Monday, December 5, 2011

Lies, Damn Lies, and the Truth About Teacher Tenure

Have you heard the latest story about teachers and tenure? No? It goes like this. A teacher was given stellar observations for two and a half years. In the spring of their third year, the principal wrote a savagely negative review of one of the teacher's lessons because the teacher made comments about how cold their room was during the winter, and the children were complaining that it was difficult to concentrate. Parents called the principal to complain. The principal felt embarrassed and wrote a negative evaluation. The teacher never received tenure.

Never heard that one?

How about this one? A student accused a tenured teacher of using inappropriate language in the classroom. The principal didn't get along with this teacher, an officer in the local teacher's association, and made it abundantly clear that all they needed was an excuse to cause the teacher trouble. After a cursory investigation, the principal recommended that the teacher lose their salary increment for the next year because teachers shouldn't use that kind of language in front of students. Two months later, the student admitted lying about the incident because they were upset with a grade they earned in the teacher's class. The teacher was given back the salary increase that was taken from them.

Chances are good that you never heard that story either.

Why do I mention these incidents, both of which actually occurred? Because they illustrate the difference between a teacher having fair dismissal rights and one that does not. They also illustrate the lies and misinformation floating around about what tenure actually means in practice.

Nowhere is this in more vivid view than Tom Moran's piece in Sunday's Newark Star-Ledger. It's essentially a response to an article by Janine Walker Caffrey, the Superintendent of Schools in Perth Amboy, NJ. Both of these writings sound the alarm bells that the public loves to hear. From Moran:

Janine Caffrey, the schools superintendent in Perth Amboy, could hardly believe the teacher was so incompetent.

The kids didn’t have needed textbooks. There was no lesson plan. Other teachers complained that students were learning nothing. And when the principal demanded changes, the teacher wouldn’t budge.

So Caffrey, a spark plug of energy, left her sparsely furnished office to meet the teacher for a showdown, ready to whap some sense into this person once and for all.

But it didn’t work out that way.

“This teacher looked me in the eye and said, ‘I won’t do it.’ Just an outright refusal. And this has happened to multiple people before me. We’ve done multiple corrective action plans, and it’s not achieving any results.”

So the teacher won the showdown and is still standing in front of a classroom full of kids every day, supremely secure in defiance.

Only one word can explain this insanity: tenure.

It certainly sounds horrible, and if the story is true, that teacher should not be teaching in the public schools. The real problem is not tenure, though. It's buried deep in Morans' article and it goes like this: 

To be fair, districts share some of the blame as well. Tenure rules might be crazy, but it is possible to get rid of the worst teachers if the district builds a solid case with a paper trail. In the case of the refusenik teacher, Perth Amboy failed to do that. The teacher had won satisfactory evaluations in the past, as nearly all teachers do.

The problem, my friends, is that the principal was not doing their job. There's no sharing here. If principals are not building cases or informing the teacher's association representatives that a teacher is a problem, or is having a problem, then the principal is at fault. All on their own. And if the principal or supervisor is routinely giving positive reviews to ineffective or bad teachers, they need to stop. I don't know where Moran gets his "nearly all teachers" receive satisfactory evaluations data. My guess is that he's simply repeating what he's heard. It's a great story, but he needs to support his statements with facts.

Why is this all on the administration and not the teacher's union? Because the NJEA has nothing to do with whether a teacher earns tenure. The legislature wrote and passed the tenure laws and school administrators are responsible for implementing them.

Tenure is not a job for life. It's a guarantee that a teacher cannot be fired for frivolous, personal, vindictive reasons by administrators who don't like them or need to install a relative in their place.

Tenure is a requirement that a teacher who has earned it is confronted by evidence of misdeed, misconduct or behavior that puts children at risk.

Tenure is earned after working, with positive recommendations by the Superintendent, Principal and, if necessary, Department Supervisor, for three years in the same school district. It shouldn't be handed out like candy at Halloween, but sometimes it is. And it's not the teacher's fault. The responsibility is all on the administrator. And if Superintendents like Janine Caffrey do not build a case, then a bad teacher can only be removed by going through the process, which Moran cites in a nifty chart in his article.

Moran and Caffrey also bring up how much it costs to discipline or fire a teacher who has earned tenure. The NJEA has offered a tenure reform plan that would streamline the process so it would take 90 days at most, as opposed to the possible two plus years it takes now, to settle cases. That would help, but it would do nothing to solve the problem of administrators doling out good reviews to ineffective or bad teachers.

So what to do?

How about having principals and supervisors observe teachers 8 times per year for the first three years (or four years as the NJEA plan proposes) and 6 times a year once they've earned tenure? That would create a tremendous amount of data by which a teacher could be evaluated before and after they've earned tenure. And since the overwhelming majority of teachers who do earn tenure deserve it and are members of the best teaching staff in the country as measured by national test scores, observing them a few more times might catch the few who would be problems down the road. Another good idea would be to have a teacher's first year be a residency year, where someone new to the profession could receive help from a qualified mentor. This mentoring could then continue for the next 3 years.

