Improve Tenure with Better Measures of Teacher Effectiveness

By Jacobs, Sandi | Phi Delta Kappan, March 2016 | Go to article overview

Improve Tenure with Better Measures of Teacher Effectiveness


Jacobs, Sandi, Phi Delta Kappan


The tide is turning against automatic tenure. But instead of eliminating it, we can make it more meaningful by improving how we develop and use measures of teacher effectiveness.

Few issues are so hotly debated in teacher policy as tenure. What all sides tend to agree on is that tenure was never meant to guarantee teachers a job for life. Tenure was instituted as a means to protect teachers from capricious firings without just cause.

Tenure proponents point out that job security is one of a few benefits a teacher can count on and that the practice is important for recruitment and retention in a field where turnover is high. In a profession where salary is still largely determined by years on the job, tenure is defended as protecting more veteran teachers from losing their jobs to lower-paid, novice teachers. Tenure supporters also argue that K-12 teachers wear so many hats and answer to so many bosses that they must be protected from the personal conflict and political fallout that necessarily ensue (Strauss, 2014).

The merits of tenure aside, few dispute that there are cumbersome, costly, and long due process practices associated with dismissing tenured teachers. For every story of a great and inspiring teacher lost from the classroom because of low pay and lack of job security, there are stories like the now legendary "rubber rooms," where tenured New York City teachers, unfit for the classroom but too difficult to fire, passed their (paid) days on the job.

Just a few years ago, tenure appeared low on the reform list for state policy makers and district administrators, viewed as too hot an issue politically to challenge. But it was front and center in the 2014 landmark Vergara v. California lawsuit, which challenged teacher tenure and related policies. The court sided with the plaintiffs and found California's teacher tenure laws to be unconstitutional based on the argument that tenure has had the effect of preventing poor students and students of color from having access to equal education. Tenure laws were found to protect some grossly ineffective teachers concentrated in lower income schools.

But whether to grant tenure is the wrong question. For too long and in too many states, teachers have been awarded tenure virtually automatically, based on very few years (usually three or fewer) on the job. But today, like never before in K-12 education, states and school districts have the capacity to make well-informed tenure decisions based on a wealth of information about teacher and student performance.

The right question is: How can states ensure that districts make good tenure decisions for teachers who are proven effective, while providing support and appropriate due process rights to ineffective teachers?

The critical policy shift that allows states and districts to address this question is the dramatic growth in the adoption of evaluations of teacher effectiveness. Like tenure, teacher evaluation had, in too many states and districts, become simply a bureaucratic exercise and a meaningless hoop to jump through. But that is changing. (See Figure 1.)

Being able to evaluate and differentiate teacher performance reliably and consistently with clear criteria that include measures of how well teachers move students forward academically marks an important shift in thinking. The change is significant because policy making around improving teacher quality to date has focused almost exclusively on teachers' qualifications rather than on their effectiveness in the classroom and the results they get with students. Today, in order to measure teacher effectiveness, many states are requiring districts to use student growth models to determine student academic progress, collect data from multiple classroom observations (sometimes with multiple observers), and administer surveys of students, peers, and parents.

In 2009, when the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) examined teacher evaluation policy in the states, we found only 15 states that, in some way (even if only nominally) considered student outcomes in teacher evaluations. …

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