Exclusive: Michelle Rhee Takes Aim at Teacher Tenure


When Michelle Rhee was the chancellor of Washington, D.C. public schools in 2008, she was convinced that tenure was hurting her students. Back then, she told The New York Times: “Tenure is the holy grail of teacher unions but has no educational value for kids; it only benefits adults. If we can put veteran teachers who have tenure in a position where they don’t have it, that would help us to radically increase our teacher quality. And maybe other districts would try it, too.”

In lieu of tenure, Rhee offered Washington teachers the option of tremendous raises. The teachers and their union, however, heartily rejected her proposal. But Rhee has not given up. Today, as the founder and CEO of StudentsFirst, a grassroots organization that fights for public school reform, Rhee is still fighting what she believes is an archaic system.

In an exclusive interview, Rhee discusses why she believes tenure needs to be drastically reformed—if not abolished altogether:

You are in favor of removing all tenure provisions from state laws. Why tenure elimination and not reform?

StudentsFirst supports tenure reform, including eliminating seniority-based tenure. The bottom line is that we have to move to a system that focuses on job performance in the classroom instead of rewarding educators for factors that aren’t tied to student achievement, such as time served. Ultimately, under tenure, a teacher’s right to retain his or her job becomes the highest priority rather than the effect a teacher’s instruction is having on kids.

Whatever changes states make to their tenure system, and fortunately many are revisiting the issue, we should move to systems in which every effort is made to retain teachers who have done a great job in the classroom. States also should ensure that teachers who are able to earn tenure do so only after proving that they are effective.

More: Michelle Rhee on How the Nation's 'Gone Soft,' Great Teachers, and Politics in Education

What systems would you like to see in place of tenure that would still establish job security for teachers? Without tenure, how do you ensure that teachers won't capriciously lose their jobs?

If districts implement strong principal evaluations, principals will be held accountable for the school’s overall performance. This gives principals every incentive to attract and retain the best teachers. When student achievement drives decision-making, we actually move to a system where capricious firings cannot and will not be accepted.

Teachers' unions are vehemently against losing tenure. What do you say to them?

Teaching is a high-status profession, and it's about time we recognize that in how we treat teachers.       

Tenure values the years a teacher has taught over his or her actual performance in the classroom. Research shows us that after a teacher’s first few years of teaching, time on the job has little correlation to student learning. So a fifth-year teacher can be just as effective as a 20th-year teacher.

If we are going to use tenure as a way to recognize or retain teachers, let’s make sure we do it based on measures that matter, like evidence of student learning.  

Are there any models out there that do not use tenure that you can point to as an example of better quality teaching and higher student achievement?

Unfortunately, too many states, about three dozen in all, still rely on tenure-based systems that aren't linked to teacher effectiveness. But we are slowly seeing changes. Michigan, Tennessee and Louisiana recently extended the initial time a teacher must serve before receiving tenure and mandated that tenure be granted or revoked based on job performance. And Florida recently did enact a new model, adopting a performance-based system with annual contracts linked to effective performance.

If tenure is granted, it has to be tied to effectiveness so we can make sure that we are keeping the best teachers in the classroom. Research has shown that an effective teacher is the most important in-school factor impacting student achievement.

Is this a battle you see ending any time soon?

Reforming tenure nationally will be a challenge. However, in the past few years, we have seen a handful of states take bold steps to positively change their tenure systems. And as we witness communities and states across the country demand that our education systems value effective teaching, we will see an environment in which student outcomes become the higher priority.

 Related Stories on TakePart:

Former Teachers’ Union Leader Speaks Out Against Tenure

Teacher Tenure: Pros, Cons and What You Didn’t Know

New Jersey Governor Signs Reform Bill Overhauling Teacher Tenure Law

Kristin Kloberdanz is a freelance writer based in the San Francisco Bay area. She has written for Time, the Chicago Tribune and Forbes.com about everything from economic crises and political snafus to best summer beach reads.