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Council finds states weakening teacher tenure

Wednesday - 1/25/2012, 5:19am  ET

By KIMBERLY HEFLING
AP Education Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) - America's public school teachers are seeing their generations-old tenure protections weakened as states seek flexibility to fire teachers who aren't performing. A few states have essentially nullified tenure protections altogether, according to an analysis being released Wednesday by the National Council on Teacher Quality.

The changes are occurring as states replace virtually automatic "satisfactory" teacher evaluations with those linked to teacher performance and base teacher layoffs on performance instead of seniority. Politically powerful teachers' unions are fighting back, arguing the changes lower morale, deny teachers due process, and unfairly target older teachers.

The debate is so intense that in Idaho, for example, state superintendent Tom Luna's truck was spray painted and its tires slashed. An opponent appeared at his mother's house and he was interrupted during a live TV interview by an agitated man. Why? The Idaho legislature last year ended "continuing contracts" _ essentially equivalent to tenure _ for new teachers and said performance, not seniority, would determine layoffs. Other changes include up to $8,000 in annual bonuses given to teachers for good performance, and parent input on evaluations. Opponents gathered enough signatures to put a referendum that would overturn the changes on the November ballot.

Luna says good teachers shouldn't be worried.

"We had a system where it was almost impossible to financially reward great teachers and very difficult to deal with ineffective teachers. If you want an education system that truly puts students first, you have to have both," Luna said.

On Tuesday night, President Barack Obama weighed in on the issue during his State of the Union address. He said schools should be given the resources to keep and reward good teachers along with the flexibility to teach with creativity and to "replace teachers who just aren't helping kids learn."

Tenure protections were created in the early 20th century to protect teachers from arbitrary or discriminatory firings based on factors such as gender, nationality or political beliefs by spelling out rules under which they could be dismissed after a probationary period.

Critics say teachers too often get tenure by just showing up for work _ typically for three years, but sometimes less, and that once they earned it, bad teachers are almost impossible or too expensive to fire. The latest statistics from the National Center for Education Statistics, dating to the 2007-2008 school year, show about 2 percent of teachers dismissed for poor performance, although the numbers vary widely by school district.

The analysis by the National Council on Teacher Quality, a research and policy group that seeks to improve the quality of teaching, documents the shift in laws. In 2009, no state required student performance to be central to whether a teacher is awarded tenure; today, eight states do. The analysis also says four states now want evidence that students are learning before awarding tenure.

Other changes:

_ In Florida, tenure protections were essentially made null and void with policy changes such as eliminating tenure-like benefits altogether for new teachers, but also spelling out requirements under which all teachers with multiple poor evaluations face dismissal.

_ Rhode Island policies say teachers with two years of ineffective evaluations will be dismissed.

_ Colorado and Nevada passed laws saying tenure can be taken away after multiple "ineffective" ratings.

_ Eleven states now require districts to consider teacher performance when deciding who to let go.

_ About half of all states have policies that require classroom effectiveness be considered in teacher evaluations.

_ Florida, Indiana and Michigan adopted policies that require performance to be factored in teacher salaries.

A growing body of research demonstrates the dramatic difference effective teachers can play in student lives, from reducing teenage pregnancies to increasing a student's lifetime earnings. Meanwhile, while controversial, teacher evaluations have evolved in a way that proponents say allows better accounting of students' growth and of factors out of a teacher's control, like attendance.

The Obama administration has helped nudge the changes with its Race to the Top competition, which allowed states to compete for billions of education dollars, and offering states waivers around unpopular proficiency requirements in the No Child Left Behind education law. To participate in either, states have to promise changes such as tying teacher evaluations to performance.

"There's a real shift to saying all kids, especially our most disadvantaged kids, have access to really high quality and effective teachers. And, that's it's not OK for kids to have ... an ineffective teacher year after year," said Sandi Jacobs, vice president of the National Council on Teacher Quality.

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