Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Problem with Permanent Employment

This past May, my school’s principal asked me to sit in on demo lesson for our school’s open 9th and 10th grade English and Language Arts position. As the young female applicant modeled the use of a T-Chart, carefully pointing out the differences between character traits and behaviors, my principal excitedly whispered in my ear: “I’ve got a good feeling about this one.” Despite his initial optimism, he ended up not hiring this teacher after a series of bad references—apparently she would often show up late, unprepared to teach, and had once walked out of the building while in the middle of a lesson at her previous school. At the time, I could not help but question what would have happened if we had hired this teacher based of my principal’s initial gut reaction to her demo lesson. How long could she have stayed in good standing with administration? A year? Perhaps two? My greatest fear is that she could have lasted long enough to get tenure and then be stuck at our school for as long as she pleased.

These worries represent a bigger problem facing dedicated educators and administrators across the country today. Our current system simply does not allow—or encourage—the removal of ineffective teachers to the degree it should, and at the heart of the problem is the system’s imprudent nature to grant average and ineffective teachers with tenure. “Tenure is awarded as a matter of course after two or three years of teaching. Very few teachers are involuntarily discharged from a school or school district,” explains education theorist Robert Gordon (Gordon et al., 2006, pp. 5). Simply put, wholesale tenure promotion has created a system that not only complicates the removal of ineffective and unproductive teachers, but also empowers incompetence and lethargy. One of the first steps in reforming education should be a revision of the tenure process, making it more selective and non-permanent to ensure that teachers are both qualified and motivated to fulfill their responsibilities not just to administrators, but to the children sitting in their classes.

Tenure in New York City arose in the early 1960s after a series of negotiations between the newly formed teachers’ union, United Federation of Teachers (UFT), and the city’s Department of Education (Darby, 2009, pp. 10). The system was put in place both to protect teacher rights as well as to make the profession more attractive to future educators. Today, tenure provides considerable protections for teachers. For instance, an administrator seeking to remove an ineffective or negligent teacher may only do so after an adversarial hearing before a neutral arbiter and only after proving specific grounds for termination (Gordon et al., pp. 13). Tenure, in essence, was the first great victory for an increasingly powerful UFT.

However, granting permanent employment to educators quickly became less of a reward for excellence and instead created several obstacles for those determined to improve school performance. While tenure protections are typically only issued to teachers after three years of “Satisfactory” service, it has become less and less usual for administrators to remove teachers at the beginning of their careers. In fact, administrators remove less than 10% of teachers from their jobs involuntarily, which is a surprisingly low statistic when one considers that, in a Public Agenda survey conducted in 2003, 78% of teachers recognized that that some of their colleagues “fail to do a good job” (Gordon et al., pp. 13 - 15). “Given the evidence on the wide variability in teacher performance, it seems clear that schools regularly award tenure to teachers who are quite ineffective in the classroom compared with other teachers who have similarly situated students,” explains Gordon (pp. 13). Rather than terminating them, principals will choose to swap or trade low achieving and ineffective teachers with other schools (Gordon et al., pp. 15). The end result of the second and third chances that so many administrators willingly give is that schools are left with a variety of ineffective teachers that cannot be removed because they have found a way to hang around long enough for the system to grant them permanent employment.

In a recent Education Sector survey, approximately 70% of teachers said that receiving tenure was merely a formality that has little to do with teacher quality (“Teachers agree: Bad teachers with tenure too tough to fire,” 2008). The problem here, naturally, is that teacher quality is extremely important to a child’s education. Recent estimates show that switching a student from an average performing teacher to one where the teacher performs at the 85th percentile raises the student’s achievement test scores as much as reducing the class size by 33% (Jacob, 2007, pp. 137). Furthermore, a student that has three consecutive ”very high-quality teachers” will gain 50 percentile points more on an achievement test than a student who has three consecutive average teachers (Jacob, pp. 137-138). The fact of the matter is that students need and deserve good teachers, yet the current tenure system seems to prevent this from happening far too often.

Two adjustments that can be made New York City’s education system to lesson many of the discrepancies and shortcomings discussed in this blog. First, awarding tenure to teachers must become much more competitive and difficult to earn. As previously demonstrated, principals have been too willing to simply evade responsibility of terminating incompetent and ineffective teachers. This needs to end. Failing teachers need to be replaced before they have tenure by new teachers with fresh approaches and ideas. “Given the tremendous variation in effectiveness documented even among first-year teachers, in conjunction with a relatively modest benefit to an additional year of experience, replacing an ineffective teacher with the “average” new teacher will almost certainly be a net gain for a school,” writes theorist Brian Jacob (pp. 146). Principals who promote failing teachers should be expected to explain their decisions to the Department of Education and, if the behavior becomes a pattern, then they should be removed.

The second change that the current system should make is to shift from a policy that grants permanent tenure to third-year teachers to one that guarantees shorter “tenured-terms” on scales depending upon experience. First year teachers should have their first two years guaranteed when they are hired, to ensure that they are given a fair chance to demonstrate their competence and ability. After this period, if they have not demonstrated competence, then they should either be given one more provisional year for evaluation or be terminated to open the space for a new candidate. If the teachers do demonstrate themselves as effective educators within the first two years, they should then be awarded a five-year term of guaranteed work. Following this five-year period, teachers could again be evaluated and if they pass they should receive an eight-year guarantee. Upon the completion of this eight-year term (and fifteen years of total service), teachers could then be eligible for a lifetime tenure track similar to the one they receive now. (Note: The specific yearly breakdown of this suggested tenure system is more hypothetical than set in stone. School systems should adopt a time-scale that best fits their own needs and responds to personalized data that represents where the most common teacher performance drop-offs occur.) This system would allow administrators multiple chances to evaluate teachers and would give them a much better idea of which teachers will be successful in the long run rather than taking a chance on a teacher with only three years experience. More so, it will also deter teachers from becoming apathetic about their jobs knowing that there is always another evaluation looming during their first fifteen years of service.

Some may argue that removing permanent tenure from the field of education—or at least requiring teachers to serve much long periods of time before receiving it—will discourage potential teachers from joining the field. An initial response to this claim is that the new system will likely encourage many new potential educators into the field because it guarantees at least two years of employment to start out, as opposed to the current system which has no such guarantee, and allows principals to remove new teachers within the first month of school if chose. Secondly, the types of individuals that believe they are going to fail before they even begin teaching are not the type of practitioners that belong in the field anyway. Educators and policy makers should do everything they can to ensure that individuals who do not want to be responsible for teaching effective lessons after their first three years of service stay out of education.

The current education system in this country is failing and needs to be revamped. Experienced teachers are currently becoming more and more disengaged with their jobs and are not being removed because union agreements that were created nearly a half a century ago are still protecting them. The first step to improving the system is to ensure administrators have the power to remove those who are not doing their jobs and reward those that are. This process can and should begin with a revision of the tenure system in public education.

Works Cited:

Darby, S (2009, May 20). School's Out Forever. The New Republic, [240(4,859)], 10-12.

Gordan et al. (2006). Identifying effective teachers using performance on the job. The Hamilton Project, Retrieved 7/12/2009, from www.brookings.edu/views/papers/200604hamilton_1_pb.pdf

Jacob, B. A. (2007). The challenges of staffing urban schools with effective teachers. The Future of Children, 17, 129-153.

Teachers agree: bad teachers with tenure too tough to fire. (2008, May 6). USA Today, Retrieved 7/12/2009, from

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