The Terrible Tenure

Three years ago, my local school district went through dramatic changes that radically altered my views of the public education system.

I was a member of the last class to graduate from the historic Central High School. Over 100 years old and the oldest high school in the city, Central was closed due to decreasing enrollment and decreasing funds in the school district.

The decision to close the school was not made lightly and was not made without protest. Local around-the-clock news coverage surrounded the decision process for over a year, with hundreds of residents and students writing letters to newspapers and representatives, attending school board meetings, holding public debates, and protesting. The “Red Plan” was the name of the plan that would eventually close Central High School, and the words “Red Plan” quickly became part of everyday conversation for both its proponents and opponents. In fact, the Pop Concert my junior year of high school ended with hundreds of music students singing a medley of oldies songs with rewritten lyrics on the theme of the Red Plan. “Stop! In the name of love,” was re-written to “Stop! Don’t sell our school,” and the chorus to “Thriller” was rewritten to “’Cause this is Red Plan, Red Plan fright.” District students, parents, and alumni were very concerned about the possible repercussions of the Red Plan decision – and they were right to be worried.

The year after my graduation, the Red Plan began to unfold. Central closed its doors and the students who had previously attended Central were split down the middle and sent to the two remaining high schools in the district. As a result of the influx of students at the other two schools, class sizes increased and teaching staff decreased. Staff cuts were made and many committed members of the school staff were laid off.

The new New York?

In June of 2014, a judge in Los Angeles “sided with nine students who sued to overturn the state statutes governing teacher hiring and firing, saying they served no compelling purpose and had led to an unfair, nonsensical system that drove excellent new teachers from the classroom too soon while allowing incompetent senior ones to remain.” Following this decision, on July 3, 2014, an education advocacy group filed a lawsuit against New York City on the issue of the city’s teacher tenure system.

Although my school district is much smaller than New York City’s, many of the grievances filed in the New York lawsuit parallel grievances that residents in my local school district have today. There are two main issues listed in the lawsuit that should be discussed.

First is the issue of staff layoffs. In the lawsuit filed against New York City, the plaintiffs argued, “The state requires a quality-blind approach to layoffs that considers only years of service — and completely ignores job performance and the ability to deliver a sound quality education.” This same method was used in Central’s school district when deciding which staff members to lay off, with negative consequences.

The result of using the seniority method in Central’s district was that many great teachers were let go while many not-so-great, and some flat out terrible teachers were retained. Two of my favorite teachers, teachers who positively impacted the lives of numerous students and who helped turn around students’ lives, grades, and outlooks on education, were let go simply because they had less years of experience teaching in the school district. Students attending high school in the school district today do not get the benefit of the positive impact of these teachers.

Secondly, there is the issue of deciding which staff members will work at which schools. Los Angeles County Judge Rolf M. Treu, in overturning the California tenure laws, argued that poor and minority students are victims of tenure laws because “grossly ineffective teachers” are more likely to work in their schools.

In Central’s school district, the two remaining high schools are located on opposite sides of town – one on the affluent east side and one on the less-affluent west side. When drawing the initial boundary lines for these two schools, attempts were made so as to evenly divide students in terms of numbers as well as income levels and race. However, three years after the closing of Central and the “down-the-middle” divide, the disparities between these two schools are evident.

East High School ranks at #24 out of 423 high schools in the state in terms of performance; West High School, on the other hand, ranks at #350. Further, 14.1% of East High School students are eligible for free or reduced lunch, while a whopping 43.3% of West High School students are eligible. Both the performance and income gaps between these schools are enormous. These numbers appear so different in part due to a vicious cycle of West students applying to transfer to East High School.

Immediately after new district lines were drawn, many affluent and middle class students applied to be transferred from West to East. As these transfers were granted, the inequalities became more apparent, and more students started requesting transfers. Now, three years after the initial divide, East High School enrolls 1298 students while West High School enrolls only 913 students, even though both buildings were originally designed to hold an even numbers of students. As a result, less state funding is given to West High School and many honors-level classes at West High School are starting to be cut due to low enrollment numbers and lack of funding.

