The problem with teacher tenure in the US

August 25th, 2014 at 9:00 am by David Farrar

Fran Bruni writes in the NY Times:

Mike Johnston’s mother was a public-school teacher. So were her mother and father. And his godfather taught in both public and private schools.

So when he expresses the concern that we’re not getting the best teachers into classrooms or weeding out the worst performers, it’s not as someone who sees the profession from a cold, cynical distance.

What I hear in his voice when he talks about teaching is reverence, along with something else that public education could use more of: optimism.

He rightly calls teachers “the single most transformative force in education.”

But the current system doesn’t enable as many of them as possible to rise to that role, he says. And a prime culprit is tenure, at least as it still exists in most states.

“It provides no incentive for someone to improve their practice,” he told me last week. “It provides no accountability to actual student outcomes. It’s the classic driver of, ‘I taught it, they didn’t learn it, not my problem.’ It has a decimating impact on morale among staff, because some people can work hard, some can do nothing, and it doesn’t matter.”

I sat down with Johnston, a Democrat who represents a racially diverse chunk of this city in the State Senate, because he was the leading proponent of a 2010 law that essentially abolished tenure in Colorado. To earn what is now called “non-probationary status,” a new teacher must demonstrate student progress three years in a row, and any teacher whose students show no progress for two consecutive years loses his or her job protection.

Sounds wonderful. What will be interesting to assess over the years is how states that passed laws like this compare to states that do not, in terms of student achievement?

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12 Responses to “The problem with teacher tenure in the US”

  1. WineOh (630 comments) says:

    In addition to this is the overwhelming pressure for schools (especially colleges/universities) to produce high pass rates and particularly with high grades. Universities receive large amounts of their funding from donations and endowments provided by Alumni, and becomes a multi-generational game. If John Senior went to ABC College, he wants his little son Jimmy Junior to go too. Jimmy didn’t do very well on the last test? John weighs in & bullies the school into improving his grade, threatening to cut off the funding taps. ABC competes vigorously for prestige, grant money, and high fee paying undergraduate students. Full fee paying students are the ones that subsidise the football teams, the fancy new library and the high paying jobs for the top brass at the university.

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  2. Fentex (978 comments) says:

    I know I enjoy British news more than most because I listen to a lot of BBC radio, and we all know more than we need about the U.S because of it’s influence

    It’s still kind of odd how something completely unrelated to NZ (teacher tenure is not a concept let alone in any contracts or law in NZ) is of such interest. I assume some see a link in that they think it illustrates a similarity in difficulty in promoting excellence.

    It’s a bit of stretch isn’t it? Cherry picking one detail out of a culturally and legally different situation and crow barring into discussions wholly unrelated in place and administration to it (assuming that is the point of referencing it)?

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  3. beautox (422 comments) says:

    Teachers certainly have transformed education. It used to be a working system that educated people, but now it’s more like a brainwashing machine.

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  4. Paryphanta (9 comments) says:

    The US teacher systems are very different from those in NZ. In NZ new teachers are effectively on probation for the first two years and during this time have a lighter teaching load and receive guidance from senior staff. They only become fully registered as a teacher once the Principal certifies that they have met requirements.

    Education in the US is managed locally (city and county) subject to State legislation. It is largely funded from Property Tax. The quality of teachers depends upon how much the local government is prepared to pay – and there is are wide variation in pay rates even between next door jurisdictions, depending upon local whim. Teachers typically have pension entitlements that require 20 years of continuous service so there is incentive to hang in until the 20 years.

    The largest problem with teacher quality in NZ is burn-out from the stress of the job. The drop-out rate for young, new teachers is very high. Overall though we have much greater consistency and higher quality than in the US. I would not want a US system.

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  5. doggone7 (805 comments) says:

    beautox: “Teachers certainly have transformed education. It used to be a working system that educated people, but now it’s more like a brainwashing machine.”

    Are you able to explain specifically what you mean by this? When was it a ‘working system that educated people” and when did it stop being that?

    What specifically was done or not done to cause that change? What did teachers do differently? Did someone turn a switch, push a button to make them change? Did someone make a speech to give them a new map?

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  6. Zapper (1,021 comments) says:

    Bill Courtenay here to tell us teachers being accountable is the work of the devil in 3..2..1

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  7. doggone7 (805 comments) says:

    WineOh

    You’re pointing to a world we don’t know. We often are enamoured by superficial facets and fripperies and think that they should be introduced here. The complex, intricately linked evolutionary and cultural aspects which sees the existence of those things, are usually ignored. The reality of NZ being an independent, individual entity, not one of 50 linked states, is seldom recognised in comparing what that means to all systems (including education). (NZ is the size of a median state – 24 or 25 states have more people than us.)

    We probably have the necessary chutzpah to make our way in the world but continually look at stuff that has evolved over hundreds of years in totally different cultural circumstances, which themselves are ever changing, and say that’s what we should introduce here.

    We think we’re big in sport, these links show the real world. And these as you mention have implication for education.

    http://www.usatoday.com/sports/college/schools/finances/

    http://espn.go.com/espn/otl/story/_/id/10851446/sports-programs-nation-top-public-colleges-thrived-economic-downturn-earning-record-revenues

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  8. doggone7 (805 comments) says:

    And as expected the thumbs down for asking questions. (Chuckle, chuckle!)

    In the absence of beautox maybe someone else can answer the questions.

    The claim is that teachers have changed education from a system that used to educate people to one that’s more like a brainwashing machine. Should I have sent my kids to school in 1968? 1978? ’88, ’98, ’08? When did things change?

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  9. big bruv (13,904 comments) says:

    “The largest problem with teacher quality in NZ is burn-out from the stress of the job.”

    Twelve weeks paid holiday a year
    Numerous “teacher only days” (often at the beginning of a new term when they are just back from an extended paid holiday)
    A 9.00 to 3.30 working day.

    Yeah, I can really see “burn out” as being the major problem.

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  10. Monique Angel (291 comments) says:

    Teacher tenure isn’t a problem where I am. I believe it is a universal problem in NZ. In NZ the Hive Mind of the teachers Unions thwart all free thought. In Aspirational California where our family resides, this unionism is tempered by competition between school districts to attract the best and brightest. And a strong school community helps. It’s not unheard if for teachers to stick around for 20+ years but two Principals in my school district got the sack for getting offside with the school community.

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  11. HB (321 comments) says:

    Well you ‘believe’ wrong.

    We had a teacher at our school that was incompetent. She was given the heave-ho from our school. A local private school employed her for some short term relief and now she no longer teaches. I cannot imagine any principal signing her application to register as a teacher either (as is required every 3 years).
    I also know of others in our local area that have had similar thing happen.
    NZ does not have tenure for teachers.

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  12. HB (321 comments) says:

    sorry Big Bruv, 9-3.30 are student hours, not teacher hours – although some may choose to do some work from home. When I left school at 5.30 today the teacher carpark was still around half full.

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