Lawmakers about to take on teacher tenure
Efforts to have voters decide whether to change teacher tenure in Missouri appear over for this year, but lawmakers in Jefferson City may take a big step this week in achieving the same goal.
Legislation sponsored by state Rep. Scott Dieckhaus, R-Washington, who chairs the House committee on elementary and secondary education, said his bill is likely to come up for a vote in the next few days, and he feels good about passage.
“I’m excited,” he said in a telephone interview Monday. “We’re actually getting quite a bit of support from the other side of the aisle. It’s going to be close, but I think we’ll get the 82 votes we need, and I think it will get strong bipartisan support.”
Basic provisions of the bill include:
- Requiring that teachers and principals be evaluated according to a system that includes growth in student development.
- Removing a provision that says untenured teachers must be laid off before any tenured teachers are laid off.
- Requiring that district may not re-employ any teachers who are judged to be ineffective two years in a row.
- Mandating that each of the state’s public school districts must develop an evaluation system to determine personnel and compensation decisions or use a modeldeveloped by the state.
While some education reform groups in the state are backing the law, teachers unions say it is seeking to solve problems that don’t necessarily exist, in ways that could harm education in Missouri.
“We don’t want bad teachers in the classroom,” said Chris Guinther, president of the Missouri National Education Association. “But the tenure law is currently working very well. Any administrator has five years to decide if teachers should be kept in the classroom or helped out of the profession. That is more than enough time to determine whether teachers should stay in the classroom and be responsible for students every day.”
Petition drive fading away
Earlier this year, an effort began to put on the ballot this fall a proposal that would have abolished tenure altogether, making all teachers at-will employees whose contracts could last no longer than three years. Districts that used seniority as a factor in retaining, promoting or demoting teachers would lose state funds.
Marc Ellinger, who was leading the petition campaign, said Monday that Dieckhaus’ legislation would achieve many of the same goals that his group sought, so he was happy to help move the bill forward.
Besides, he noted, because of court decisions that have stalled the initiative petition process, the required number of signatures to put the proposal before voters in November was not likely to be collected and turned in by this weekend’s deadline.
So, he said, he would be just as happy to get the changes made by lawmakers instead of by voters, though if nothing happens in the General Assembly, he wouldn’t rule out another try next year.
“If the legislature were to act and get something done this session,” Ellinger said, “we wouldn’t have to move forward next year.”
Education changes on the table
Dieckhaus’ bill is one of several pieces of education legislation vying for votes in the last few weeks of the session, which ends on May 18. Topics range from fixing the Turner case to expanding carter schools to adjusting the funding formula for public schools statewide.
So far, legislation similar to Dieckhaus’ has advanced in the Senate, but differences in the two bills would have to be reconciled before the changes could become law.
Dieckhaus – whose career in education includes four years as a high school social studies teachers plus three more years as a substitute teacher and time working at a Sylvan Learning Center – said he has gotten a mixed reaction from teachers when he talks about what the bill would require.
Primarily, he wants to make clear that teacher evaluations would involve more than just individual test scores but would instead focus on how much a teacher’s students have improved from the beginning of a school year until the end.
“Some people look at it as a natural progression,” he said, “but others have some apprehension about it. Candidly, I don’t know that a lot of teachers in the state understand what we’re trying to do with this legislation. They don’t know or understand the difference between achievement and growth. I’m spending time letting people know the difference.”
Backing from school organizations
His efforts have been backed by some education groups working in the state, including StudentsFirst, the organization begun by Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of schools in Washington, D.C.
Lea Crusey, state director of the group, said it began working in Missouri in January and now claims 20,000 members. In a recent survey , it asked whether people supported a system where all school districts would have to evaluate teachers and principles based 50 percent on student growth and 50 percent on other measures such as observation; she said 75 percent supported that procedure, which is what is in Dickhaus’ bill. (See the results of the survey below.)
She said much of the opposition to the legislation comes from misinterpreting what it would require.
“We’re sensitive to the tenure debate,” Crusey said. “Let’s be clear. This bill does not eliminate tenure. Seniority and tenure are not the same thing.
