My colleague Emma Brown wrote a terrific story detailing a hearing in which a tenured veteran teacher was challenging her principal’s efforts to fire her. The teacher was portrayed by Fairfax County Public School officials as incompetent and rigid. She said that her principal didn’t like her — especially after she became the school’s union representative — and wanted to get rid of.
If you read the story, you may find yourself uncertain about what really happened — and the many comments on the story reveal decidedly mixed reaction. Some people thought that the teacher, Violet Nichols, was railroaded by a principal who wouldn’t let her go see her dying sister because there was nobody to take over her class. Some thought she should have been fired because she refused to modernize her teaching.
But what the story shows clearly is that the notion that teacher tenure is a lifelong job guarantee is something of a myth. Tenured teachers can be and are be fired.
The National Center for Education Statistics’ School and Staffing Survey for 2007-08, the latest year for which statistics are available, shows that the average number of nontenured teachers in public schools who were dismissed or did not have their contracts renewed was 1.4, while the average number of tenured teachers was 3.0.
In fact, of the 62 tenured teachers that Fairfax put on probation at the end of 2009-10, most eventually resigned, Brown report. Fifteen were allowed to keep working and three, including Nichols, were recommended for dismissal. Getting rid of tenured teachers isn’t a guaranteed fight.
Yes, I know about the infamous rubber rooms in New York, where teachers challenging the school system’s efforts to fire them would sit while their cases dragged on interminably. And yes, I know about cases in which it costs enormous sums of money for a school system to get rid of a clearly awful teacher.
There is no question that such cases are inexcusable, but they are less of an indictment of tenure than the bad teacher evaluation system that both the union and school/government officials agreed to years ago.
Teacher evaluation systems have been long due for an overhaul, and, now that is happening in states around the country — though, unfortunately, not in ways that will improve matters.
One hallmark of the “new way” is the elimination or weakening of teacher tenure — as if that will somehow transform the teaching corps. Since 2009, Brown reported, more than a dozen states and Washington D.C. have eliminated tenure or made it harder to get or easier to lose. Wisconsin’s Gov. Scott Walker (R) made national news when he tried to restrict collective bargaining rights for public employees last year, and teachers went on strike to protest.
This year, the Virginia legislature almost passed a bill that would have allowed principals to fire teachers without providing a reason. (Count on the bill being reconsidered year.)
It’s one thing to ensure that teacher evaluation systems don’t allow protracted and costly firing battles, and another entirely to grant principals the option of getting rid of teachers without providing a reason.
Another hallmark of the new assessment systems is linking student standardized test scores to a teacher’s evaluation. The fact that assessment experts say this is a bad idea doesn’t seem to matter to reformers intent on using them for this purpose. It is a bad idea even when it is used as only one component of a multiple-measure evaluation system.
Incidentally, Nichols’ students got good test scores. In Fairfax, test scores aren’t used for evaluation — though the state is forcing on the district a new assessment system that will use them.
Brown’s story also shows just how important it is that teachers not be evaluated solely by school administrators. Other teachers should be involved — as is true in the Montgomery County Public School System in Maryland, which has worked beautifully for years without test scores.
(In fact, there are increasing calls to include students and even parents in the teacher evaluation process — both of which are problematic, for what should be obvious reasons.)
Teaching isn’t a science and efforts to reduce what a teacher does to a data system will always fail to capture the breadth and depth of what happens in a classroom.
There are, of course, plenty of awful teachers who shouldn’t spend another day in the classroom. And it should be easier for these teachers to be removed.
But that doesn’t mean that teachers shouldn’t have due process, which is really all tenure ensures.
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