Momentum builds at Capitol for teacher tenure changes

(Originally published June 21, 2011)

Over the past two years, the State Tenure Commission has sided with the school district in every case where the district sought to fire a teacher specifically for poor performance in the classroom.

All four.
And of the 32 total cases ruled on by the commission between January 2009 and October 2010 (the date of the last one posted on the Michigan Department of Education website), the school districts won on the prime issue 23 times, while the teacher prevailed in just nine, according to a Center for Michigan review. 
The data show that the Tenure Commission does support school districts in discharging bad teachers when strong cases are presented, but it is a rarely used tool to weed them out.  School officials say the process is too long and too costly — especially given the possibility they might lose at the end and be saddled with both the costs and the teacher.
Instead, they are more likely to just put up with an underperforming teacher, or attempt to buy him or her out. Even a $50,000 severance package can look appealing compared to the costs of a protracted legal fight, which can exceed $100,000 say school business officials
Now, however, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder and the GOP-controlled Legislature are moving swiftly on legislation that entirely shifts the pendulum, making it easier, faster, cheaper to fire, lay off or suspend teachers with poor performance evaluations. Supporters say the tenure reforms are a crucial step in upgrading Michigan’s teaching work force, improving student learning and ultimately preparing students for good jobs in a knowledge-based economy.
(For a summary of the legislation, click HERE.)
Critics argue strenuously that the measures are an overreach that guts collective bargaining, puts even great teachers at risk of dismissal at the whim of school administrators and discourages talented people from entering the profession in the first place.
Research shows the quality of a teacher is a major factor in students’ academic growth — more important than things such smaller classes. It’s hard to know how many bad teachers Michigan has, but a reasonable estimate: too many. Education experts say that schools need to do a better job of assessing teachers, identifying those who are ineffective, helping them improve and, if they don’t, removing them in a timely manner. The keys to that include effective objective evaluations, relevant continuing education and support and strong but fair decisions by principals.

Michigan is by no means alone in taking a hard look at tenure. Reform has been a priority in capitols across the country after Republicans took control of more governor’s offices and legislatures (including Michigan) in the 2010 elections.

Snyder calls Michigan’s system antiquated. Reforming it was an important element in his education message in April.

The tenure changes passed the House on June 8. The vote was largely along party lines, although Democratic Rep. Tim Melton, the former chairman of the House Education Committee, passionately supported the package. The Senate Education Committee has begun hearings on the legislation, and some changes are expected before final legislation reaches Snyder’s desk.

Among other things, the legislation:

* Requires all teachers receive annual evaluations that are based primarily on student achievement. They must be judged “highly effective,” “effective,” “minimally effective” or “ineffective.”

* Removes tenure protections  for teachers who are judged ineffective two years in a row.

* Largely eliminates seniority as a factor in layoffs.

* Lowers the threshold for dismissing teachers from “just and reasonable cause” to reasons that are not “arbitrary and capricious.”

* Extends the probation period for new teachers from four years to five.

Why tenure?

Michigan enacted its teacher tenure law in 1937 in response to hiring and firing abuses that could relate to nepotism, race, religion, or pregnancy … even the need for a football coach.

“In thinking about this, it’s good to remember that one of the reasons you have job security and due process for letting people go is that there is a long and not very pretty history of school employment as something that was determined as a political favor in some cases, while in other cases it would be seen as capricious or personal,” explained Robert Floden, university distinguished professor of teacher education at Michigan State University.

Over the years, the combination of tenure and union protections tilted the balance of power toward teachers, say critics. Tenure Commission proceedings can easily last a full school year; all the while the district may be paying both the teacher and a substitute, as well as its legal expenses.

It’s reached the point that, in a practical sense, school districts are much likely to go after a teacher for outrageous or illegal behavior that draws public attention than for garden-variety bad teaching. Among the dismissals upheld by the Tenure Commission, one teacher lost his job for giving students the answers to a test; another for being intoxicated at school; and two others for sexual advances toward students.

Even union leaders recognize the system needs reform, although they say Republicans are going about it in the wrong way by seeking to undermine collective bargaining. Ann Arbor Education Association President Brit Satchwell says teachers and unions need to acknowledge the problem and be part of the solution.

“Our teachers recognize there are some teachers who are substandard or slacking or just coasting. We more than anybody wish they would improve or leave,” he said. “It’s time the unions and the teachers talk about that.”

But the union leader also believes Republicans are rushing through a poorly conceived plan that misses the mark on evaluations and procedures for dismissal. Satchwell warns that competent and even great teachers will be at risk because of subjective evaluations and over-emphasis on student achievement rather than teacher performance.

