Teacher tenure at issue in improving education

Published: Monday, Dec. 19 2011 11:00 p.m. MST

Teacher Heidi Hummel is evaluated by the school principal while teaching kindergarten at Harry S. Truman Elementary in West Valley City.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

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In 2007 the educator Michelle Rhee was charged with a mammoth task: turn around public education in the District of Columbia, which included some of the most troubled school districts in the country. Though D.C. ranked third nationally in education spending, their students were some of the lowest performing, with less than 10 percent of D.C. eighth-graders reading at grade level.

As chancellor of the Washington, D.C., school district, Rhee was given carte blanche to implement any reforms she wanted. She started by firing teachers, who had long enjoyed considerable job security. When all was said and done, Rhee had let go 241 of the worst performing teachers in the city.

Now, more than four years later, the idea that firing bad teachers will make schools better is catching on. States like Idaho, Tennessee and Florida are all in the process of implementing reforms that would make public school employment contingent on some measure of teacher effectiveness.

These reforms are based on a simple philosophy: If we want students to perform in a global economy, we need effective teachers. This philosophy is supported by a 2007 McKinsey report on education, which found that the best schools in the world are those that do not allow ineffective teachers to remain in the classroom.

On the surface, the idea makes sense — why would you allow a bad teacher to keep teaching? The problem is in determining what makes a teacher effective, and who makes that decision. Opponents of this approach argue that if public school teachers, who often already feel underpaid and under-appreciated, had to work under the specter of possibly being laid off every few years, it would hurt morale and make it even harder to recruit new teachers. Since California made it easier to fire ineffective teachers, for example, the number of graduates seeking teaching credentials fell by 29 percent.

Despite these potential drawbacks, Sen Aaron Osmond (R-South Jordan) drafted a bill that would make it easier to remove ineffective teachers. Under current law, after three to five years in the classroom, Utah teachers achieve what is known as career status. After they have reached this point it becomes extremely difficult to fire them. Because the process can take months, many principals are hesitant to attempt it. For this reason, Sen. Osmonds proposed that the state establish one-year provisional contracts for new teachers and three to five year contracts for more experienced educators. Shorter contracts would mean that administrators have more flexibility. Teachers who dont measure up would be shown the door.

After discussing the potential legislation with thousands of teachers and members of the community, Sen. Osmond decided to reevaluate the proposal. The overwhelming response was that teachers feel they are under attack, and eliminating long term contracts could do further harm to their morale. But the problem remains that allowing bad teachers to continue in their positions will hamper any other attempts at education reform.

Competing globally

American students rank 29th in math, well below average and behind developing economies like Latvia and the Slovak Republic, according to a 2003 Program for International Assessment study. Eric Hanushek, senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institute, calculates that by firing the least-effective teachers, American students' scores would increase and make them competitive with top performing countries like China, Japan and Finland.

"Modest changes at the bottom," he argues, "have enormous implications for the nation."

And having a better-educated population would lead to economic growth, he says. Implementing a program that fires the bottom 5 percent of teachers over a 20-year period would yield GDP that is 1.6 percent higher, he says. "In terms of the U.S. economy in 2005," Hanushek says "1.6 percent [amounts] to $200 billion."

The implications

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