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Op-Ed: Tenure Reform -- The Teacher Perspective

Despite all the misunderstandings and misinformation, tenure simply means teachers have the right to due process.

The tenure bill (S-1455) sponsored by Democratic State Senator Theresa Ruiz (D-Essex) is the latest attack on teachers demonstrating New Jersey legislators’ bipartisan support of the corporate education agenda. These anti-teacher reforms, couched in the language of equity and democracy, harm our nation’s kids living in poverty, kids of color, kids who speak English as a second language, and kids with disabilities (although often these categories are one and the same) by covering up the real sources of failure: widespread child poverty, institutionalized racism, inequitable access to quality education that reproduces societal inequality, and recently, a deliberate starving of public education monetarily. The mainstream coverage of the bill in New Jersey also shows that those who have a voice in this issue lack even a precursory understanding of what “tenure” means and does for K-12 teachers, so here is a short lesson.

“Tenure” simply means that a teacher has the right to due process -- that’s it -- and teachers are not granted tenure automatically. After three years, during which their administrator must conduct nine formal observations to determine whether the teacher is effective, the administrator signs off on the teacher’s tenure.

Once a teacher has been granted tenure, raises and seniority are not automatic, but based on performance. Any teacher, no matter how long they have served, can be denied their contractually prescribed raise from one year to the next. This is commonly called “withholding of increment.”

Additionally, the difficulty of getting rid of teachers is greatly exaggerated. Regardless of the popular rhetoric about rubber rooms, tenure does not protect teachers from being terminated, it merely requires proper cause and documentation. Teaching already has one of the highest (if not the highest) attrition rate of American professions: an estimated one-half of teachers leave within their first five years. Proposed changes to tenure will only speed up the revolving door of teachers, which swings heaviest in high-poverty urban areas.

Historically, tenure has also been granted to teachers because of the political implications of their positions. Reforms come and go with alarming regularity, and, our recent Democratic administration not withstanding, normally a shift in political power comes with a shift in educational focus. Tenure protects teachers who have been evaluated as quality by their administrators against, say, massive layoffs due to draconian educational budget cuts. Without the protection of tenure, many teachers would lose their jobs, regardless of their quality, because they are higher on the pay scale. While some have argued that ageism is a federal offense, and victims could take their district to court on federal grounds, it is unlikely that a recently unemployed teacher would have the wherewithal to withstand the necessary legal battle that lay ahead. Before the bill was passed by the New Jersey Senate earlier this week, concessions were made to protect seniority and due process of tenured teachers (although granting of tenure has now been pushed to four years). However, organizations such as the New Jersey Boards Association, have vowed to continue the battle against tenure. After his testimony at the recent bill hearing, Michael Vrancik, the association’s governmental relations director, promised, “The war is on . . . there’s more to fight.”

The tenure reform bill also calls for teachers to be evaluated in terms of student outcomes -- a.k.a, student test scores. Evaluations based on student performance, especially ones closely tied to tenure decisions, will have devastating effects. Not only will we see narrowing of the curriculum and teaching to the test, but places like Newark and Paterson, frequently cited as places with the most need of quality teachers, will have even more difficulty recruiting and retaining those good teachers. Within districts and schools, classes of struggling students and challenging populations, such as English language learners and students with disabilities, will be difficult to staff. Even teachers who love a challenge, of which there are many, will have a hard time rationalizing what could be career suicide.

From a research perspective, even the statisticians who created value-added modeling (the statistical process by which teachers are tied to their students’ test data) caution against linking individual teachers to their individual students’ test scores for the purpose of making high stakes decisions like tenure or dismissal.

Value-added modeling applications have giant margins of error, between thirty and fifty points depending on the formula used and the study under consideration. For purposes of comparison, most quantitative scientific research is not considered valid if it has a margin of error of more than 5 points. Statistically speaking, a thirty-to-fifty-point margin of error means that the only conclusion a researcher could draw from data with confidence is that the teachers placing in the top 2.5 percent of the distribution are probably pretty effective, and the ones in the bottom 2.5 percent probably are not.

Empirical educational research has also demonstrated that even for teachers determined to be “effective” by these measures, gain scores tend to fluctuate from year to year. This makes the tenure bill’s required two-year time frame for teachers to demonstrate effectiveness problematic, since longitudinal results typically are not stable.

This tenure bill feeds into the national meta-narrative around education in the past few years, casting the teacher in the role of villain. Placing the focus on tenured teachers takes the blame off the actual guilty parties -- those that relentlessly cut the education budget, forcing districts to lay off teachers and cut already inadequate resources, and champion privatization measures like charter schools and voucher programs (we are looking at you, Chris Christie). These moves disproportionately affect our most vulnerable children, those who cannot afford to lose quality, experienced teachers to a poorly hidden political agenda. In erroneously offering up individual teachers as the cause of the failure of disadvantaged kids and communities, we also ignore realities that reproduce societal inequality: poverty, institutionalized racism, and school structures and policies that perpetuate both.

Note: The views here reflect solely the personal opinions of the authors and not those of any institutions with which they are affiliated.

Kathryn Strom and Brian Ford are cofounders of the New Jersey Teacher Activist Group (NJTAG). Brian teaches history at Montclair High School, and Kathryn is a former history teacher who supports new teachers in Newark as an induction coach. Both are pursuing their doctorates in Teacher Education at Montclair State University.

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