Tenure Rules Linked to Teacher Evaluations in More States

Image: A globe sits in an elementary school classroom.

A globe sits in an elementary school classroom. Charles Rex Arbogast / AP filee

A growing number of states are using controversial teacher evaluations to determine which teachers earn and hold onto tenure, says a report released Thursday by the Education Commission of the States.

Sixteen states have now mandated that the results of the evaluations be used in making tenure decisions, a jump from 10 states in 2011. And three states — Florida, North Carolina and Kansas — have voted to eliminate tenure altogether.

ECS Vice President Kathy Christie said much of the urgency behind revising tenure rules has been driven by fierce competition for federal “Race to the Top” funds, which are provided to schools with, among other things, high-ranking teacher performance.

This funding “gave states a lot of incentive to take on issues related to teacher quality head on,” she said.

Still, the attack on tenure — that bastion of job security in academia — coupled with the very nature of high-pressure evaluations, has come up against loud opposition from teachers’ unions and advocacy groups.

“The trend [toward tenure reform] is growing,” said Christie. “But it has been very, very politically difficult in any state to make significant changes in continuing contracts.”

Idaho’s state legislature, for instance, eliminated tenure in 2011, but voters have since repealed the law. Last week, a judge in North Carolina struck down the state’s anti-tenure law, ruling that taking away career status violated the constitutional protection of contracts.

But Florida’s law replacing tenure with annual contracts has been in effect since 2011, and has become a beacon for states looking to upend decades-old tenure policies.

Getting rid of tenure featured prominently in Rick Scott’s 2010 campaign for Florida governor: “Why would it be that teachers are guaranteed their jobs for life?” he was quoted as saying in the St. Petersburg Times in 2010. He later told the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce that “(g)ood teachers know they don’t need tenure. There is no reason to have it except to protect those that don’t perform as they should.”

Roxanna Elden, a 10th-grade writing teacher in Miami, begs to differ.

“This law affects teachers who are smart and forward-thinking,” she said. “They have enough experience to know that you can be placed into a situation that makes you look like a bad teacher,” such as an oversized class, teaching a subject you’re not certified in or being assigned a class with a high percentage of students with behavior problems.

Elden said her state’s tenure and teacher evaluation laws, besides increasing the amount of time Florida teachers spend on test prep, has left teachers weary and demoralized.

Many teachers feel “they’re one year of bad luck away from their careers being destroyed … When you’ve had a hard day and you hear someone ranting on the radio about the ‘low quality of teaching’— it’s just another thing that makes teaching emotionally draining,” she said.

This fatigue proves especially damaging for teachers in underserved schools, where the emotional demands are already great. Fifty percent of teachers in the neediest schools leave the profession within three years — and these are the exact schools where students need adults to stick around and be a stabilizing force, Elden said.

Neither Elden nor policymakers dispute that parents in Florida and elsewhere have a right to quality teachers. Christie said these reforms are partly motivated by “people being fed up with seeing that same [unsatisfactory] teacher in the classroom year after year, and you can’t blame them for that.”

But teachers across the country have been extremely critical of the methods used to determine who’s a bad teacher and who’s not. Florida uses a “value-added” model, which measures a teacher's performance by comparing the test scores of one teacher's students to the same students’ scores from past years, as well as to other students in the same grade — even if children in the subject or grade he or she teaches don’t take standardized tests at all.

This “value-added” evaluation accounts for half of a teacher’s evaluation grade.

Alice O’Brien, general counsel to the National Education Association, which has filed a lawsuit against Florida because of their teacher evaluation law, said these methods are “arbitrary and unfair. Three-quarters of Florida teachers are being judged on other teacher’s students, on other subjects’ test scores. We’re not talking about a couple of problems at the margins — we’re talking about absurdities across the system, not sound and reasonable measures of teachers’ performance.”

Despite the widespread glitches, Sandi Jacobs, vice president and managing director of the conservative think tank National Council on Teacher Quality, thinks the new evaluations are a step in the right direction.

“Evidence of student learning and performance” — i.e., test scores — “should be part of teacher evaluation,” she said. “But I don’t know of any place that has built their system solely on student testing.” Jacobs said detailed, rather than cursory, classroom observation is key, as are sophisticated student surveys that go beyond teacher popularity.

Jacobs feels that tenure should be earned, rather than expected.

“There’s nothing wrong with teachers earning additional due process rights that come with tenure, as long as they’re reasonable,” she said. “But we should be thoughtful and only give those rights to effective teachers.”

Unlike tenure for university professors, K-12 teachers’ tenure doesn’t protect them from being fired. It's simply a guarantee of due process — that if a teacher is dismissed, it will be for just cause.

In Kansas, though, even the value of due process is up for debate after the state legislature voted in April to strip teachers of protections they’ve had since 1957: a written dismissal notice, an explanation of evidence, and a fair hearing.

“There is certainly a difference between eliminating tenure but still meeting due process provisions — and doing away with due process altogether,” said Christie. “When you take away due process, that is a far more serious step that will likely elevate the pushback.”

That pushback has already begun; Mark Farr, vice president of Kansas’s NEA chapter, called the legislation in an email to NBC News “a dark of night attack on Kansas teachers, schools and ultimately students.” He praised due process as “the spotlight that keeps cultures of corruption from growing.”

Even Jacobs is wary of Kansas’s reform. The procedure for firing a teacher “requires such an intense amount of time and resources that it becomes very difficult to follow through,” she said. “Does that mean we should eliminate due process altogether? I don’t know, but that’s a very big step to take.”

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