Sunday, May 30, 2010

Teacher tenure: Has it outlived its usefulness? No

It's needed as much today as it was 101
years ago


Any discussion of teacher tenure in New Jersey
needs to begin with a definition of what it isn't:
Tenure is not a job for life.

That will come as a surprise to many. Tenure
detractors have spent a great deal of effort painting
it as a system designed to protect bad teachers and
make it impossible for administrators to do their
jobs. That caricature, however, is simply untrue.
Tenure is nothing more than a guarantee of due
process to ensure a teacher is not dismissed for
personal or political reasons. It is designed to
protect teachers from the whims of administrators
and to protect the public from politicians who might
not be able to resist the temptation to turn 120,000
teaching jobs into a massive new patronage system
— hardly what New Jersey needs.

Those are exac tly the reasons New Jersey passed the
nation's first tenure law in 1909. Legislators then
understood that the teaching profession was too
important to be left unprotected. By giving teachers
the freedom to do their work without fear of political
interference, they helped create a profession where
talented people were willing to commit their lives to
the cause of education.

And it worked. By any measure, New Jersey has built
one of the finest public education systems in the
nation. Our students outshine their peers across the
country in every subject. That success is
attributable in large measure to the quality of their

So what is tenure, if not a job for life? Simply put, it
is a fair dismissal process that requires a district to
demonstrate that a teacher is not fit to do the job.
New Jersey law says that a tenured teacher can be
dismissed for "inefficiency, incapacity, conduct
unbecoming, or other just cause." It is the district's
responsibility to demonstrate that a teacher falls
into one of those categories if it wishes to remove a
tenured teacher.

Critics of tenure point out that tenure dismissals are
rare, but neglect to mention that a formal tenure
challenge is only one way to dismiss a teacher, and
is usual ly used as a last resort.

Before any teacher earns tenure, he or she must
successfully complete three full years of
employment — with at least four evaluations in each
of those years — and begin a fourth year. At any
time during that three-year probationary period, a
district can remove a teacher without even giving a
reason. Three years and 12 evaluations should give
a district ample time and information to determine if
a teacher has the right stuff to succeed in the

Teaching is a difficult job that isn't for everyone,
an d not everyone makes it through the probationary

Those who earn tenure have demonstrated their
talent and ability for three successive years. When a
district brings a teacher back for a fourth year, that
district is saying, in essence, "We've seen your work
and we want you to make a career here with us." In
nearly every case, that is a good partnership that
benefits the district, the teacher and, especially, the

In the rare cases where problems arise that cannot
be mutually resolved, the tenure law provides
districts a way to deal with the issue. If the district
can document a genuine problem with a teacher's
performance or behavior, it can remove that teacher

under the tenure law.

In 1998, New Jersey's tenure law was significantly
streamlined in order to cut down on both the time
and expense involved in tenure hearings. NJEA
supported the changes because we understand that
protracted disputes do not benefit anyone. The key
is to ensure a fair resolution, and our current tenure
laws do that.

Even streamlined, the tenure process may sometimes
be time consuming, but the alternative is
unthinkable. Imagine a system where the teaching
ranks turned over every time a new mayor came into
office with a band of supporters who needed jobs.
Or where a teacher had to wonder whether it was
safe to give the son of an influential local official the
"C" he earned instead of the "A" his father wanted
him to get.

Tenure doesn't just protect teachers. It protects all
of us.

Barbara Keshishian is president of the New Jersey
Education Association.

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