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.

John Rawlston / Chattanooga Times Free Press / AP / File
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.

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.

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.

In most states, teachers can earn tenure after three to five years on the job.

The major teachers unions agree that it shouldn’t be so difficult for districts to remove bad teachers, but for every horror story along those lines, they say they can offer one about someone being fired for the wrong reasons. What needs strengthening, they say, is the whole continuum of recruitment, preparation, and evaluation.

“If the biggest problem, as some of these critics say, is that we have too many incompetent teachers and it needs to be easier to fire them, I would suggest their hiring and evaluation system is broken,” says Dennis van Roekel, president of the National Education Association.

In Finland, one of the top-performing countries educationally, Mr. Van Roekel notes that there’s no debate about getting rid of bad teachers because the bar is set so high at the start for people to become teachers. They are recruited from among top high school students, earn master’s degrees, and prove their teaching skills before being hired.

But New Jersey’s Gov. Chris Christie (R) says better teacher evaluations and eliminating teacher tenure go hand in hand. During his Jan. 11 State of the State speech (where Ms. Rhee was sitting in the front row), he said that a task force is working on “improving the measurement and evaluation of teachers.... And perhaps the most important step in that process is to give schools more power to remove underperforming teachers.”

“The time to eliminate teacher tenure is now,” he said.

In December, the New Jersey Educators Association proposed a way to streamline teacher dismissal cases by having arbitrators, instead of judges, decide them. “By taking the courts out of the equation, we believe the average case can be adjudicated in 60 to 90 days, and at a fraction of the cost,” said President Barbara Keshishian.

But many Democrats who control the New Jersey legislature seem to support going much farther in changing the system, Professor McGuinn says.

Rhee’s Students First policy agenda says tenure policies “make removing even the most unmotivated and ineffective teachers nearly impossible.” Tenure isn’t needed, the document says, because other “well-established federal and state policies allow teachers to challenge wrongful actions and prevent discriminatory firing in public education.”

On Jan. 12, Florida’s Governor Rick Scott (R) joined the growing chorus when he spoke of getting rid of tenure before a group of business executives in Miami.

In addition, the legislatures in Illinois and Wyoming are currently scrutinizing teacher tenure.

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