Furthermore, in a similar fashion to students transferring, many exceptional teachers applied to work at East instead of West due to the class offerings and performance levels of East High School. As a teacher, it is easier, more fun, and more immediately rewarding to work at a school where students are excited about learning. The teachers in those inspirational movies who go into the inner city schools and shake things up for the better are the anomalies, not the norms. As a result, more of the good teachers in the district have ended up at East High School, rather than at West.

Well, how can we fix this?

The tenure system has worked effectively in a number of instances for both public and private schools. There are many teachers and schools systems within the United States that were able to thrive with the help of a tenure system. However, when discussing education reform at the national, or even the state level, we must discuss solutions that will effectively work well for all schools and school systems, until the day when more autonomy is granted to individual school districts. With so many school systems plagued with bureaucracy and internal politics, two things that lead to abuse of tenure, the tenure system cannot adequately support an entire public education system.

As a business student who believes in the power of markets, I argue that all schools should throw out tenure and treat hiring and firing like any other job. Although schools are not businesses, they can be compared to a business – both organizations pay employees to help them reach a goal. For businesses, this goal is profit. For schools, this goal is to provide quality education to students.

Firing Decisions: In the business world, if an employee does good work, they continue to be employed; if they do not do good work, they are let go. It is proven that it takes three to five years for someone in a new job or industry to get really good at what they do, and employee turnover is much more costly than retaining employees. A good business knows to use feedback to seek improvement from unsuccessful employees before letting them go. School administrators should act in a similar manner and work with teachers in an effort to improve their skills before considering firing them. However, good businesses also know when to draw the line and let go a truly incapable employee. Following this model, schools should feel obligated to let go of bad teachers, rather than be apprehensive about doing so; the system should encourage the expulsion of truly incapable employees.

Attracting and Retaining Employees: Tenure was originally designed to enable educational institutions to attract and retain good teachers. However, good businesses are able to accomplish both of these things without a system like tenure. Schools can increase pay for teachers based on number of years they have worked with the school or district, and schools can require performance be improved or be maintained at appropriate levels in order for teachers to retain their jobs. This incentivizes teachers to improve their skills while staying loyal to working at a specific school. Further, in instances where layoffs need to be made, the decision to cut staff members should be made based on performance rather than seniority. This again incentivizes teachers to improve and be at their best, rather than promising positions to more senior teachers and allowing their performance to decline with no consequences.

Job Security: Tenure was also designed to act as a security system for teachers who might otherwise lose their job over one (possibly false) accusation. Most do not believe a teacher should be fired for a minor infraction or for one year of low test scores, and good administrators believe this as well. Teachers’ performance and commitment should play a role in firing decisions, just as a business employee’s performance and commitment would. Tenure need not be in place for this to happen.

Equal Distribution of Talent: The performance of teachers can be used as a measurement tool for ensuring equal quality of teachers at various schools. Districts should not allow for all of the great teachers to be grouped in one single facility when many other facilities in the area are in need their talents. If equal proportions of these good teachers exist at various schools, the achievement gaps between those schools will start to close. If good teachers are reluctant to work at certain schools, they can be incentivized with slightly higher pay. With a limited budget, we should be spending more on schools that are struggling instead of pouring money into schools that are already excelling.

Can the East-West divide be resolved?

Had these aforementioned measures been taken in my school district when the Red Plan originally unfolded, the performance gaps between East and West High School would not be as large as they are today. Although district officals cannot go back in time and change the course of history, they can learn from past mistakes. By taking appropriate actions now and abolishing the tenure system, my school district can work to shrink the performance gap between East and West High School. The gap will probably never close completely, but taking appropriate steps can start the process. Only with the proper actions can the school district work to provide a quality education to all of its students, not just the ones who are lucky enough to live on the East side of town.

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