Monday, February 20, 2012

Teacher Tenure Refrom Plans Stir Debate

Linda Conner Lambeck

Published 01:00 a.m., Sunday, February 19th

Of the more than 53,000 public school educators in Connecticut, about 40 with tenure were dismissed during the last two years, according to data from the state Department of Education obtained by Hearst Connecticut Newspapers.

That termination rate ­-- less than one-tenth of 1 percent -- is evidence to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and critics of the teacher tenure system that it's too easy to get and almost impossible to take away. No other occupation in today's hyper-competitive economy enjoys such impregnable job security, they say.

"And to earn that tenure -- that job security -- in today's system, basically the only thing you have to do is show up for four years," Malloy said in his speech to the Legislature on the session's opening day. "Do that, and tenure is yours."

Malloy, as part of his multi-pronged effort to improve public education and erase the state's highest-in-the nation achievement gap, wants to change that. Noting that 31 other states, including New York, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, have enacted tenure reform laws in the past three years, Malloy wants teachers to earn tenure -- not just once but every five years by proving themselves effective in the classroom.

His call to strip veteran teachers of "job security" if their performance slips has caused an uproar. Some teachers said they were flabbergasted and appalled at the governor's remark that earning tenure simply requires showing up for work.

"Why didn't someone tell me that," said Kristen Record when she heard the comment. A physics teacher at Bunnell High School, in Stratford, and 2011 Connecticut Teacher of the Year, Record said she was shocked to hear the governor imply tenure could be earned so easily.

"Being a beginning teacher is incredibly hard work and prior to achieving tenure, I was constantly evaluated by my administrators to make sure I was effective in the classroom," she said. "If someone isn't being effective during those first years, then they simply aren't hired back. Unfortunately, the governor's speech only added to the misunderstandings the general public has about teacher tenure."

Others argue that teachers should have no more job security than anyone in the private sector has -- perhaps less, considering children are involved.

"All workers -- not just those who work in the world of education -- need to understand that their continued employment with any firm or organization must have some link to their performance on the job," said Kathy Bonetti, president of the Milford PTA Council. Bonetti said she supports a plan that would include a combination of parental, administrative, and student input regarding a teacher's work, as well as some connection to the performance of students.

Gwen Samuel, founder of the Connecticut Parent Union, a parent advocacy group, agreed. "Good teaching has to trump seniority," she said. "I can say the majority of teachers in my children's schools have been good, but a couple, it's like why are you even here."

HOW THE SYSTEM WORKS

Under current Connecticut tenure laws, a district superintendent has the discretion to decline to renew the contracts of beginning teachers. After four years, teachers have tenure, which means they can be dismissed if they are deemed inefficient or incompetent based on evaluations; break school board rules; are no longer able to do their job; are guilty of moral misconduct; or their position is eliminated. Tenured teachers can appeal dismissal, which triggers a series of hearings that can take up to 120 days, a time frame all seem to agree is too long.

Local school boards report data to the State Department of Education when an educator leaves his or her position, and provide a reason for the separation of service.

In the 2009-10 school year, 4,330 educators (teachers and administrators) left their positions, out of a total active workforce of 52,300. Of these, only 53 educators statewide were terminated, representing about 1 percent of all separations from service and 0.1 percent of the total workforce.

Although districts do not report which of these terminations are of tenured staff, 27 of the 53 terminated educators had more than four years of experience. Typically, educators with more than four full years of consecutive satisfactory experience for the same district are tenured.

In the 2010-11 school year, 4,230 educators left their position, for a variety of reasons, out of a total active staff count of 53,200. Twenty-two educators were terminated, representing about 0.5 percent of all separations from service and 0.04 percent of the total workforce. Of these 22 educators, 12 had more than four years of experience, or tenure.

Malloy's plan, as outlined in the middle of his 163-page education reform bill, would shorten the probationary period for teachers then renew tenure when a teacher had no fewer than three proficient or exemplary evaluations during a five year period. For teachers who struggle, the plan calls for districts to provide additional support and training.

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