The Trouble With Teacher Tenure. By TIMOTHY KNOWLES
We can't make progress if bad teachers have jobs for life.WSJ, Jun 18, 2010
Colorado did right by its kids recently when Gov. Bill Ritter signed into law groundbreaking education reform to overhaul teacher tenure and evaluation. The bill elicited an outcry from many teachers. But the many states now considering similar measures must not be cowed by the firestorm.
As a former teacher, principal and district leader, I've devoted my life to providing children with the excellent education they deserve. And in my 23 years on the job, there are two things I've learned for certain.
First, teachers have a greater impact on student learning than any other school-based factor. Second, we will not produce excellent schools without eliminating laws and practices that guarantee teachers—regardless of their performance—jobs for life.
Nearly everyone in public education has a story that illustrates the Kafkaesque process of trying to remove a tenured teacher. Mine involves a teacher in Boston who napped each day in the back of the room while students copied from the board. Despite repeated efforts, the district failed to fire him.
Such anecdotes are reinforced by hard data. An award-winning study of Illinois school districts over an 18-year period found an average of two tenured teachers out of 95,000 were dismissed for underperformance each year. Nationally, between 0.1% and 1% of tenured teachers are dismissed annually, according to the Center for American Progress.
It's not news that students suffer when very low-performing teachers are allowed to remain in the classroom. But teachers suffer too. In a forthcoming article, my colleague Sara Ray Stoelinga of the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute illustrates how teacher tenure creates perverse practices in schools across Chicago. In interviews with 40 principals, 37 admitted to using some type of harassing supervision—cajoling, pressuring or threatening—to get teachers to leave in order to circumvent the byzantine removal process mandated by the union contract. One principal plotted to remove a teacher who had trouble climbing stairs by assigning her to a fourth-floor classroom. Another reassigned a teacher who had been teaching eighth-graders for 14 years to a first-grade classroom.
This pathological status quo feeds upon itself: The more difficult it is for principals to address underperformance, the more likely they are to use informal methods to do so. This fuels labor's argument that management is capricious, strengthening their case for increased employment protection.
This cycle leads to what educators call "the dance of the lemons"—the practice of shuffling underperforming teachers from school to school. It's easier to push a teacher to a school down the street than it is to push them out of the profession.
The effect that bad teachers have on relationships among teachers and principals might be the most corrosive aspect of tenure laws. In the book "Organizing Schools for Improvement," University of Chicago researchers showed that the quality of adult relationships in a school profoundly affects student achievement. Analyzing more than a decade's worth of data from Chicago Public Schools, they found that schools where adults demonstrate a shared sense of responsibility for student learning are four times more likely to make substantial gains in reading than schools without strong professional ties. Schools where principals set high standards and involve teachers in decision making are seven times more likely to make substantial improvements in math than schools weak on such measures. But cooperative relationships are difficult to maintain when principals must use underhanded methods to remove ineffective teachers, and when bad teachers undermine staff morale.
The good news is that the majority of teachers are not interested in protecting colleagues who don't belong in the classroom. Last summer the American Federation of Teachers surveyed its members, asking: "Which of these should be the higher priority: working for professional teaching standards and good teaching, or defending the job rights of teachers who face disciplinary action?" According to Randi Weingarten, the union's president, "by a ratio of 4 to 1 (69% to 16%), AFT members chose working for professional standards and good teaching as the higher priority." She elaborated: "Teachers have zero tolerance for people who . . . demonstrate they are unfit for our profession."
The time has come to eliminate tenure. We are facing monumental challenges in our quest to provide all students with an education that will prepare them to compete in a globalized economy. By removing one of the main sources of friction between labor and management, we can focus on the substantive issues: training, evaluating and rewarding teachers to make teaching a true profession.
Mr. Knowles is the director of the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute.