Lies, Damn Lies, and the Truth About Teacher Tenure

Have you heard the latest story about teachers and tenure? No? It goes like this. A teacher was given stellar evaluations for two and a half years. In the spring of the third year, the principal wrote a savagely negative review of one of the teacher’s lessons because the teacher made comments about how cold their classroom was during the winter, and that  the children were complaining that it was difficult to concentrate. Parents called the principal to complain. The principal was embarrassed and wrote a negative evaluation. The teacher never received tenure.

Never heard that one?

How about this one? A student accused a tenured teacher of using inappropriate language in the classroom. The principal didn’t get along well with this teacher, an officer in the local teacher’s association, and made it abundantly clear that all they needed was an excuse to cause the teacher trouble. After a cursory investigation, the principal recommended that the teacher lose their salary increment for the next year because teachers shouldn’t use foul language in front of students. Two months later, the student admitted lying about the incident because they were upset with a grade they received in the teacher’s class. The teacher was given back the salary increase that was taken from them.

Chances are good that you never heard that story either.

Why do I mention these incidents, both of which actually occurred? Because they illustrate the difference between a teacher having fair dismissal rights and one that does not. They also illustrate the lies and misinformation floating around about what tenure actually means in practice.

Nowhere is this in more vivid view than Tom Moran’s piece in Sunday’s Newark Star-Ledger. It’s essentially a response to an article by Janine Walker Caffrey, the Superintendent of Schools in Perth Amboy, NJ. Both of these writings sound the alarm bells that the public loves to hear. From Moran:

Janine Caffrey, the schools superintendent in Perth Amboy, could hardly believe the teacher was so incompetent.

The kids didn’t have needed textbooks. There was no lesson plan. Other teachers complained that students were learning nothing. And when the principal demanded changes, the teacher wouldn’t budge.

So Caffrey, a spark plug of energy, left her sparsely furnished office to meet the teacher for a showdown, ready to whap some sense into this person once and for all.

But it didn’t work out that way.

“This teacher looked me in the eye and said, ‘I won’t do it.’ Just an outright refusal. And this has happened to multiple people before me. We’ve done multiple corrective action plans, and it’s not achieving any results.”

So the teacher won the showdown and is still standing in front of a classroom full of kids every day, supremely secure in defiance.

Only one word can explain this insanity: tenure.

It certainly sounds horrible, and if the story is true, that teacher should not be teaching in the public schools. The real problem is not tenure, though. It’s buried deep in Morans’ article and it goes like this: 

To be fair, districts share some of the blame as well. Tenure rules might be crazy, but it is possible to get rid of the worst teachers if the district builds a solid case with a paper trail. In the case of the refusenik teacher, Perth Amboy failed to do that. The teacher had won satisfactory evaluations in the past, as nearly all teachers do.

The problem, my friends, is that the principal was not doing their job. There’s no sharing here. If principals are not building cases or informing the teacher’s association representatives that a teacher is a problem, or is having a problem, then the principal is at fault. All on their own. And if the principal or supervisor is routinely giving positive reviews to ineffective or bad teachers, they need to stop. I don’t know where Moran gets his “nearly all teachers” receive satisfactory evaluations data. My guess is that he’s simply repeating what he’s heard. It’s a great story, but he needs to support his statements with facts.

Why is this all on the administration and not the teacher’s union? Because the NJEA has nothing to do with whether a teacher earns tenure. The legislature wrote and passed the tenure laws and school administrators are responsible for implementing them.

Tenure is not a job for life. It’s a guarantee that a teacher cannot be fired for frivolous, personal, vindictive reasons by administrators who don’t like them or need to install a relative in their place.

Tenure is a requirement that a teacher who has earned it is confronted by evidence of misdeed, misconduct or behavior that puts children at risk.

Tenure is earned after working, with positive recommendations by the Superintendent, Principal and, if necessary, Department Supervisor, for three years in the same school district. It shouldn’t be handed out like candy at Halloween, but sometimes it is. And it’s not the teacher’s fault. The responsibility is all on the administrator. And if Superintendents like Janine Caffrey do not build a case, then a bad teacher can only be removed by going through the process, which Moran cites in a nifty chart in his article.

Moran and Caffrey also bring up how much it costs to discipline or fire a teacher who has earned tenure. The NJEA has offered a tenure reform plan that would streamline the process so it would take 90 days at most, as opposed to the possible two plus years it takes now, to settle cases. That would help, but it would do nothing to solve the problem of administrators doling out good reviews to ineffective or bad teachers.

So what to do?

How about having principals and supervisors observe teachers 8 times per year for the first three years (or four years as the NJEA plan proposes) and 6 times a year once they’ve earned tenure? That would create a tremendous amount of data by which a teacher could be evaluated before and after they’ve earned tenure. And since the overwhelming majority of teachers who do earn tenure deserve it and are members of the best teaching staff in the country as measured by national test scores, observing them a few more times might catch the few who would be problems down the road. Another good idea would be to have a teacher’s first year be a residency year, where someone new to the profession could receive help from a qualified mentor. This mentoring could then continue for the next 3 years.

One other issue also rears its head when people discuss tenure, and that’s the question of why teachers have it and other professions don’t. My answer is that other professions should have some kind of objective job protection. The arguments against public workers by governors such as Chris Christie, Scott Walker and John Kasich revolve around the idea that since private sector workers don’t have these benefits, then no workers should have them. They seem to be more concerned with breaking the unions than they do with actually improving education.

That’s backwards.

The decline of unions has meant that workers are more and more at the mercy of management and it’s time that we changed that conversation. Terrible stories, such as the ones in Moran’s article only illustrate one side of the debate. If school management would all do their jobs in an honest, forthright way, we could more readily dismiss ineffective teachers. And that would be a positive step forward for everyone.

Take another positive step forward and visit us at facebook.com/WhereDemocracyLives

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Robert I. Grundfest

I am a teacher, writer, voice-over artist and rationally opinionated observer of American and international society. While my job is to entertain and engage, my purpose is always to start a conversation.

Website: http://anjfarmer.blogspot.com

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