Setting the record straight on tenure
We're not attacking teachers
The tenacious parents who are challenging the state in court have one goal in mind: ensuring that all of our public school children have good teachers. They know that research confirms the single greatest in-school factor in a child’s academic success is a good teacher. They believe that the state’s guarantee of a sound education for all is absolutely dependent upon — you guessed it — good teachers.
So when opponents claim this lawsuit is an attack on teachers and their rights, that argument is more than disingenuous. It is disrespectful to the parents. And it is dead wrong for our kids.
It is time to stop seeing due process and due progress as competing goals. Here is the reality.
Under law, schools must decide after just three years whether teachers are granted tenure — a supreme level of job protection that can amount to permanent employment. State law makes it nearly impossible to dismiss teachers who have been identified as ineffective. And in times of layoffs, the teachers who get priority to keep their jobs are those with seniority, regardless of how well they teach.
Put together, those three provisions hurt our ability to ensure that every child in the state has an effective teacher. Yes, there are other important steps to improve strong teacher quality and equity, including better starting salaries and higher pay for teachers in the most in-demand fields. But what has driven parents into action is a system of laws that knowingly undermines success.
So let us dispense with the absurd: Seeking good teachers for all does not mean you are somehow going after teachers. It means you are working to end laws that are not in the interests of children. In fact, some of those who feel strongest about removing incompetent teachers are other teachers themselves.
This legal case is built on the premise that our schools have many outstanding teachers who succeed under extraordinary pressures. They should not be treated like interchangeable parts, and they should not be asked to make up the academic shortfalls of those who are not doing their jobs.
We should also move beyond another false line of attack. The lawsuit is not intended to erode any teacher’s right to due process. And it will not.
For starters, all teachers, with or without tenure, have a baseline of due process rights. And for those who have the added due-process protections of tenure, the goal here is only to make sure that system actually makes sense, without undercutting our kids’ constitutional rights.
Consider what happened last month in the groundbreaking case of vs. , in which a state court threw out similar state laws on tenure and seniority. The judge agreed that due process was entirely legitimate, but not the “uber due process” that had led to a tortuous process of trying to remove bad teachers. The same could be said in New York, where dismissal attempts can take years.
The nation’s top school official, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, has summed it up well: Tenure itself is not the issue. Job protections for effective teachers are vital to keep teachers from being fired for random or political reasons. But “awarding tenure to someone without a track record of improving student achievement doesn’t respect the craft of teaching, and it doesn’t serve children well.”
What’s more, many state tenure laws have become obsolete because civil rights legislation passed over the last 50 years already protects teachers from unfair dismissal, according to a review by . And tenure laws do not assure quality teaching.
Even teachers agree with that. A 2011 survey of teachers by Education Sector found a startling 63% of teachers said the awarding of tenure was “just a formality” and has little to do with a teacher’s effectiveness.
The parents behind the New York case are fighting for effective teachers. No one should undermine them by misrepresenting their motivations.
is a former anchor for CNN and and founder of the Partnership for Educational Justice.