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Rewards, Not Tenure

March 21, 2005

Here's how a California teachers union leader protests efforts to make the state's teachers work more years before getting tenure: Who, she asks, takes a job in which he or she must spend five years without tenure? Uh, most of us, actually.

Mary Bergan, who heads the California Federation of Teachers, points out rightly that too many teachers leave in their first few years. Eliminating tenure would make it harder to attract and keep teachers, she contends. Teachers are said to need tenure as protection from fussy parents and weak principals.

Even if that were true -- and it's not -- the last thing California classrooms need is teachers who enter the profession for a chance at a lifelong sinecure after two years. Thank goodness very few of them do.

Most charter school teachers never get tenure. Yet charter schools get dozens of applications for each opening -- the majority coming from public school teachers happy to give up tenure to gain what they and most teachers trained for: to make a difference in children's lives. They want a say in how that's done, respect and good supervision.

Under the current system, public school principals have a year and a half to decide whether a teacher should be tenured. Once tenure is granted, unions tie principals into procedural knots before they can fire bad teachers. So, as part of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's proposed reforms of public schools, two measures seek to delay tenure. A ballot proposition -- signatures are being gathered -- would make it five years. A constitutional amendment by state Sen. George Runner (R-Lancaster) would double that. Ten-year tenure -- get it?

Both are omnibus measures that crowd too much reform -- everything from merit pay to teacher assignments -- into one package, none of it well thought out. On the subject of tenure, neither goes far enough.

Why have tenure at all? For all the talk about the value of experience, nothing says that after two, five or even 10 years a teacher will magically be great for life. Some of the worst teachers are the 25-year veterans who rebuff new teaching methods as fads and go through the minimal motions as they count their secure years until retirement.

Any teacher, even a new one, should have basic job protections that both reform proposals omit in their zeal to blame teachers for all educational failures. Teachers should be shielded from abusive parents and from repercussions for speaking their minds at school board meetings. Their jobs should depend on fair measurements of how well their students learn. Low-performing teachers should get training. There should be an objective appeals process. Instead of tenure, they need some of the rewards their charter school brethren get: better-trained principals and more voice in campus decisions.

The number of bad teachers is low. But the damage they inflict on students and the morale of their peers is disproportionately high. Children can be set back a year and never catch up, or get the lifelong impression that they are "no good at math." No one should have a secure position from which to continue doing that. The state's 40-year history of tenure is as outmoded as whole language reading instruction.

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