of an impact effective teachers can have on individual kids and on our society overall, then why wouldn't we take the obvious step of utilizing the information on who are the most effective teachers to make our staffing decisions?" said Rhee, whose education advocacy group StudentsFirst is pushing for changes to layoff policies based on seniority.

Coming up, Missouri legislators appear poised to take up the contentious topic of teacher tenure. In Connecticut, the Connecticut Education Association launched a TV advertising campaign after Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and legislative leaders said education reform — and possibly tenure — will be the major focus of this legislative session. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, both Republicans, are eyeing tenure law changes.

"Tenure laws will be under assault for many years to come," said Marjorie Murphy, a professor of history at Swarthmore College who wrote a book about the teacher labor movement. "(Ending tenure protections) will take over any sense of fair play between employer and employee. All of that will be gone."


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Comments

Michael Williams January 25, 2012 | 10:40 a.m.

The biology teacher in the photo says, ""There's nobody in this building that doesn't understand it could be one of us, not just the newest teacher or the teacher with the fewest number of students. It could be anybody... which is scary. Every teacher here is saying, `I don't know if I'm going to have a job next year..."
_____________________

Well, whoop-T-doo!

Welcome to the job security world for the rest of us.

Tell me....why should K-12 teachers have ANY more job security than the rest of us Joe and Jane Schmoes?

(Report Comment)
Allan Sharrock January 26, 2012 | 6:44 a.m.

Let me tell you why. If I work for a assembly line I have the same materials to work with as the guy next to me. If I don't meet a quota I can get canned based upon a measurable output. As a teacher I don't have the same materials to work with as the teacher in the next class. All students are different along with every school being different. Furthermore, if a parent doesn't like the grade that was given to their kid then they could complain and just get me fired. Administrators would no longer feel the need to stick up for teachers. Parents that know school board members could put the squeeze on Admins to just fire a teacher regardless of the effectiveness of that teacher. In fact if they just fired a teacher it would save the district money with retirement. Not to mention a new teacher makes less. Admins are not the subject matter experts for every topic. As a teacher I should be competent in my subject area along with others with the same certification. I should be able to freely and strongly advacote for resources and materials for my classroom without the fear of being fired. In the private sector if I need something to get my job done then most employers will give it because it makes them money. In education there is not money to be made it can only be spent.

(Report Comment)
Jonathan Hopfenblatt January 26, 2012 | 8:12 a.m.

Michael: "Tell me....why should K-12 teachers have ANY more job security than the rest of us Joe and Jane Schmoes?"

Because K-12 teachers are the people who prepare us for college, which is where we get that piece of paper that tells companies we're above the riff-raff in terms of skills and work ethic.

Why should soldiers, or doctors, or police officers, or firemen, et cetera have any more job security than the rest of us Joe and Jane Schmoes?

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams January 26, 2012 | 9:02 a.m.

No sale, Allan. We're not just comparing assembly-line workers and teachers. There are thousands of private jobs out here and our performance can and is easily measured in spite of the variety. Most of us face many of the same job anxieties you noted for teachers....for the same reasons.

One common thread I've heard from teachers concerning tenure is that teachers teach and do different things and their performance is hard to evaluate by administrators. That doesn't wash with me, either. Private industry has a diversity of jobs whose variety exceeds that of the education profession, yet job performance is routinely and fairly evaluated.

Besides, any administrator who cannot evaluate his/her "workers" has no business being an administrator...public OR private.

Please note that I do not think administrators should have any more job security than those they administrate.
___________________

Jon: They shouldn't.

(Report Comment)
frank christian January 26, 2012 | 10:14 a.m.

Remember the old union school teacher admonition? Something like, those not experienced in methods of today's education should not be trying to influence it. Translation: we are properly indoctrinating your children, leave us alone!

JH states the same thing. "Because K-12 teachers are the people who prepare us for college, which is where we get that piece of paper that tells companies we're above the riff-raff in terms of skills and work ethic." Don't bother trying to weed out those unable or those unwilling to do the job properly. They are the ones that give us that "piece of paper".

(Report Comment)
Allan Sharrock January 27, 2012 | 10:47 a.m.

Well what is your suggestion Micheal when a student refuses to do well on a test?

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams January 27, 2012 | 12:39 p.m.

Allan: I assume from your question that you think I believe test results should be THE criteria for evaluating a teacher.

I don't.

Your question is moot for me. I do not care if a student refuses to do well. It's the student's problem, not the teacher's.

(Report Comment)
Allan Sharrock January 28, 2012 | 12:35 p.m.

Micheal you have piqued my interest. If tests are not the factor then what should be? I highly doubt that anything other than tests will be used to measure performance if the government has a say.

(Report Comment)

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