- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 25, 2012

America’s public school teachers are seeing their generations-old tenure protections weakened as states seek flexibility to fire incompetent teachers, and a few states have essentially nullified tenure 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 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, for example, state Superintendent Tom Luna’s truck was spray-painted and 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.

Mr. Luna said 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. If you want an education system that truly puts students first, you have to have both,” he said.

Critics say teachers too often get tenure by just showing up for work — typically for three years, but sometimes less, and that once it’s been earned, incompetent teachers are almost impossible to fire. The latest statistics from the National Center for Education Statistics, dating to the 2007-2008 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.

In Florida, tenure protections were essentially made null and void with policy changes such as eliminating tenurelike 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.

“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’s 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.

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,” she said.

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