Floden, the MSU professor, says the concerns are legitimate. “If the principal has the ability to hire and fire at will, there will be cases where a teacher will be let go because he didn’t get along with principal or because she took a position on something that is at odds with the principal,” he said. “I’m not saying the system should only be set up to guard against that, but it’s a real concern.”

Job security in doubt

For decades, job security for senior teachers was one of the perks, a result of both tenure and union protections. In times of layoffs, they knew fewer senior teachers would be pink-slipped first and that cases of tenured teachers being fired were few and far between.

All that will change, if reforms such as the ones the House passed become law.

For starters, teachers who are judged “ineffective” on two consecutive year-end reviews must have their tenure suspended and be placed on probation, subject to termination if they don’t improve.

And when layoffs are necessary, teacher performance, as measured in evaluations, would be the primary factor in who stays and who goes. The higher-rated teacher would keep his or her job, not necessarily the more experienced one.

In cases of beginning teachers without tenure, a highly rated first-year teacher could be retained over a lackluster third-year teacher with a so-so evaluation

De-emphasizing seniority makes sense when you’re putting the interests of students first, said John Austin, president of the State Board of Education.  He believes the legislation is headed in the right direction, although he believes it will be modified and improved in the Senate. He added that a complete reform package must also include strategies for keeping the best teachers in the classroom, including the creation of so-called master teachers, who undergo rigorous training and are paid more.

Brian Jacob, the Walter H. Annenberg professor of education at the University of Michigan, agrees with the emphasis on merit over seniority. Research shows that teachers generally reach their peak after about five years. If a five-year teacher is doing a better job than a 25-year teacher, it makes sense that he or she keep the job, he says.

But Satchwell, the Ann Arbor union leader, says he has seen numerous cases where teacher evaluations  go “great, great, great — bad” not because of a change in teacher performance, but because of a change in principal. He said, in one instance, a principal gave a great teacher a poor evaluation to shift blame for her own shortcomings.

He also fears that administrators will finesse evaluations to get rid of teachers who have been around longer and have higher salaries. “The money thing, over time, would really, really sink in. They just get rid of the expensive ones and keep hiring the cheap ones. You see that in the private sector, people getting laid off in their mid-50s,” Satchwell said. “What do you do with mediocre people? Do you take them into the woods, throw a sandwich out the door and take off?”

Effective evaluations

Because evaluations could cost teachers their livelihood, it’s especially important to make fair, objective assessments. The legislation requires that student achievement be the primary criterion, but educational experts say that it will require much more than that.

Jacob, the University of Michigan professor, says school districts will need to do more testing to measure student growth at the beginning and end of the school year. The Michigan Education Assessment Program test, commonly known as the MEAP, won’t work because it is only given at the beginning of the school year.

Jacob said evaluations should also be based on multiple classroom observations by neutral parties, a practice that is not in place today. “To really have a well-developed classroom observation system, you need trained observers, ideally external to the school, so that they are more impartial and they have a fresh perspective and don’t come to it with biases,” he said. He acknowledged that such a system would require additional resources and should probably be focused primarily on poor or marginal teachers.

Floden, at MSU, warned that an evaluation system based primarily on students’ performance could have unintended consequences.

“There would be incentive for teachers not to want to work with difficult kids,” he said. “You can imagine if a special needs kid is about to be added to your class, if you knew that your job was on the line based on your performance on some quantitative measure, there would be an incentive to try to prevent that kid from entering your class.”

Satchwell said he believes that teachers should be evaluated on their pedagogical skills rather than student performance, which is affected by many factors outside the teachers’ control.

He said it’s also critical that school districts do a better job of providing relevant professional development and other resources that help teachers improve.  “Right now a lot of the professional development just isn’t relevant,” he said.

Pulling the trigger 

While Jacob believes that many of the reforms have merit, he says the legislation alone won’t weed out bad teachers.  Although the bills require  evaluations that would ultimately give administrators the authority to discharge teachers rated ineffective, administrators might set the student-growth bar low enough that practically every teacher is judged to be effective for highly effective.

School cultures are typically such that nearly all probationary teachers eventually get tenure if they stay on, even if their performance is marginal.

“It’s hard to fire somebody,” Jacob said. “Telling someone that you’re letting them go because they are ineffective is a very difficult thing for a principal, and it may change the dynamics in the building and the principal’s leadership ability and so forth. Experience in other areas has shown that the additional kind of legal authority is not always sufficient to result in change.”

School districts need to make sure that principals develop the skills they need to make hard personnel decisions, he said.

“I would advise school districts to make decisions that are in the best interest of their children,” Jacob said. “And if that means dismissing some tenured teachers, that’s what they should do.”

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