The recent finding that California tenure laws violate students’ constitutional rights to an education and should be struck down has sparked a debate that never should have been dormant. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said the decision ensures, “all students, regardless of zip code, family income or skin color will receive a quality education — starting with an effective teacher.” This statement was based on the interpretation that under-performing teachers are shuttled to minority and low-income schools. Secretary Duncan also supports job security for good teachers and believes that the focus during staffing should be on performance, not seniority.
Eliminating tenure is an important step along the road, but that road is going to be very bumpy unless acceptable alternatives are put forth. As a retired principal in Canada, where we don’t have tenure in our public schools but do have rigorous teacher evaluation processes in place, I offer these suggestions:
- Work with teacher unions to develop processes that ensure quality teachers in every classroom.
- Develop a broad definition of effective teaching as well as specific performance criteria. Engage unions in the development of these criteria. Encourage union support for peer and self-evaluation as part of the overall evaluation process.
- Develop an evaluation system that identifies under-performing teachers, provides them support to change and requires them to leave their position if growth targets have not been met after a specified time.
- Develop a growth-oriented evaluation system that requires all teachers to set goals and monitor progress in consultation with the principal. Empower teachers to be the best they can be.
- Empower and require principals to evaluate their staff against relevant performance indicators and goals.
- Honor the fact that the principal’s most important job is developing the best possible teaching staff. Significant time must be allocated to do so.
- Fund schools on a differentiated basis. Ensure that schools serving at-risk students and communities receive optimal funding. Create schools in these communities that attract the best teachers. Although the personal rewards for teachers changing lives in these schools are great, there should be additional concrete rewards. These might be monetary or related to infrastructure. Teachers would be attracted to these schools if they were funded to allow a lower teacher-student ratio; had more special-education support; had a community health model which included social workers, psychologists and health care professionals; involved police officers in a positive, supportive manner, etc.
- Consider working with organizations that are leaders in quality. It’s one thing to say we want quality teachers in every classroom and another to understand not only what that means but also the importance of having those teachers in quality classrooms, quality schools and quality school districts. Performance indicators for all levels of our education system have been defined by The Baldridge Performance Excellence Program in the U.S. and by Excellence Canada. As a principal, I led my inner-city school to receive the Canada Order of Excellence Award. The process took several years and provided a much-needed blueprint for change.
- Understand that quality education is the result of an alignment of quality processes, programs and, most importantly, people. Tenure, as it exists today, does not play a role in any of these three components.
- Shift accountability processes from a focus on quality control to a focus on quality assurance. Current processes tend to be summative rather than formative. Quality should be built into teacher and student evaluation processes. The focus should be on continuous improvement.
Carol Hunter is an award-winning, retired elementary-school principal and author of “Real Leadership Real Change.” She is president of Impact Leadership, a consulting company focused on bringing real change to public education.