Teachers across America are losing their tenure—at least, in the traditional sense. For years, the term applied to educators whose seniority essentially made them insusceptible to lay-offs. However, several states are tossing out the old ways in exchange for a new tenure system determined by overall classroom performance, rather than years spent at a single institution.
According to one of the resources for top online PhD programs, tenure as Americans knew it had been around since the early 20th century. In addition, statistics from the Center for American Progress indicate that, until very recently, the majority of states (33) granted tenure after three years at the same school. The 17 others awarded tenure at various intervals between the first and fifth year. Notably, every state had a system in place, and virtually all of them automatically awarded tenure when the benchmark year was reached.
Now, a handful of states are leading the charge for tenure reform. Most proponents argue that the old tenure system is antiquated, and allows ineffective teachers (or worse) access to the nation’s children. Florida has pursued the issue most aggressively, essentially nullifying all potential tenure opportunities for new teachers and laying out a plan to dismiss any teacher with multiple poor evaluations. Other states, such as Colorado and Nevada, also support the practice of laying off teachers with mediocre ratings, while Rhode Island allows up to two years of poor performance before dismissal is required. In all, 11 states now mandate school districts to consider job performance when deciding which teachers to retain the following year, and about half of all states grade educators on classroom effectiveness.
Last month, The Huffington Post reported that teacher unions nationwide began to fight the new changes. Opponents argue these reforms unnecessarily target older teachers by denying them “due process.” However, many experts believe the recent shift is merely an initial step toward complete reconstruction. “Tenure laws will be under assault for many years to come," said Marjorie Murphy, a history professor at Swarthmore College who penned a book about the teacher labor movement titled Blackboard Unions: The Aft and the Nea, 1900-1980.
Many believe the legislative changes are a reaction to soaring rates of school attendance in the United States. As Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a proponent of the reforms, told NPR, many urban school districts face large-scale issues in the face of crowded classrooms. "I believe this issue of education is the democracy issue of our time, the economic issue of our time and the civil rights issue of our time when you look at the achievement gap," he said. "And you look at the fact that in urban schools, you have a 50 percent dropout rate. And 80 percent of the kids are scoring at the bottom 20 percentile. We should be working together."
The Obama Administration has made a major push for charter schools—but these privately managed learning institutions also play a key role in the tenure debate. As they announce plans to strip teachers of tenure rights, states like Florida and New Jersey are awarding grant monies to developers whose charter schools have proven to be successful. Since they are independently owned, these establishments base their teacher contracts and subsequent extensions on overall classroom performance, not seniority.
To appease critics, Deseret News reports that several organizations that favor the new tenure system are creating complex models that eliminate the “black and white” appearance of the reforms. The Gates Foundation, for example, suggests a "value-added model" that establishes a baseline level for each student at the outset of each school year. This way, teacher scores are based on annual progress, not overall achievement.
How remaining states choose to address the issue and reform traditional tenure will play out in the coming months. Many believe that effective education for children should take ultimate precedence in this debate. As many legislators have seen, however, several factors are critical to the development of a performance- based teacher merit system—and all of them lie at the heart of this complex debate.
(*) Brittany Lyons aspires to be a psychology professor, but decided to take some time off from grad school to help people learn to navigate the academic lifestyle. She currently lives in Spokane, Washington, where she spends her time reading science fiction and walking her dog.