WASHINGTON — America's public school teachers are seeing their generations-old tenure protections weakened as states seek flexibility to fire teachers who aren't performing. A few states have essentially nullified tenure protections altogether, according to an analysis being released Wednesday by the National Council on Teacher Quality.
The changes are occurring as states replace virtually automatic "satisfactory" teacher evaluations with those linked to teacher performance and base teacher layoffs on performance instead of seniority. Politically powerful teachers' unions are fighting back, arguing the changes lower morale, deny teachers due process, and unfairly target older teachers.
The debate is so intense that in Idaho, for example, state superintendent Tom Luna's truck was spray painted and its tires slashed. An opponent appeared at his mother's house and he was interrupted during a live TV interview by an agitated man. Why? The Idaho legislature last year ended "continuing contracts" — essentially equivalent to tenure — for new teachers and said performance, not seniority, would determine layoffs. Other changes include up to $8,000 in annual bonuses given to teachers for good performance, and parent input on evaluations. Opponents gathered enough signatures to put a referendum that would overturn the changes on the November ballot.
Luna says good teachers shouldn't be worried.
"We had a system where it was almost impossible to financially reward great teachers and very difficult to deal with ineffective teachers. If you want an education system that truly puts students first, you have to have both," Luna said.
On Tuesday night, President Barack Obama weighed in on the issue during his State of the Union address. He said schools should be given the resources to keep and reward good teachers along with the flexibility to teach with creativity and to "replace teachers who just aren't helping kids learn."
Tenure protections were created in the early 20th century to protect teachers from arbitrary or discriminatory firings based on factors such as gender, nationality or political beliefs by spelling out rules under which they could be dismissed after a probationary period.
Critics say teachers too often get tenure by just showing up for work — typically for three years, but sometimes less, and that once they earned it, bad teachers are almost impossible or too expensive to fire. The latest statistics from the National Center for Education Statistics, dating to the 2007-2008 school year, show about 2 percent of teachers dismissed for poor performance, although the numbers vary widely by school district.
The analysis by the National Council on Teacher Quality, a research and policy group that seeks to improve the quality of teaching, documents the shift in laws. In 2009, no state required student performance to be central to whether a teacher is awarded tenure; today, eight states do. The analysis also says four states now want evidence that students are learning before awarding tenure.
— In Florida, tenure protections were essentially made null and void with policy changes such as eliminating tenure-like benefits altogether for new teachers, but also spelling out requirements under which all teachers with multiple poor evaluations face dismissal.
— Rhode Island policies say teachers with two years of ineffective evaluations will be dismissed.
— Colorado and Nevada passed laws saying tenure can be taken away after multiple "ineffective" ratings.
— Eleven states now require districts to consider teacher performance when deciding who to let go.
— About half of all states have policies that require classroom effectiveness be considered in teacher evaluations.
— Florida, Indiana and Michigan adopted policies that require performance to be factored in teacher salaries.
A growing body of research demonstrates the dramatic difference effective teachers can play in student lives, from reducing teenage pregnancies to increasing a student's lifetime earnings. Meanwhile, while controversial, teacher evaluations have evolved in a way that proponents say allows better accounting of students' growth and of factors out of a teacher's control, like attendance.
The Obama administration has helped nudge the changes with its Race to the Top competition, which allowed states to compete for billions of education dollars, and offering states waivers around unpopular proficiency requirements in the No Child Left Behind education law. To participate in either, states have to promise changes such as tying teacher evaluations to performance.
"There's a real shift to saying all kids, especially our most disadvantaged kids, have access to really high quality and effective teachers. And, that's it's not OK for kids to have ... an ineffective teacher year after year," said Sandi Jacobs, vice president of the National Council on Teacher Quality.
Jacobs said tenure should be meaningful, but that in 39 states it's automatic.
"That's the problem with tenure, everybody gets it," she said. "If you're held to a high bar where you've really demonstrated that you are effective in the classroom, then there's nothing wrong with that as long as the due process rights that you do get are reasonable."
But many teachers feel under siege. They argue the evaluation systems are too dependent on standardized tests. While teachers' unions have gotten more on board with strengthening teacher evaluations, they often question the systems' fairness and want them designed with local teachers' input.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said unions understand the tenure process needs change, but that too often, school administrators have used it as an excuse to mismanage. "They want teachers to basically do exactly what they say, give them no resources and then blame them if they don't in a time of tremendous fiscal instability and fiscal pressures," Weingarten said.
In Boise, Idaho, Lane Brown, 56, a biology and horticulture teacher who moved from a private school a few years ago to a public alternative high school to seek new challenges after three decades of teaching, said her school's climate has dramatically changed.
"There's nobody in this building that doesn't understand it could be one of us, not just the newest teacher or the teacher with the fewest number of students. It could be anybody, ... which is scary. Every teacher here is saying, 'I don't know if I'm going to have a job next year,'" Brown said.
In Florida, teachers fear expressing what they feel is best for students, said Andy Ford, president of the Florida Education Association.
"Teachers see positions not being filled, class sizes increasing, more demands, more testing, and you add all that together with their economic uncertainty about continued employment and it certainly doesn't allow you to go out and plan for long term investments like a home," Ford said.
Kathy Hebda, the deputy chancellor for education quality in Florida, said the contract-related changes were not done in "isolation," but as part of broader changes that improve accountability and provide teachers feedback.
Michelle Rhee, the former schools chancellor in Washington, D.C., acknowledged widespread mistrust among teachers about evaluations, but she said once teachers are brought into discussions, many are won over.
"If we know who the effective teachers are, if we know what kind of an impact effective teachers can have on individual kids and on our society overall, then why wouldn't we take the obvious step of utilizing the information on who are the most effective teachers to make our staffing decisions?" said Rhee, whose education advocacy group StudentsFirst is pushing for changes to layoff policies based on seniority.
Coming up, Missouri legislators appear poised to take up the contentious topic of teacher tenure. In Connecticut, the Connecticut Education Association launched a TV advertising campaign after Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and legislative leaders said education reform — and possibly tenure — will be the major focus of this legislative session. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie, both Republicans, are eyeing tenure law changes.
"Tenure laws will be under assault for many years to come," said Marjorie Murphy, a professor of history at Swarthmore College who wrote a book about the teacher labor movement. Murphy said ending tenure protections will "take over any sense of fair play between employer and employee. All of that will be gone."
National Council on Teacher Quality: http://www.nctq.org/
Chris Blank in Jefferson City, Mo., and Jessie Bonner in Boise, Idaho, contributed to this report.