National strike ‘not off the table’ if states reverse teacher tenure

Liz Goodwin

Will education reformers seize upon states' economic insecurity to end teacher tenure?

Such a plan has won backing from former D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, who writes in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed that the opportunity to ditch tenure and other bulwarks of the present education system represents a "bright side" of crippling state budget deficits in 2011.

"Public support is building for a frontal attack on the educational status quo," she writes. "And policy makers are rising to the challenge, not only because their budgets are tighter than ever, but also because they see an opportunity to reverse the current trend of discouraging academic results for our children."

Rhee singles out teacher tenure for elimination. In most states, tenure guarantees teachers extra job security after they are rated satisfactory for a probationary period of two to seven years. After that point, administrators cannot fire a teacher unless they can prove in a hearing that he or she is incompetent or has committed a specific fireable offense, which varies by state.

Teachers' unions and their supporters say without tenure, teachers would be fired for arbitrary and sometimes political reasons. They also warn that any "frontal attack" on the practice would not go unnoticed by the National Education Association's 3.2 million members.

"I think ... if teachers felt like politicians were doing harm to them, they would rise up and let them know that," John Wilson, executive director of the largest teachers' union, told The Lookout.

Would educators call a national strike if states across the nation tried to eliminate teacher tenure? "I would not take that off the table," Wilson said. "I also know that a strike is never the first choice of any strategy. I would hope that the voices of our members would be influential to policy makers."

But many state politicians appear to be siding with Rhee, and they agree that now is the time to make big changes.

"Our attitude is we have them on the run and it is now time to charge," Indiana education chief Paul Bennett said Monday to a gathering of legislators. "Never has education been more ripe for transformation, and if you stop to take a breath you're going to lose that opportunity to move forward. You're going to give the naysayers the opportunity to re-mobilize and circle their wagons and fend you off."

Louisiana education director Paul Pastorek agreed, saying, "I'll be damned if we are going to back off at this point."

Newly elected GOP Governor Rick Scott has vowed to end teacher tenure altogether in the state of Florida, and Wyoming's legislature is debating a bill that would do the same.

Politicians in New Jersey, Michigan, and Illinois say they simply want to reform the practice by revoking tenure from teachers who are rated unsatisfactory for a certain number of years, so that the districts employing them can fire them more easily. Seven states passed laws reforming tenure in 2010.

Reformers also want teacher evaluations to be tied in part to how well a teacher's students do on standardized tests -- one key provision in the education reform law passed in Colorado in 2010. A 2009 study found that in 12 school districts, teachers were rated satisfactory 94 to 99 percent of the time, suggesting that evaluations are by themselves flawed measures of teacher performance. But teachers' unions say and some studies show that "value-added" measurements of how well students do on standardized tests are volatile, and thus shouldn't be used as a reason to fire a teacher.

Wilson of the NEA says his main worry is that politicians -- eager to make the most of the moment of opportunity Rhee urges them to embrace -- will get ahead of the research. He says policy makers should wait for the results of an upcoming Gates Foundation-funded study on the best way to evaluate teachers before they make any decisions that will affect teachers' lives. (The study's preliminary findings endorse using test scores as a way to evaluate teachers.)

"I think all of us agree we can do a much better job on the evaluation system," he added, saying he supports peer review as one model. Wilson says Colorado's test-score-based teacher evaluation law "wasn't really advantageous to moving that system."

Reforms should focus on making sure schools only offer tenure to the best teachers, instead of prioritizing the dismissal of teachers who already have tenure, he says.

Wilson says tenure protects many good teachers from getting fired now, citing a recent case in which a young teacher was almost fired because a principal saw his car outside a female teacher's house.

"Here's the dilemma: No one ever thought that these procedures would protect bad teachers," he said. Teachers are open to fixing the system, he added, but not to tossing it out entirely.

(Classroom in Buffalo, Wyoming: AP)