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Teaching without Tenure
CTA protecting incompetence...
[Lance T. Izumi] 9/21/05

The California Teachers Association (CTA) has announced it will spend $5 million to fight Governor Schwarzenegger’s ballot measure to lengthen the probationary period for teacher tenure. The CTA claims that reforming tenure policies won’t improve education. The hard evidence on teachers and tenure does not support the CTA or its allies.

Data on improved performance at some charter schools strongly suggest that the improvement is due, in part, to the fact that teachers at these schools receive no tenure at all.

Lance T. Izumi
[Courtesty of Pacific Research Institute]

Lance Izumi is Director of Education Studies for the Pacific Research Institute and
Senior Fellow in California Studies. He is a leading expert in education policy and the author of several major PRI studies. [go to Izumi index]

Under the governor’s initiative, the current two-year probation period for beginning teachers would be extended to five years. While CTA pretends that the governor’s proposal presages the end of the world, the reality at the Fenton Avenue charter school in Los Angeles is that teachers – like most working Americans – are happy without tenure and perform very well. As profiled in the Pacific Research Institute’s recently released book, Free to Learn: Lessons from Model Charter Schools, Fenton is not part of the local teacher union’s collective bargaining agreement. Teachers are retained on the basis of performance evaluations – chief among them the well-being of the children in their charge – and not on mere years of seniority.

When it was still a standard public school, Fenton had a tenure system which protected many incompetent teachers. Irene Sumida, Fenton’s director of instruction, cites one veteran teacher who had her students spend most of their time doing crafts such as making Snoopy dogs out of styrofoam cups. Worse, this teacher was one of the school’s resource specialists.

"I was appalled," says Sumida, "She was old and crabby and she had no skill whatsoever: no classroom management [skills, and] she had no idea how to teach anything except handwriting. She was a very strong union person and I’m sure that somewhere along the line someone realized that she was not a teacher. That was the caliber of a lot of the teaching for a lot of the teachers."

Things changed dramatically in 1993 after Fenton became a charter school, got rid of tenure, and instituted a rigorous and comprehensive teacher evaluation system. The system is based on Charlotte Danielson’s work on effective practices which identifies four areas of good teaching:

• Planning and preparation
• Classroom environment
• Professional responsibilities
• Instruction

Sumida writes formal teacher evaluations based on these four areas. For a teacher to receive a satisfactory evaluation, he or she cannot receive an unsatisfactory rating in any one of them.

Failing teachers receive assistance for a year. If a teacher improves to the point where he or she is satisfactory in all areas, then that teacher is retained. "If they don’t improve at all,” Sumida says, “they’re terminated no matter how many years of experience they have."

Out of Fenton’s 79 teachers, only seven from the school’s pre-charter days remain.

The result has been a total change in the school’s culture. According to Sumida, " the high standards and expectations weren’t just words on paper, they are things that are going to be put in place here." Fenton’s students have benefited from this new culture of performance. Test scores regularly exceed the growth targets set for the school by the state.

"I think that in every school, excellent teachers are the key," says Sumida. Fenton Avenue charter school demonstrates that when done correctly, tenure reform should be encouraged rather than feared. CRO

copyright 2005 Pacific Research Institute



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