- - Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Teacher tenure sounds like a good idea, and maybe in the Republic of Utopia it would be. But in the real world it can invite abuse. A group of students and their parents, backed by several philanthropists in Silicon Valley, are challenging the California teacher tenure system.

The students argue that making it easier to fire bad teachers would improve academic performance. They argue in their filing that easier firings would work to eliminate the gap that separates white, Asian and wealthier students on one hand and their lower-income, black and Latino peers on the other.

California has some of the strongest teacher job protection laws in the country. Once a teacher invokes them, the laws increase the time and cost of getting to the point of dismissing a bad teacher. The case has wide national implications because California is a model for other states and teacher tenure is one of the most complicated issues in the growing demand for improvement of public schools everywhere.

A New Teacher Project study argues that 86 percent of school administrators surveyed do not even attempt to terminate teachers they know to be underperforming or acting improperly because of the time and money required to override the tenure laws. Lawyers cost money.

Supporters of tenure argue that administrative red tape is the reason for this, citing lack of appropriate evaluations as a reason why terminations are so difficult. Terminations can cost taxpayers $250,000 or more. Shortage of money is in addition to the usual defense of tenure that ousting bad or incompetent teachers dampens the needed atmosphere of free inquiry.

Unlike college faculty tenure, where professors must demonstrate their continued relevance by publishing research papers and periodically attending further academic classes, California teachers in kindergarten through the 12th grade are only required to receive satisfactory evaluations for a number of years. After that they are assumed to be vaccinated against incompetence.

Forty-two of the 50 states require only three years of teaching, or less, before achieving tenure. From 2002 to 2009, New York City Public Schools, for example, denied tenure to only 3 percent of the teachers who had been teaching for three years or less. Since teachers are graded at their lowest level of competence during their first years, it’s unlikely that 97 percent of new teachers deserve lifetime job protection after only three years in the classroom.

This dismissal process has led to a widespread abuse. Many school districts use “secret buyouts” to get rid of underperforming or misbehaving teachers rather than assume the costs of formal dismissal. This leaves the public that pays the bills with no explanation of why a teacher “resigns.” Such agreements often include vows of silence, enforced by penalties, from both parties.

The California case has been closely watched not only in California, but elsewhere in the nation. The question of tenure has raised tensions among and between teachers unions, school administrators, legislators and well-funded education reform groups. The teachers unions, often powerful and usually well-connected, insist on maximum interpretation of tenure law. Critics observe that that failure to weed out incompetents keeps ineffective instructors in the classroom, particularly in low-performing inner-city schools.

Florida, North Carolina, Kansas and Idaho have repealed their earlier tenure laws, though Idaho’s abolition of tenure was reversed in a referendum. Sixteen states use performance ratings to grant tenure. Seven states now require cashiered teachers to be returned to probationary status under certain circumstances. Another 11 states require that teacher performance be the primary consideration. Ten states specifically prohibit the use of tenure.

The issue, which is intimate to gaining consensus on why public education is failing, is particularly germane to regaining public confidence in public education. This is what drives attention to tenure in Silicon Valley. Ultimately the power to do something about the schools resides with legislators. Until then a discussion of the issues in the courts is a necessity. But more talk must produce results if the public schools are to be saved.

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