Teacher Tenure and the Need for a Culture of Merit

Making it easier to get rid of bad teachers is worthwhile. But it's equally important to reward the good ones.
by | July 11, 2014

A Los Angeles County judge's ruling last month that tenure and several other state laws governing the hiring and firing of teachers run afoul of the state constitution was a step in the right direction. But governments have more to do if they hope to attract the teaching force our country needs.

In his ruling, Judge Rolf M. Treu found that 1 to 3 percent of California's teachers -- between 2,750 and 8,250 in all -- are "grossly ineffective" and that a single year with such a teacher costs students $1.4 million in lifetime earnings per classroom. The judge went on to note that attempting to fire such a teacher can take as long as a decade and cost between $50,000 and $450,000. That's because of the higher level of job protection that California teachers receive once they are granted tenure after a probationary period of less than two years.

Opponents of the ruling say it will limit academic freedom and serve as a disincentive to innovation. Perhaps that was true when teacher tenure was introduced in Massachusetts in 1886. But back then few could have envisioned the twin layers of union and civil-service protections that most of the country's teachers currently enjoy.

Perhaps the best response to Treu's ruling came from Ben Smith, a California father of five who works in the technology industry. "We're big believers in a meritocracy," he told CNN. "Having an education system that's counter to that -- where time and place is rewarded versus performance -- is not something that's consistent with the way we look at the world."

But Smith didn't stop there. He went on to address the other important piece of the puzzle: compensation. "People have to be rewarded for innovation, rewarded for efforts to make the classroom a better environment," he said. "We can't just remove [job] security and don't do anything else."

In North Carolina, the state Senate attempted earlier this year to combine the tenure and compensation issues by proposing to grant 11 percent raises to teachers willing to give up tenure. The problem is that the plan came on the heels of five years in which teachers had received just a single raise of 1.2 percent.

That's part of the reason that between 2006 and 2012 North Carolina went from 24th in the country in teacher pay to 46th. As Gov. Pat McCrory said, "I want a long-term plan to make [teaching] more than a career stop." Ranking 46th in the nation in teacher pay won't do the job.

Even if Judge Treu's ruling is upheld on appeal, its effect in other states may be limited. California's probationary period of less than two years is unusual; 32 states have a three-year period before teachers are evaluated for tenure, and nine wait four to five years.

The bottom line is that teaching is another example of the need to create a culture of merit in the public sector. By eliminating tenure and the duplicative job protections it creates, and combining that with dramatically higher compensation for the best teachers, state and local governments would be better able to attract the best and brightest to teaching. Public-school students, good teachers, parents, taxpayers and the U.S. economy would all benefit from that.

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