Teacher Tenure

Jun 10, 2011

Everybody whose life has been at all successful has had at least one really good teacher. But most people have had some really bad teachers too. In high school, I had an algebra teacher during the last hour of the day who gave out assignments and promptly left for the racetrack. As far as I know, he was never fired.

On the other hand, there are many good teachers. I was married to one whose students topped the state, year after year, in their performance on the AP history exam. I don’t think she ever worked less than 70 hours a week.

My dreadful algebra teacher probably managed to get away with what he did in large part because he had tenure. That doesn’t mean tenure is a bad thing. It was established to prevent teachers from arbitrary or capricious firing. There was a time when women teachers could be discharged for getting married or pregnant, and there are still places where reactionary school boards might want to fire people for teaching evolution or climate change.

The Michigan Legislature is about to make what are being billed as major changes in teacher tenure in this state. Yesterday, the state house passed a bill that would mean it would take teachers five years to get tenure, a year longer than it does now.

During that five-year probationary period, teachers could be fired for any reason. There would be yearly evaluations, and any teacher rated as ineffective two years in a row would have to be fired.

Teachers who already have tenure, but who are rated as being subpar for two straight years, would also have to return to a probationary period, during which they could be fired at will.

As you might expect, teachers’ union groups and their allies in the legislature are screaming bloody murder. Those supporting the bill say it isn’t anti-teacher. They say it is about making sure public schools are providing quality education. They argue that while tenure may once have been necessary to preserve academic freedom, today it is merely a lifetime guarantee of employment.

Most lawmakers in the House voted for or against this bill along partisan lines. One of the exceptions, however, was Tim Melton, a Democrat from Auburn Hills. He supported it, noting that even President Obama has argued that bad teachers should be removed and good teachers rewarded.

This bill now moves to the senate, where I hope members ask some important questions, like: Who will do the evaluating? What are the criteria for determining whether a teacher is “effective?”

What does it mean when it says that during the probationary period, teachers can be dismissed for “any reason?” Could that include teaching evolution in Ottawa County, or being a Republican in the city of Detroit? What about evaluating administrators as well?

And finally, if we are going to pass new sanctions against bad teachers, where are the rewards for the really good ones?

What’s most important is that our lawmakers don’t lose sight of the real goal, which is not money or tenure but education itself.

We need better schools in order to give our kids a chance to compete for the jobs of the future. Remembering that might be the most important reform of all.