Move Beyond the Tenure Debate

California’s ultimate goal should be supporting better educators, not eliminating teacher protections.

By  of US New & World Report Feb. 25, 2016, at 1:30 p.m.

The California Court of Appeals, Second District, hears oral arguments Thursday in Vergara v. California. Decided in the summer of 2014, the judge overseeing the case in the California Superior Court found that California’s tenure and last-in-first-out policy for determining teacher layoffs was unconstitutional. The state has appealed, arguing that these protections for teachers are essential for ensuring that experienced teachers stay in the classroom.

While the appellate decision has yet to be handed down, in an important sense, ‎the conversation hasalready moved on. Today teachers are getting more feedback than at any point in history. Teacher evaluations that use multiple measures of effectiveness are standard in almost every state. Teachers largely view their performance based in part on the impact they have on student learning.

Since 2009, over two-thirds of states have made significant changes to their teacher evaluation systems. Twenty-three states now require that tenure decisions be informed by teacher performance. Nine states– Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Louisiana, New York, Oklahoma and Tennessee – use teacher performance as the most significant criterion for granting teacher tenure.

Policymakers are still refining how to evaluate teachers, but few argue that we shouldn’t attempt to measure teacher effectiveness or that it doesn’t matter. And while states are no longer required to evaluate teachers as a matter of federal policy, there’s little evidence that teachers want to go back to the old way of doing business of “close your door, and good luck to ya.”

‎But let’s be clear: Our collective policy goal shouldn’t be to eliminate teacher protections like last-in-first-out and tenure based on seniority, but rather to render them unnecessary. We should aim to build schools with such high-performing cultures that eliminating incompetence isn’t the most pressing issue, spreading excellence is.

‎As states like New York, Rhode Island and Delaware raise entry standards for teachers, improve teacher supports and increase teacher salaries, they raise the quality of their educator workforce. These places aren’t focused on how to fire their lowest performers, but on how to provide the tools, guidance and motivation to support all of their educators to teach to high standards.

[READ: Education Secretary Arne Duncan Put Students First]

Compensating teachers at professional levels is a critical component of better supporting educators. Teacher salaries in the United States are only 60 percent of those of other U.S. workers with college degrees. Many teachers must supplement their incomes with additional work. Instead, like doctors and engineers, teachers should be paid at levels that reflect the important work they complete.

Through a purposeful strategy over more than a decade, the state of New York raised the average SAT score and college GPA of new teachers and dramatically shrunk the gap between the academic ability of teachers hired by high- and low-poverty schools. New York accomplished these objectives while simultaneously growing the share of minority teachers by 8 percent.

[ALSO: TeachStrong: Education Groups Band Together to Overhaul Teaching Profession]

States like Washington, Tennessee, Oklahoma, New Mexico and others are seeking to raise teacher compensation, too. And while higher compensation isn’t a silver bullet for elevating the teaching profession, combined with other reforms, it can be an effective recruitment and retention strategy.

Soon, the California Court of Appeals will decide Vergara. ‎The decision will determine what factors California schools can use in layoff and tenure decisions. No matter what the court decides, it won’t – and can’t – set up California’s schools to attract and retain exceptionally talented people. ‎Only proactive, purposeful policy can do that.

There is a national movement afoot to promote the policy parameters that will elevate the teaching profession. Called the TeachStrong campaign, this movement is a partnership between unions, reformers, civil rights advocates and thought leaders to change the systems in which teachers are recruited, trained, supported and paid. It aims to enable teachers to meet the dramatically higher expectations of today’s classrooms.

Let’s move beyond the Vergara debate, and start reimagining the systems in which teachers operate in order to allow them to be successful.

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