President Obama: How long have you been teaching?
Philadelphia teacher: Fifteen years.
President Obama: Fifteen years. Okay, so you’ve been teaching for 15 years. I’ll bet you’ll admit that during those 15 years there have been a couple of teachers that you’ve met — you don’t have to say their names — (laughter) — who you would not put your child in their classroom. (Laughter.) See? Right? You’re not saying anything. (Laughter) You’re taking the Fifth. (Laughter) My point is that if we’ve done everything we can to improve teacher pay and teacher performance and training and development, some people just aren’t meant to be teachers, just like some people aren’t meant to be carpenters, some people aren’t meant to be nurses. At some point they’ve got to find a new career.
This illuminating exchange took place during an “Open for Questions” town-hall meeting held at the White House last week. President Obama is only pointing out the elephant in the room — we all know that there are some bad teachers out there. Like breaking an addiction, removing ineffective teachers first requires acknowledging that there is a problem, namely, that the current tenure system protects too many teachers who don’t belong in the classroom.
A vast and rarely disputed body of empirical research consistently finds that teacher quality varies dramatically both across and within schools. The difference in performance in a single year between a student who is taught by a good teacher and one who is taught by a bad teacher can be as much as a grade level’s worth of learning. The variation in teacher quality is the reason that savvy parents lobby to have their kid assigned to some teachers and not others.
Nonetheless, few teachers who make it past their first few years in the classroom are ever fired. Journalist Scott Reader reports that an average of only two tenured teachers are fired each year in the entire state of Illinois; according to the St. Petersburg Times, in the past four years, only six of the 7,300 tenured teachers in the Pinellas (St. Petersburg, Fla.) school district and ten of the 13,000 tenured teachers in Hillsborough (Tampa) have been fired; and in New York City, only ten of about 55,000 tenured public-school teachers were fired last year. Does anyone honestly believe that 99.98 percent of New York City’s tenured teachers are doing an acceptable job?
Tenure is the reason for such low dismissal rates. A tenured teacher’s job is so secure that it can be revoked only in a procedure that is so expensive, time-consuming, and otherwise draining that few schools bother with it. Teachers are granted this level of protection after only a few years in the classroom — usually three years or so — and without meaningful consideration of their performance. In fact, prodded by the teachers’ unions, the New York state legislature last year explicitly forbade the use of students’ standardized-test results to inform in any way the decision of whether to grant a teacher tenure.
We simply cannot pursue the president’s goal of removing ineffective teachers without addressing tenure. Eliminating tenure entirely is a political fantasy. Instead, we should focus on making the process of granting it more discriminating.
Job protection should be treated as a privilege, not a right. Tenure should go only to those teachers who have demonstrated both effectiveness in the classroom and leadership in their schools. Schools can identify worthy teachers using several measures of a teacher’s performance, including detailed evaluation by their principal and other teachers, as well as, yes, their students’ performance on standardized tests. The bar should be set high. The ideal system would grant tenure only to teachers who are good enough not to need the job protection.
With President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan calling for the removal of ineffective teachers, some might assume that tenure reform is on the horizon. Not so fast. Curtailing tenure isn’t a simple matter of changing a law. Tenure is usually embedded in collective-bargaining agreements between teachers and school districts, and there would be legal and political barriers to excising it, as we have seen recently in the attempts to revoke retention bonuses promised and given to some AIG executives.
Because getting rid of ineffective teachers is essential to improving public schools, we need to push to reform tenure in both existing and future teacher contracts. President Obama can play a leadership role using his bully pulpit, but it’s up to local citizens to push their school boards and local legislatures to devise a system that allows the removal of ineffective teachers and their replacement by teachers who can make a positive difference in the lives of their students.
– Marcus Winters is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.