Last week, Communities for Teaching Excellence released a policy brief advocating for common sense tenure reform. The brief describes what we already know: after a few years in the classroom, teachers in most districts receive tenure, essentially a promise of lifetime employment. While it’s possible for a district to terminate a tenured teacher, the burden in terms of time, cost, and paperwork is often insurmountable. State and district policymakers, recognizing this burden and its impact on developing an effective teaching force, are changing tenure laws. Nineteen states have amended their tenure laws for K12 teachers in the last year alone. Even Randi Weingarten, the head of the AFT, agrees that tenure should not be a barrier to firing ineffective teachers. “Make sure tenure is about fairness,” she recently said, “and make sure it’s not a shield for incompetence.”
Our new teacher survey (based on a nationally representative sample of 1,100 public school teachers, a follow up to our 2008 Waiting to Be Won Over) asked teachers what they thought about tenure. Teachers, for the most part, agree with Randi. Only a third of teachers say they would actually consider trading tenure, for example for a $5000 pay bonus (those without tenure are, not surprisingly, more likely to trade it). But they are ready and willing to make changes to tenure-related dismissal policies. Teachers think the union should play a role in simplifying the process of removing ineffective teachers. Compared with teachers in 2007, teachers today are more likely to favor the union doing this: from 63 percent in 2007 to 75 percent in 2011. Veterans, the teachers most likely to favor strong job protections, have increased their support for unions taking on this function from 60 percent in 2007 to 75 percent in 2011. Newcomers show even stronger support, from 62 percent in 2007 to 91 percent in 2011. With “last-in, first-out” policies still the rule in most places and layoffs looming, this may reflect newer teachers’ frustration that their jobs are at risk, and conversely that veterans’ jobs are not, based purely on length of service.
According to our survey, teachers want the protection of tenure, but they don’t want tenure to be a barrier to removing ineffective teachers. The recommendations proposed in Communities for Teaching Excellence’s policy brief align with what teachers are saying: use comprehensive, research-based evaluation to inform the tenure decision process, lengthen the probation period to better determine teacher effectiveness before granting tenure, and return tenured teachers to probationary status if they are shown to be ineffective.
And there is some evidence that tenure is becoming a more meaningful signal of teacher effectiveness than it was just a few years ago. In 2007, only 23 percent of teachers said that awarding tenure meant that a teacher “has proven to be very good at what s/he does” as opposed to just a formality; in 2011, the number increased to 28 percent. A small increase, but a significant one that bodes well for fair and effective tenure reform.