Sheldon Benardo was in the throes of his first days as principal of New York City's PS 86 when he went to court to remove "one of the worst teachers" he'd ever seen from his school. She not only couldn't teach, he says, but she failed to maintain order in the classroom, wore a wedding gown to class, and behaved inappropriately with students.
In court, the new principal was grilled on the stand for days in front of the teacher in question, who ignored the proceedings, choosing instead to listen to music on her Walkman and beat her hands on the table. She continued to collect her full salary for 3-1/2 years before finally negotiating a settlement and walking away from P.S. 86. The effort was worth it, Mr. Bernardo says, but "I'd have to think hard before trying it again.
The expensive, labyrinthine process often required to fire teachers has long been among the more sensitive and contentious issues in public education. It has also been tagged as the field's most-often-discussed but least-acted-upon problem. But as states face intensifying pressure to ratchet up public school performance, some education pundits assert that the time is ripe for change.
In Georgia this month, Gov. Roy Barnes created a political firestorm with his education-reform bill, which calls for, among other things, an end to tenure for incoming teachers. To the surprise of many, the bill sailed through the state House of Representatives, 136 to 41, and efforts to add amendments restoring protections for teachers' jobs were decisively beaten back as well.
But outraged teachers' groups are now assailing the measure, saying the removal of job protection will only exacerbate the teacher shortage. "Why would you want to teach in Georgia without rights?" asks Drew Allbritten, executive director of the Georgia Association of Educators in Atlanta. He says the message the legislature is sending to teachers is, "you make your first mistake and you're gone." It doesn't bode well for the teaching profession, he adds.
Tenure trickled down
Tenure laws - in place in some states for more than 70 years - were originally designed to protect college teachers from dismissal for their political views. But they soon filtered down to cover elementary and high school teachers as well.
In addition, public school teachers have protections as employees of the state, and in many states, collective bargaining agreements with the teachers unions add further security.
"There are so many layers of regulation," says William Coats, a Tacoma, Wash.-based attorney who specializes in education law. "The state legislator will adopt certain regulations, the state board of [education] will adopt others, and then you negotiate with the union." The result, he says, is that "it's become even more difficult in the last few years" to fire a teacher in his state. The volume of documentation in some cases he handles "is comparable to the O.J. Simpson trial."
Teachers have long insisted that the laws protecting their jobs are necessary to keep politics out of the schools. "There's a reason that tenure came in, and that reason had a lot to do with academic freedom. I think it's important we don't forget that," says Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers in Texas.
Even many administrators like Principal Benardo are sympathetic to such claims. Despite his bad experience, he says, "I'd be scared to do away with tenure altogether. I can imagine a school in which a principal might have too much power."
Yet critics of the current system say principals and superintendents can't be asked to accept accountability for student performance if they continue to have little control over teacher dismissal. Some education reformers call the laws protecting teachers' jobs the No. 1 obstacle to positive change.
It's impossible to determine with any precision how many of the nation's teachers fail to perform well.
But according to informal surveys of about 60,000 administrators by Mary Jo McGrath, a lawyer in Santa Barbara, Calif., about 18 percent of public school teachers are judged less than satisfactory by their supervisors. Of those, 3 to 5 percent are deemed bad enough to actually harm children, either educationally or emotionally.
Administrators dread the effort and expense of removing them, says Ms. McGrath, who has specialized in helping school districts fire teachers. Their apprehension is fed by high-profile cases, the most infamous of which may be the effort of California's Grossmont Union High School District to fire a teacher deemed incompetent. The case dragged on for almost a decade, concluding in 1995 with the teacher's dismissal - and a price tag of more than $300,000 for the school district.
No radical change
For all the talk and emotion surrounding the issue, there have been few significant changes to the process in recent years.
"There's less going on than meets the eye," says Dale Ballou, associate professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. Anguish is being expressed publicly, and some states claim to have done away with tenure, as did Massachusetts in 1993. But all they really did, says Professor Ballou, was bundle other job protections together "and rename them."
The bottom line is, "if you can't fire somebody in a reasonable amount of time with a reasonable amount of documentation, that's tenure," says Mike Antonucci, director of the Education Intelligence Agency in Sacramento, Calif.
Some states have succeeded in simplifying the process. In Florida, for instance, when a teacher is given a warning, the probationary period before action can be taken has been reduced from as long as three years to just 90 days. New York has limited court hearings on teacher dismissals to 60 days. And a number of states are considering lengthening the period of time teachers must work before earning tenure (currently it's only about three years).
Another idea is to replace tenure with shorter-term renewable contracts, but political support for that is hard to come by. Such a proposal was defeated last month by Colorado lawmakers. Most states, says Ballou, are still "nibbling" at the problem, rather than confronting it.
Cooperation from unions
Unions - often blamed for the persistent presence of underperforming teachers - have become more cooperative in recent years, says Mr. Coats, the lawyer in Washington State. "I actually think they're approaching this in a responsible manner," he says. "Very often they will agree with us that something must be done." It's not in their interest either, he points out, to spend time and money defending incompetent teachers.
But some say ultimately only public pressure will force a change. Michael Podgursky, chairman of the economics department at the University of Missouri in Columbia, predicts that both charter schools and the drive toward accountability will be powerful levers for reform.
"If you're going to hold [administrators] responsible, you've got to give them more flexibility," says Professor Podgursky. At the same time, he adds, charter schools, which generally do not offer their teachers tenure, will point the way toward a new system. "I think the idea is slowly beginning to sink in," he says.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society