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An average grade on tenure reform

A new Florida law deserves credit for tackling the tenure problem, but it's adversarial and puts far too much emphasis on test scores to determine pay, layoffs and teaching assignments.

March 31, 2011

This is an era of revolt in public education, against pay, tenure and work rules that reward teacher experience over teacher accomplishments.

Last week, Florida landed a direct hit in that revolt, with a new law that removes tenure protections for all teachers hired from now on and that bases half of each teacher's evaluation on student test scores. Those evaluations will determine pay, firing, layoffs and teaching assignments. Florida deserves credit for breaking through the inertia that stalls most attempts to change the way personnel decisions are made in schools. It's more than California has managed; the Legislature has resisted even the mildest tenure reforms.

Yet we don't hope to repeat the Florida experience here, and we're not fans of the current "It's all the teachers' fault" thinking. The Florida law leaves teachers without protection against the possibility of capricious termination or being laid off simply because they make more money. Though it holds teachers responsible for how their students score, it does little to hold administrators and politicians accountable for how well teachers are mentored and trained. We can't fire our way to excellent schools.

John Deasy, who takes over in April as superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, will need a more assertive plan for reform than state leaders have thus far been willing to enact, but a more nuanced and less adversarial one than Florida's. Simply put, student test scores have a place in teacher evaluations, but to say that half of everything teachers accomplish is reflected in those scores is disproportionate.

As for tenure, we have never supported it for public school teachers. There is no valid reason why teachers should be virtually guaranteed employment after a couple of years on the job. On the other hand, teachers do need to be able to speak out without fear of retribution, and well-paid teachers should be protected from being fired or laid off solely so that a school can save money. Tenure should be eliminated, but it should be replaced by appeals panels — more balanced ones than California now has, which are heavily tilted toward the teachers' side — that can reverse wrongful terminations.

Too many silver-bullet reforms have been aimed at public education — especially at teachers — and fallen short. Yet the anti-reform argument — that disadvantaged youngsters fail because neither they nor their parents care about education — also has been proved wrong by inspirational teachers who have wrought extraordinary changes. Improving schools requires shedding magical thinking in favor of thoughtfulness, willingness to assess new approaches and unremitting hard work.

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