Is Teacher Tenure Still Necessary?
by Alan Greenblatt
April 29, 2010
Tenure is under attack. The century-old system of protecting experienced teachers from arbitrary dismissal — long viewed as sacred — has triggered hot political debates in several states.
"Teacher effectiveness" has emerged as the biggest buzz phrase in education policy circles. Because teachers have such potential for affecting the quality of children's education, some people are starting to argue that it must become easier to get bad teachers out of the classroom.
"There seems to be a lot of drive to do away with tenure," says Sandy Kress, who helped write federal and state education laws as an adviser to George W. Bush and other policymakers. "Tenure has proved to be just a horrible barrier to getting rid of that small percentage of teachers who are just not effective."
Action All Over
This is not merely an academic debate. A bill in Colorado that would change tenure rules and tie them to student performance passed out of a Senate committee last week and has the support of Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter. A Florida bill to abolish tenure was vetoed this month by Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, but a similar bill is pending in Louisiana...
Less than 1% fired
Firing teachers is hard. New York, Chicago and Los Angeles have each fired fewer than 1 out of 1,000 of their tenured teachers in recent years. Those numbers are not unusual.
Administrators complain that the process is too draining. Reviews of dismissal cases can take years to make their way through the system, costing tens of thousands of dollars each.
Teachers say that administrators are themselves at fault for performing perfunctory, "drive-by" evaluations. One study of selected districts in four states found that 99 percent of teachers receive "satisfactory" ratings.
Sometimes, bad publicity can curb the worst abuses on either side. The Los Angeles Times found last December that L.A. schools deny tenure to fewer than 2 percent of probationary hires, with evaluations often amounting to nothing more than a single, pre-announced classroom visit lasting 30 minutes or less.
Following the report, Superintendent Ramon C. Cortines pledged greater scrutiny. In February, the district announced it would fire more than 110 nontenured teachers for performance -— three times the annual rate in recent years...