Avoiding the Tenure Trap

Tenure, Management, Communication, Mentorship

By Mary Jo McGrath, Attorney at Law
Founder, McGrath Systems, Inc.

The real issue underlying the debate on tenure is the inability to hold people accountable and ensure quality performance. Lack of accountability is resulting in a deterioration of the public education system and a rampant loss of credibility in the eyes of the public, particularly parents.

What has teacher accountability be a hollow phrase is the difficulty of enforcing consequences for performance due to teacher tenure. The teeth of tenure are found in the teacher dismissal process. This process is a highly legislated procedure that breeds fear, distrust and incompetence, both in the administrative and teaching ranks.

The “common knowledge” is that it is next to impossible to fire a tenured teacher. Recently a superior court judge ruled that a teacher who had taped a child to a chair (among many other things) was not unfit to teach because the tape wasn’t tight. She found it to be only symbolic taping! She also found that the teacher calling his special education student “tard of the world” was not a problem because it was teaching the child humor.

Competency issues are even tougher. There is a high degree of difficulty in finding demonstrative evidence that a teacher is ineffective. How do you quantify boredom and lack of inspiration? How do you establish an ongoing pattern of behavior when most principals only evaluate their teachers every other year. For the brave of heart who try, it can be a truly daunting experience. In a Southern California school district the principal accumulated six years of documentation before dismissal was attempted. It was nine years before the teacher’s appeals to the Supreme Court were finished and her credential was revoked (for one year). The case cost the school district $350,000 in attorney fees alone. That’s 15 years to dismiss one incompetent teacher. In today’s dollars, the legal cost would be $500,000.

This system has broken the spirit of many administrators and competent staff. The evaluation and dismissal process discourage honesty. Just take a look at the life of an administrator who marks unsatisfactory on the teacher evaluation form. Here is what you’ll see:

When the teacher has reached a level of incompetence that can no longer be ignored, you will usually find that the site administrator is spending approximately 30% to 40% of every day somehow involved with that teacher. It may be time handling parent complaints and requests for transfer, or it may be time spent for classroom observation and write-ups if the required documentation is ever going to be created. And don’t forget the union meetings and grievances that follow any less than satisfactory documentation or evaluation.

The time consuming aspect of the teacher dismissal process does not even take into account the toll it exacts on staff relations at the school. Frequently action to remove an incompetent teacher is met by a polarization of staff to protect one of their own. The administrator’s every move is scrutinized. The whole affair is attributed to a personality conflict between administrator and teacher. The administrator is attacked personally and professionally, both as to his or her competence in their own job and motivation in general. Then the final blow usually comes in the form of an end run to the school board by teacher supporters in the community and the union. The administrator is buried in this avalanche of resistance. Other administrators who have observed this saga from the sidelines are going to be mighty reluctant to jump into any issues that may exist at their school sites.

When we do address the issue, we either transfer the incompetent teacher to another school or settle the matter and allow the teacher to move into another school district. We keep polluting education. The cancer of incompetence is never removed from the system; the problem is just foisted onto someone else.

A key part of a solution is to implement a total performance management system. Total performance management includes a solid skill base in communication, both verbal and written. It must incorporate ethical and legal principles, with emphasis on human values. It is not enough to teach administrators to document for dismissal. They must be taught the leadership skill of communication through which they can inspire and lead their staff, not be the police force.

Supervision skills should be included in the total performance management system that include coaching capabilities and consequences for performance – merit increases and advancement for excellence and penalties for failures. There must be meaningful feedback on a timely basis so that teachers can correct their performance and grow.

Time and resources must be allocated to train administrators in evaluation skills which assure that the truth is reflected in the summative record. Employment decisions should be based on this accurate, truthful information that is backed up by timely feedback records.

Strategic planning should be included in this total performance management system which provides challenges and incentives for individual performance which matches the organization’s goals. An old sage once said, you are either expanding or contracting. There is no such thing as hovering. Teachers and administrators must be provided opportunities for growth that expand their capabilities and keep them vibrant.

Perhaps the most important piece in a total performance management system is that the school board holds the superintendent accountable for the results of the whole. The school board must insist on quality and then not back down. If a total performance management system is implemented in your school district let the results determine people’s continued right to their job. We must be accountable for excellence in our schools and snap open the jaws of the tenure trap or we will lose the right to a free public school system.

(Editor’s Note: This is a reprint of an article featured in the Summer 1995 edition of the CSBA Educational Legal Alliance Quarterly Report, the “Alliance Report.” The issue focuses on teacher tenure and the need for reform of teacher tenure laws in the State of California. This article is general in nature and is not intended to replace professional legal advice by a specialist in education law.)

FALL 1995

“Editors’ note: This article is general in nature and is not intended to replace professional, legal advice.”

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