The Michigan House-approved legislation making it harder to achieve tenure is based on established principals of accountability and service. More than making it easier to get rid of ineffective teachers easier, it liberates them from restrictive union dictates and puts them on a path to free agency.
In a nutshelll, the package of bills is intended to address the current crisis in education with radical but necessary reforms. It extends the time to achieve tenure from four to five years, strips tenure from ineffective teachers, limits how seniority is applied when issuing layoffs and removes provisions under which teachers can only be fired for “reasonable and just cause.”
Although they carve a sensible and clear path to reform, teacher unions contend these modifications are a corruption of tenure laws that exist to protect teachers from being fired for “unfounded” reasons. In practice, though, tenure protects teachers against ever being terminated.
There is no substitute for good teachers. But when we look at the “quality” of some teachers, we find too many that don’t make the grade. School administrations can’t terminate incompetents because tenure laws have made it virtually impossible to discipline or even transfer those involved in misconduct or poor performance. Boards of education would rather buyout bad teachers rather than take on the complex and time-consuming tenure labyrinth.
The pending legislation would give desperate schools a bit more freedom to hire the best and fire the worst teachers. Negotiated contracts would remain in place and be more than enough protection against arbitrary acts of administrators.
It also allows for improved evaluations based in part on teachers’ effectiveness in advancing student achievement. Every opportunity should be provided for them to improve, but those not prepared for the challenges of the classroom, or who represent poor role models for two consecutive years, could be removed from tenure and placed back on probation, or encouraged to seek a more suitable job.
Amendments to teacher certification are timely as well. Certifications tend to judge teachers by what college courses they took, not by what they know and how well they can communicate that knowledge. Relaxing certification rules would make it easier to employ people with specialties in math, computer and hard sciences, or to accommodate curriculums offered in charter or schools of choice.
Merit pay, also opposed by unions, could be a catalyst for implementation of teacher free agency, particularly if coupled with giving them greater responsibility in determining curriculum, discipline, work rules, budgets and teaching methods. Teachers would then be expected to keep up-to-date (in-service training) at their own expense. Failure to do so would mean less opportunity for advancement.
Teacher union resistance is predictable. Union officials are duty-bound to act in the interest of all of their members. But without changes in the rules of hiring, training, pay and retention there is little incentive for some of them to do a good job. This solidarity with underperforming classroom instructors corresponds with a growing decline in teacher accountability and professionalism.
Good teachers will view these changes as liberating them from a system that offers few incentives or rewards beyond what the contract provides. Step-increases, after all, are automatic or based on the number of degrees a teacher achieves rather than ability and accomplishment.
Granting teachers free agency would let the best test the market, peddle their talents to the highest bidder and be paid on the basis of his or her talents. Competition would separate the good from the bad. More importantly, the proposed changes to the tenure law, coupled with other reforms, shift the debate from what’s good for teachers to what’s best for children.