One other issue also rears its head when people discuss tenure, and that's the question of why teachers have it and other professions don't. My answer is that other professions should have some kind of objective job protection. The arguments against public workers by governors such as Chris Christie, Scott Walker and John Kasich revolve around the idea that since private sector workers don't have these benefits, then no workers should have them. They seem to be more concerned with breaking the unions than they do with actually improving education.

That's backwards.

The decline of unions has meant that workers are more and more at the mercy of management and it's time that we changed that conversation. Terrible stories, such as the ones in Moran's article only illustrate one side of the debate. If school management would all do their jobs in an honest, forthright way, we could more readily dismiss ineffective teachers. And that would be a positive step forward for everyone.

Take another positive step forward and visit us at


  1. Hi Mr. Grundfest,
    I was a student at MHS when you were there, but never had you as a teacher, though my siblings did. Now, I am an English teacher in a school with very similar demographics to MHS, and I cannot say how much I agree with your assessment. None of us WANTS to work with ineffective teachers- they give us all a bad name (and apparently already have). Come in to see me three days a week!.....
    But DON'T censure me because I might not put on a "dog and pony show," or the kids are "just taking a quiz." That's a realistic classroom. The administration needs to understand that- despite certain initiatives that require every day to be a role-playing "authentic" performance task. Also do not question my credibility or ability based on the rantings of an irate parent.
    Sure- get rid of tenure! I'm a good teacher and I know it. Get rid of those that view teaching as a sinecure with newspaper-reading time and summers off. But it has to go both ways. Get rid of tenure, but don't let the good ones also fall victim to the whims of the pampered public.

  2. Thanks for writing this

  3. I agree with your article. Much of the so-called reform focuses on teachers and what goes on in the classrooms. My big question throughout this mess is who is evaluating the adminstrators? Just because some knucklehead earned a supervisor's certificate, how does that make them qualified to evaluate a veteran teacher? Why aren't administrators around NJ held responsible for the mess many districts are in?

  4. Mr. Grundfest,
    Thank you for writing such a clear and sensible article about the public's misconception about tenure. I have also suspected that Tom Moran was a lite-weight journalist who did not thoroughly research his articles. Now I am sure of it. Too bad there is not a way to get the real story out there. Unfortunately, an editorial would only get buried on the editorial page.
    Thanks again,
    NJ Teacher

  5. Thanks. Well said and well researched. Please send this to the Governor and all those drinking the Kool -Aid believing that every teacher in NJ is bad and deserves to go. Another point is that many teachers never make it to tenure - the average stay for a new teacher is three years.

  6. Thank you all for your comments. I'm glad you found the article interesting, and I am heartened that you agree with my points. Who is watching the administrators, indeed. I've worked for some good ones, but there are more ineffective ones that could wreck a good teacher's career. Being an administrator is a self-selecting decision, which is the biggest problem.

    For the MHS graduate, we obviously succeeded in educating someone with a keen analytical mind. Keep up the good work.

  7. NJSMART is now keeping track of teachers matched with student test scores. Don't think for one second that won't be used as part of the "paper trail".

  8. I enjoy the duality of the commentary. Teachers aren't working but it is the fault of the administration. This is the old admin v. teacher article. It has been written by teachers 100 times over and dictated daily in faculty rooms all over the country. The bottom line is if everyone is doing their job everyday, then there is no article and tenure remains a good thing for everyone.

    Everyone should be working hard. There is no excuse for anything less.

  9. How about staff reviewing/rating administration? In corporate they call that "360 [degree] reviews".

  10. In the 1980s, I taught in a public school that used Peer Observation. (Please note, this was only available to teachers who already had 5 or more yrs of experience.) The teacher would meet with 3 - 5 peers, 1 of whom was trained in 'administrative' evaluation. The teacher would ask for advice in areas where he wanted to improve. 'Gotcha' was replaced by highly motivational advice for improving teacher performance and classroom management. And teachers were policing their own ranks. THAT's how we should evaluate our dedicated professional educators. Thank you.

  11. Fred:

    That sounds like a great system. The NJEA plan has peer evaluation in it.

  12. Bob...TENURE means nothing, especially in this day and age. Yes, it may give you due process , however, if they want you out , you are out. I was a tenured teacher, did my job, never made trouble. Administrators were clueless to what I did. They gave me reduction in force (RIF) to part-time. Impossible to make a living, no benefits. It's pretty much an invitation for a teacher to get-out. From that point, they nickel and dimed me, gave me a hard time and pretty much forced me out the door. I resigned. Tenure? I'll never care about it again

  13. Sorry to hear about your experiences. It is true that if the administration wants you gone, they can make serious trouble for you, as you experienced. You should have been able to claim a full time position if one became available after you were RIF'ed. Did one not become available?