By Collin Hitt, Director of Education Policy
Good schools are filled with children who learn from good teachers. Bad schools are filled with children, too, but they’re often staffed by adults who aren’t doing their jobs. Illinois policy does little to improve the performance of current teachers, and even less to usher out those who show little promise of ever teaching well.
That might soon change. Lawmakers are discussing legislation that would do away with lifetime tenure guarantees. Teacher tenure would instead be renewed every two years based on frequent, rigorous evaluations. The proposal is overdue, and some are guessing that it’s on a political fast track toward passage.
It’s important to know about today’s current system of teacher tenure. Effectively, new teachers are offered tenure after three years on the job unless there are serious concerns about their work. After that, districts face a certain, protracted legal challenge to any attempt to dismiss a tenured teacher. Thus, official evaluations have so little impact on job security that most principals don’t conduct them seriously.
The New Teacher Project published a groundbreaking study of teacher evaluations in Chicago, Rockford and Elgin. Most people know that these are districts with significant troubles. Together they have graduation rates in the 50s and low test scores, especially for poor students.
The New Teacher Project reviewed 41,174 teacher evaluations from those districts, given between the 2004 and 2008 school years. Fewer than one-half of 1 percent of all teachers received an “Unsatisfactory” rating, despite the well documented shortcomings of the schools themselves. Moreover, teacher evaluations included little or no student testing data.
Teacher evaluations are not being credibly used.
It is worth noting that, thanks to some new policies passed earlier this year, evaluations will now include student data. But in practice those new evaluations will not be used to decide whether teachers are promoted, better compensated, or replaced.
So, without tenure reform, the first of two vicious cycles will continue. Bad policy leads to bad practices that are then cited to justify that same bad policy.
In a nutshell: Today, teacher evaluations are not used to inform personnel decisions. Therefore, on balance, they are not conducted with earnest. Therefore, they lack accurate information. Therefore, as poor meters of quality, they have no business being used to inform school-level policy. Therefore, they cannot be used to inform personnel decisions.
That brings us to a second vicious cycle. Principals often know which teachers need to be replaced — but tenure laws make the process so burdensome and expensive and bureaucratic that formal action is simply not feasible, efficient or effective.
Again, we have research from Illinois. The University of Chicago’s Dr. Timothy Knowles, a senior official at the school’s Urban Education Institute, wrote the following in an essay this summer:
“Teacher tenure creates perverse practices in schools across Chicago. In interviews with 40 principals, 37 admitted to using some type of harassing supervision — cajoling, pressuring or threatening — to get teachers to leave in order to circumvent the byzantine removal process mandated by the union contract… This pathological status quo feeds upon itself: The more difficult it is for principals to address underperformance, the more likely they are to use informal methods to do so. This fuels labor’s argument that management is capricious, strengthening their case for increased employment protection.”
School management should do its business above board, formally. Transparency is vital. The tenure reforms now proposed would finally allow that to happen.
Illinois has an opportunity to be a national leader in this respect. Everyone has heard the statistics that our state’s academic results have largely remained flat over the last decade. But stagnation has not been the rule everywhere. In fact, one state stands above all others in improving education for its poorest students and children of color: Florida.
That state has pioneered nearly a dozen groundbreaking reforms. One thing they haven’t yet done is reform tenure. This spring, the Florida legislature is poised to pass, and its new governor poised to sign, teacher evaluation and tenure reforms similar to those proposed in Illinois.
The lesson from Florida is not that other reforms can improve results, so we should ignore tenure reform and try something else. Nor should we think that Florida is seeking to replace their other, successful policies — tenure reform is not a silver bullet. Simply put, policy-makers in a successful state like Florida recognize that there is no substitute for teacher tenure reform.
Illinois can beat Florida to the punch when the legislature reconvenes after the New Year. Some have argued that the fight for tenure reform is moving too quickly in Illinois. But ask a parent whose child is in a classroom year after year with an ineffective teacher, how much longer can they afford to wait?
Collin Hitt is director of education policy at the Illinois Policy Institute. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read the article from the State Journal-Register here.