Denying Teachers' Tenure Won't Help Schools Need More Talent and They Can't Get It on the Cheap

By Rampell, Catherine | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), June 15, 2014 | Go to article overview

Denying Teachers' Tenure Won't Help Schools Need More Talent and They Can't Get It on the Cheap


Rampell, Catherine, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


Making it easier to fire bad teachers isn't going to magically cause the educational achievement gap to disappear. You need to be able to attract and retain more good teachers, too.

Unfortunately, no one wants to pay for that.

This week, a California judge declared that tenure and other seniority rules that make it hard to dismiss teachers "result in grossly ineffective teachers obtaining and retaining permanent employment," which hurts the low-income and minority children that low performers disproportionately teach.

Almost exactly 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, the California judge said that state statutes violate children's constitutional right to equal educational opportunity. The decision looks likely to be appealed to the Supreme Court, and the plaintiffs' lawyers said similar suits would soon be filed in other states.

Teachers' unions, predictably, denounced the decision as further trampling on their noble profession. The Silicon Valley group that bankrolled the case hailed it as an unalloyed victory, one sure to give America's poor and minority students access to better teachers. Both sides claim they are fighting for The Children. Who's right?

There do seem to be some obviously dumb things in California's statutes. Teachers are being evaluated for tenure much too early - as soon as 18 months on the job, which research suggests is well before we actually know whether they'll be effective for the long haul. As Dana Goldstein wrote in The Atlantic, even teachers themselves say, on average, that consideration for tenure should happen after 5.4 years of experience. (In most states, teachers are up for tenure after three to five years.) California's "last in, first out" for layoffs also preserves the jobs of at least some bad apples.

But improving the quality of teachers who work with poor kids seems more about insufficient inflow of the talented than insufficient outflow of the untalented. One study, based on a policy change in Chicago, found that even when dismissal rules are relaxed, many principals still choose not to fire anyone - including at the worst-performing schools - perhaps at least partly because of the challenge of finding decent replacements.

Weakening job security in the absence of other reforms may even discourage good people from entering or sticking with the profession.

That's because job security is one of the key forms of compensation that we still offer to educators as their salaries have gotten less competitive over time, thanks to a pesky combination of women's lib and stingy taxpayers. …

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