Thursday, May 27, 2010

Reforming the teaching profession, part 1: Tenure reform

Milwaukee is often called ground zero for education reform, and for good reason. We have been on the forefront of reforms such as budget decentralization, school-to-work, neighborhood schools, parental choice, charter schools and, the most recent attempt, governance reform.

There are two hot-button issues, however, that have not been on the agenda here: merit pay and tenure reform. But, with both of these tactics garnering more attention across the country, it seems unlikely Milwaukee will be a hold-out for long.

Merit pay, or pay-for-performance, has been implemented or is in the process of being implemented in several schools districts across the state. Tomorrow I'll post about a few of those efforts. Today's post focuses on tenure reform.

In one way, tenure reform has gained a foothold in Milwaukee. The recently passed legislation that gives the state Department of Public Instruction with greater powers over the Milwaukee Public Schools also eliminated tenure for principals in MPS. (MPS is the only district in the state with represented principals.) But it does not tackle teacher tenure, or permanent status, head-on.

Teacher tenure laws arose in the 1920s and '30s from the women's rights movement of the time. In an era in which female teachers were routinely fired for getting married or wearing pants, teachers needed protection from paternalistic employment laws, unfair rules, and arbitrary decisions by administrators. Today, through due process requirements, tenure still protects teachers from arbitrary dismissal, and also provides some protection from political, ideological, or other pressures from administrators, school boards, or parents. An argument also can be made that tenure helps balance out the limitations of the job, such as a low salary, and makes the profession more attractive.

Providing permanent status to teachers has both fiscal and educational drawbacks. From a fiscal perspective, dismissing a teacher is a long and costly process for school districts and districts. And from an educational standpoint, districts often struggle to hold mediocre teachers with tenure accountable for student performance. In addition, some argue that K-12 teachers are not in need of the same "academic freedoms" as professors and that there is not the same threat today of unfair working conditions or arbitrary dismissals.

Over the past year many states have begun debating tenure reform proposals. In fact, at least four states have had tenure reform bills introduced this spring that would bring teacher quality into the tenure/dismissal decision:

  • Colorado: Last week Governor Ritter signed a "teacher effectiveness bill" into law that, among other things, grants tenure only after a teacher has three consecutive years of "demonstrated effectiveness" in the classroom. Tenured teachers lose their non-probationary status if they have two consecutive years of unsatisfactory evaluations. In addition, when layoffs are necessary, effectiveness will be considered before seniority.

  • Louisiana: Gov. Jindal's proposal to tie dismissal decisions to annual performance evaluations has passed the Louisiana House and is awaiting a vote in the Senate. The bill specifies that the evaluations will include consideration of student performance. In addition, teachers deemed ineffective would receive "intensive assistance" for a year. Those judged ineffective a second time could be dismissed.

  • California: Gov. Schwartzenegger's 2005 proposal to increase the probationary period for teachers from two to five years was defeated by the voters. He is now supporting a reform that would prevent layoff decisions from being made based solely on seniority. In addition, the Los Angeles Unified School district is planning to dismiss three times more teachers this year than last year, after the Los Angeles Times reported that an investigation of the district revealed no systematic process for evaluating teacher performance prior to granting permanent status.

  • Florida: Gov. Crist vetoed a bill last month that would have eliminated teacher tenure and linked salaries to student performance. The bill kept tenure in place for current teachers, but tied their pay to performance evaluations. New teachers would have worked under one-year contracts and would have been dismissed for low student performance on end-of-year exams in any two of five years.

Other states also have debated or changed their laws regarding the number of years a teacher works before being eligible for tenure, including Ohio, Maryland, and Delaware.

Interestingly, Wisconsin is the only state in which districts are not statutorily required to provide tenure for teachers, although all districts currently do so. At first blush, it might seem that this unique status would allow MPS to more easily embark on an evaluation of the tenure process, potentially making changes of the type being debated nationally. In reality, however, the district is unlikely to seek any changes in teacher contracts that would make employment at MPS less attractive than in surrounding districts.

Will a district and a city accustomed to being at the cutting edge of education reform sit out this latest wave of reform efforts? The clock is ticking on when tenure reform will become part of the discussion about the urgent need to improve student outcomes in Milwaukee.

Part II, tomorrow: One superintendent's role in tying teacher pay to student achievement.

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