“Sometimes I feel like a lone voice in the Capitol, saying ‘No, no, no, this is not about tenure. This is about teacher quality.’ When we get to the point of awarding tenure, that should be meaningful. Just making it automatic doesn’t reward great performance.”
Crusey said her group is also sensitive to charges that they are outsiders coming into Missouri and addressing issues that aren’t even problems here.
“We have been hearing from our members and from lawmakers here about what changes need to happen,” she said. “We feel our value-added is that we can offer examples of best practices and research from elsewhere in the country to give leaders here a better perspective.”
Also pushing for the bill is the Children’s Education Council of Missouri, which emailed members Monday morning asking for support to “help us protect great teachers and ensure that Missouri students receive the highest quality education.”
Kate Casas, state director of the council, said the problem isn’t necessarily a lot of poorly performing teachers but teachers who are not regularly evaluated based on students’ growth.
“We view that as a significant issue in education,” she said. “I am confident that whatever system we come up with would be a vast improvement over not using performance to judge a student at all.”
She said tenure wouldn’t really be affected.
“Like in any other job,” Casas said, “you would still need cause to get rid of a teacher without opening yourself up to a lawsuit. You still would have to prove a teacher is incompetent or not doing the job before they could be fired, but what you would base it on would change.”
Protecting teachers and students
Not surprisingly, teachers unions in Missouri think Dieckhaus' bill is bad legislation, for several reasons.
They point out that the five years now required in Missouri before public school teachers get tenure is one of the longest periods in the country. And they say they already have worked together to make sure that teachers in the state are evaluated fairly and, if they fall short, are eased out of the classroom.
And they point to an existing law that says “permanent teachers shall be retained on the basis of performance-based evaluations and seniority (however, seniority shall not be controlling) within the field of specialization.”
All those factors, says Guinther of the MNEA, add up to a bill that looks to solve a problem that simply doesn’t exist.
Instead, she said, lawmakers want to remove protection that teachers now have against efforts to get them out of their jobs for illegitimate reasons.
“Tenure does not mean a job for life if a school district is doing what it needs to do to evaluate its staff,” she said. “Tenure means protection.
“Where else might you have a teacher who might be a coach and have to decide that the principal’s son or the school board president’s son is not going to be on the football team? Where else might you have your boss’ child and be responsible for that child all day.”
As far as not letting seniority count when deciding which teachers keep their jobs when layoffs are necessary, Guinther said the current situation makes sense.
“I spoke with a legislator a couple of weeks ago,” she said, “and asked, ‘If you were going in for major surgery, would you look for an experienced doctor with a proven track record, or would you say you want to give that young person a chance?’ Experience has to count.”
She criticized the efforts by StudentsFirst to win support for the Dieckhaus bill, adding:
“Many of our legislators are still seeking information from an out-of-state company that has come in with an unproven record but has money and is run by someone who was chancellor of schools in Washington, D.C.
“But they should be listening to their constituents. Our responsibility right now is to educate the community about what tenure truly does mean, not only for teachers but for students, and to make sure we have a high-quality educator in every classroom.”
Todd Fuller, spokesman for the Missouri State Teachers Association, added that the provisions in the legislation that would let a district use state standards of performance if it did not develop its own harms efforts of Missourians to have a say over their own schools.
“If the state says that everything will work out fine if you do things the way we say you should, that’s not local control,” Fuller said.
“If you base evaluations 50 percent on performance, the problem is they are talking about student performance based on a test. That’s an easy out, the fastest way to see how a student does. It does not look at other things that go into performance, like course work.”
Like Guinther, he wants to make sure that Missouri problem have solutions that come from local lawmakers, not outsiders.
“I really wish they would look at how things work in Missouri and figure out the best way to focus on education in our state rather than concentrate on how things have worked in other states to fix issues here,” Fuller said.
“If we can talk about what is really happening in our state, I think we could really have a substantive debate. Focusing on teacher reform or education reform is one thing, but it should be reform in our state.”