Mend, Don’t End, Teacher Tenure

This op-ed was originally published in the New York Daily News.

After a judge ruled California's teacher tenure laws unconstitutional, and with parents suing to overturn similar laws in New York, employment protections for educators are in the crosshairs.

The lawsuits have revealed a hard truth: State laws meant to provide job protections for teachers are hurting students by making it virtually impossible for schools to replace unskilled or even abusive teachers.

This is a disaster for families who put their trust in public schools and count on them to open doors of opportunity for their children. The consequences for teachers are just as bad, since the entire profession has too often been defined by its tolerance of the relatively few people who shouldn't be in it.

Yet improving tenure laws remains controversial, mainly because the debate is typically framed as a false choice between two extremes: Either keep current laws, with all their flaws, or strip job protections from teachers entirely. It makes for a divisive and unproductive discussion.

We should be pursuing another approach: Keep tenure laws but make them better. A handful of common-sense changes would strike a better balance between the interests of teachers and the rights of students. In a paper my organization releases this week, called “Rebalancing Teacher Tenure,” we explain how New York and other states can do just that.

We call for three basic changes:

Be more selective about who earns tenure. Right now, teachers in New York can earn tenure after only three years on the job. With the notable exception of New York City, which has become a bit more selective about awarding tenure, nearly all teachers earn tenure automatically as soon as they're eligible. In some states, teachers can earn tenure in just one or two years. This just isn't enough time for schools to verify that teachers will meet high expectations in the classroom over the long run.

The tryout period for new teachers should be longer—five years, which is about the amount of time that research shows schools need to get a good fix on a teacher's performance patterns. In addition, teachers should only earn tenure if they have built a consistent track record of success in the classroom over those five years. And schools should be able to revoke tenure after two or more years of poor performance later in a teacher's career.

Make the process for replacing a tenured teacher reasonable. Teachers strongly value due process and ought to have it. But when most people hear “due process,” they probably don't picture a full-blown trial that lasts for months and costs tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, or that results in teachers being returned to the classroom as long as there is even a glimmer of hope that they can be remediated—even if everybody involved agrees they have a track record of incompetence or misconduct.

Who doesn't meet that standard?

What teachers get in New York and other states isn't simple due process—it's due process on steroids. It's how tenure turns into a lifetime job guarantee. And it goes far beyond what employees in almost any other profession receive.

A more reasonable standard would limit the scope of hearings to decide whether the principal or anyone violated the disciplinary process or acted in bad faith, with the overriding factor in the decision being the best interests of students. Hearings shouldn't be used to dole out second chances to demonstrably ineffective or abusive teachers.

And the entire process should take no more than 90 days, with hearings themselves limited to one day per teacher.

Lower the professional stakes for teachers dismissed for poor performance. Some teachers are just not cut out for the job. But some who are a bad fit in one school might be a better fit at another. Instead of losing their license entirely, teachers who are fired should be free to apply to other schools. This approach would be fairer to teachers and would also make principals less hesitant to dismiss teachers who aren't working out (since they wouldn't have to worry about ending anybody's career entirely).

Of course, the few teachers who are dismissed for sexual misconduct and abuse should still be barred from ever teaching again.

None of these changes would eliminate tenure or due process for teachers. Instead, they would modernize tenure so it can be a tool for upholding high standards, not undermining them.

Of course, only a small percentage of teachers perform so poorly that they should be replaced, and broken tenure laws are far from the only problem facing our nation's schools. But to those who would use that as an excuse to ignore the problem, ask yourself this: How many students is an acceptable number to knowingly subject to bad teaching?

Parents shouldn't have to sue for a solution. This is a problem that state, district and union leaders could solve tomorrow, if they could summon the will. For the sake of students and teachers in New York and across the country, let's hope they do.

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

About TNTP

TNTP is the nation’s leading research, policy, and consulting organization dedicated to transforming America’s public education system, so that every generation thrives.

Today, we work side-by-side with educators, system leaders, and communities across 39 states and over 6,000 districts nationwide to reach ambitious goals for student success.

Yet the possibilities we imagine push far beyond the walls of school and the education field alone. We are catalyzing a movement across sectors to create multiple pathways for young people to achieve academic, economic, and social mobility.

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