Challenging Tenure in D.C. Rhee Tackles the Holy Grail of Teachers' Contracts

Article excerpt


Surprisingly, Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama pointed to controversial D.C. School Chancellor Michelle Rhee as a model education reformer. This is the latest illustration of the importance of Mrs. Rhee's reforms not only for the District but for school systems across the nation. In her boldest move yet, Mrs. Rhee has taken on the Holy Grail of the teacher-union contract - tenure. It's worth taking a moment to understand just what this fight is about and why it's worth winning.

Mrs. Rhee proposed a new contract whereby individual teachers could give up their tenure protection in exchange for the opportunity to earn salaries as high as $130,000 per year. Teachers could instead opt to stay with their current contract and would also have received a substantial pay bump. Teachers turned down the free money instead of even opening the door to tenure reform.

But the story isn't over. Done with playing nice, Mrs. Rhee is going nuclear. She is taking advantage of previously ignored laws that allow her to fire tenured teachers if their performance does not improve. Mrs. Rhee is determined to eliminate tenure because she believes that it would go a long way to improve teacher quality. Most teachers are effective, but the ones who aren't do not belong in the classroom. Tenure is the most powerful tool stopping us from removing such bad teachers.

In K-12, tenure is just as protective as it is in colleges, but it is more easily obtained and lacks as strong a justification. To earn tenure, university professors must demonstrate that their teaching, research and service contributions warrant the privilege. In the three years before they receive tenure, K-12 teachers are evaluated on a variety of dimensions, but in practice nearly all teachers who stick around long enough are granted tenure. Using measures such as standardized test scores to assess whether a teacher deserves tenure, as Mrs. Rhee proposes to do, is taboo.

It is very difficult to remove a tenured public school teacher. Teacher contracts set out a process through which a tenured teacher can be fired, but these processes are so burdensome that school systems don't bother. For example, in Illinois, reporter Scott Reeder found it costs districts more than $219,000 in legal fees to fire a tenured teacher. The result is that 94 percent of Illinois school districts had not even attempted to fire a tenured teacher in the 18 years preceding the start of his research. On average, Illinois fires about two tenured teachers per year. …