Former Teachers’ Union Leader Speaks Out Against Tenure

The teacher tenure debate is heating up as states and local districts reconsider the necessity of allowing teachers to reach permanent status in their careers. Those in favor of this special employment status—often teachers’ unions—claim it protects teachers in difficult situations, gives them freedom of speech, and allows teachers to comfortably form long-term bonds with their students. Opponents say it’s an outdated system that results in thousands of ineffective teachers across the nation roosting in their jobs and failing students.

Joseph Di Salvo, the current president of the Santa Clara County Office of Education in California, has been on both sides of the tenure debate. As a young teacher, he was the leader of a prominent local teachers' union from 1976 until 1985. During that time, he was a staunch defender of every teacher's right to tenure. Then, in 1989 he became the principal of an elementary school. This is when everything changed.

"I realized how difficult it really was in California to get a teacher who is mediocre or less than mediocre removed," he says. For 16 years as an elementary school principal and later as a middle school principal, Di Salvo says he struggled to remove failing tenured teachers who were almost exempt from firing unless they did something illegal. In his time as a principal, he only successfully fired two tenured teachers. "It was so difficult—it took so much focus away from the school picture trying to document everything," he says. "The measures just were not very quantifiable, and they still are not in California."

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Di Salvo has spent the past four years trying to jolt the public into considering teacher tenure reform. On a popular San Jose blog, he even wrote: "I have stated consistently and unequivocally when writing this weekly column the last four years that we must end teacher tenure laws as we know them. Ending California's current tenure laws will be for the sake of the students and the health of the teaching profession as a whole. As a former teacher union leader 30 years ago, I was an advocate for tenure rights after my third successful year of teaching. My views have evolved."

States have different tenure systems, but generally after a certain number of years (often two or three) a teacher who has received positive evaluations will be tenured. In California, which was the first state to mandate teacher tenure in 1921, a teacher is considered "permanent" after two successful years on the job unless they choose to leave.

Di Salvo offers up two alternatives that he and other reformers feel would help reduce the number of ineffective teachers."I think if it were five years and one day, we'd have fewer issues," he says, adding that this very proposal was put forth to California voters in 2005 and was not passed.

Tenure the way it is has to go. It's not good for the children.

He says he also likes what he has seen regarding tenure reform through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has worked with teacher quality. He says he's heard, through the Gates Foundation, how the profession of teaching should be like working at a law firm. "I think there's a lot we can learn from that motto in public education," he says. Di Salvo likes the idea of a teacher being judged—such as a potential law partner—by a jury of his or her peers and students rather than by a principal or manager. "I believe those teachers who do it well can reach the difficult bar of permanent status." These elite should be paid a higher salary and act as mentors and leaders for the others.

Di Salvo feels California has reached a point of desperate need for tenure reform. "Far too many mediocre teachers are in classrooms with children," he says. "Children without a parent voice have to stay with that teacher, and often it's the children with brown or black skin who don't get the best teacher or who get downright failing teachers."

"I'm sorry to sound depressing," Di Salvo continues. "But tenure the way it is has to go. It's not good for the children."

Where do you stand on the teacher tenure debate? Share your thoughts in comments.

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