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NJ Gov. Chris Christie wants to end teacher tenure – and he's not alone

Just this week, state officials in New Jersey, Florida, and Idaho have called for the elimination of teacher tenure, and more states plan to join the debate.

By Staff writer / January 14, 2011

Chattanooga Center for Creative Arts teacher Jack Pickett works with ninth-grade students Caitlyn Clear, Grant Brown and Crystal Collins, from left, as they study physics concepts in Chattanooga, Tenn., Dec. 15. A rising chorus of politicians is calling for an end to teacher tenure.

John Rawlston / Chattanooga Times Free Press / AP / File

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In their bids to reform K-12 education, state leaders in New Jersey, Florida, and Idaho have all called this week for eliminating teacher tenure.

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If the legislatures go forward with such proposals, they’ll join more than a dozen states that have recently changed their teacher evaluation and dismissal systems or are considering such moves.

The momentum sprang in part from incentives in the Obama administration’s recent Race to the Top competition for stimulus funds.

Ending tenure is also being championed prominently by former Washington, D.C., Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee. Ms. Rhee’s new Students First education-reform group called for that this week when it released its detailed policy agenda.

Contrary to what the word conjures up, tenure doesn’t mean a lifetime job guarantee for teachers. Laws establishing hearings or other protections against arbitrary firing sprang up state by state in response to problems such as discrimination against women or politically motivated firings.

“Tenure is really about due-process protections,” says Patrick McGuinn, a political science professor at Drew University in New Jersey who has studied tenure policies, “but over time it’s become so lengthy, complicated, and costly to go through those due-process protections ... that virtually no teachers are fired on the basis of performance.”

But while tenure reform enjoys support from both Democrats and Republicans, some observers see such calls as polarizing rhetoric that could ultimately harm efforts to improve education.

It’s “demonizing teachers,” says Thomas Hatch, a professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College in New York. “Just eliminating teacher tenure is not suddenly going to improve the performance of teachers... Part of what people forget is we’re also trying to support good teachers” when crafting evaluation and professional development policies.

Every time a story comes out about the years and the dollars it can take for administrators to get rid of incompetent or even abusive teachers, teacher tenure becomes an easy target for politicians and pundits.

In Ohio, calls for reform were stoked most recently by a case in Mount Vernon, where the school board had to spend about two years and $900,000 to fire a teacher who had burned the image of a cross into students’ arms, the Associated Press reports. The state has already extended the amount of time people have to teach before earning tenure to seven years, but further changes may be considered this year.

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