School reformers generally agree that the most important education resource is the teacher. But one of the biggest obstacles to putting a good instructor in every classroom is a tenure system that forces principals to hire and retain teachers based on seniority instead of performance.
California grants tenure to teachers after merely two years in the classroom. New York, like most other states, makes teachers wait a grand total of three years before giving them a job for life. In most cases tenure is granted automatically unless administrators object, which is rare.
A recent report in the Los Angeles Times revealed that the LA school district, the nation’s second-largest after New York City’s, “routinely grants tenure to new teachers after cursory reviews—and sometimes none at all.” According to the Times, “the district’s evaluation of teachers does not take into account whether students are learning. Principals are not required to consider testing data, student work or grades.”
This means that large numbers of ineffective teachers wind up with ironclad job protection. When low-performing teachers can’t be fired, it’s the students who suffer. A New Teacher Project study last year looked at tenure evaluations in multiple states and found that “less than 1% of teachers receive unsatisfactory ratings, even in schools where students fail to meet basic academic standards, year after year.” Less than 2% of teachers are denied tenure in LA, where the high school dropout rate is 35% and growing.
Nevertheless, teachers unions do everything in their power to preserve this tenure status quo. In 2005, when California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger backed a proposal to extend the probationary period for new teachers to five years, the California Teachers Association spent more than $50 million to defeat it. In New York, a union-supported law that bans the use of student data in making tenure decisions helped disqualify the state for hundreds of millions of dollars in federal Race to the Top grants.
Even when bad schools close, which happens all too rarely, teachers from those schools take jobs at replacement schools or are sent to work at other schools in the system. And union contracts typically allow those with seniority to bump younger colleagues from other schools, even if the younger teachers are getting better classroom results.
In New York City, Schools Chancellor Joel Klein has managed to change the rules that forced principals to hire teachers from shuttered schools based strictly on seniority. But even if no school will hire these teachers, they cannot be fired and they continue to receive full salary and benefits. Mr. Klein says that maintaining this “absent teacher reserve” costs $100 million a year.
It’s not impossible to get rid of bad teachers, but it’s extremely hard and expensive. A report this month in LA Weekly noted that in the past decade the Los Angeles Unified School District “spent $3.5 million trying to fire just seven of the district’s 33,000 teachers for poor classroom performance.”
The result? Four were fired, two others were paid large settlements and one was reinstated. The paper also reported that 32 underperforming teachers were initially targeted for removal “but then secretly paid $50,000 by the district, on average, to leave without a fight.”
The good news is that school reformers are making progress in some areas. Charlotte, North Carolina, allows teachers to be fired for poor performance. Chicago limits the amount of time a teacher without a job can continue receiving pay and benefits. Starting next year, teachers in Houston can lose their jobs if students fall short on standardized tests. Florida and Louisiana have moved to strike last-in, first-out provisions from collective-bargaining agreements.
The Obama Administration has made teacher accountability a major theme of its education agenda. Let’s hope its Race to the Top selections reward school districts that are actively working to reform the teacher corps and change a tenure system that puts job protection ahead of learning.