2 Years Isn't Enough: What K-12 Can Learn from Higher Ed on Tenure

2 Years Isn't Enough: What K-12 Can Learn from Higher Ed on Tenure
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RCEd Commentary

Teacher tenure laws were adopted by most states during the first half of the 20th Century. To advocates, tenure provides a guarantee of due process should a teacher be dismissed, and thus offers protection from capricious firings and personal vendettas. To critics, tenure is granted too readily to teachers of marginal skill, and the “due process” is so arduous, time-consuming, and expensive that it constitutes a de facto job guarantee. Thus critics see tenure as a primary reason that poor teachers stay in the profession.

Which interpretation is closer to the truth? It’s been very hard to say. Tenure laws have been in place for so long, we haven’t had a counterfactual; guesses about the impact on the teacher labor force subsequent to a change in tenure procedures have been just that -- guesses. Now, we’re starting to have some data on the matter (Loeb, Miller & Wyckoff, 2014).

New York City’s Department of Education changed its procedure for granting tenure in the 2009-2010 school year. Some features of the old system were retained. As before, teachers were evaluated at the end of their second year, based on the results of classroom observation, evaluations of teacher work (e.g., lesson plans), and an annual rating sheet completed by principals.

Starting in the 2009-2010 year, new information was available about student progress (including value-added measures calculated from state tests). Another new wrinkle was that principals would be required to write a justification for their decision if the superintendent would draw a different conclusion about a teacher’s case.

In the following years, some small change were added, the most interesting of which was the addition of data about teacher effectiveness based on surveys of students and parents, and feedback from colleagues.

So did these changes affect tenure decisions?

There was a sizable impact. Not in teacher dismissal at tenure decision time, but in extending the time for the tenure decision. In the two years prior to the new system, about 94 percent of teachers got tenure, with 2 or 3 percent being terminated. For about the same number, principals elected to delay the decision for a year, so as to have more time and data with which to evaluate the teacher.

As shown on the graph, under the new system, the number of teachers denied tenure remains very small, but there has been a huge increase in the number of teachers for whom the decision was delayed.

Most interesting was the response of the teachers when the decision was delayed. More of them transfer to a new school or exit the profession altogether.

The probability of a teacher transferring schools is 9 percentage points higher if the decision was extended, compared to if they were approved. The probability of exiting the profession is 4 percentage points higher.

So on the one hand, the changes to tenure review which were meant to make the process more rigorous are not prompting principals to deny tenure any more frequently. On the other hand, principals are making much greater use of the option to delay the decision for a year. That, in turn, is having some impact on the workforce. A straightforward interpretation is that teachers rightly interpret the delayed decision as a sign that things are not going as well as they might, and some teachers figure that’s because the school they are in is a bad fit (and so transfer) or that the profession is just not for them (and so they exit).

What are we to make of the fact that the more rigorous criteria did not lead to more recommendations that teachers be fired? Although it’s possible that’s a sign of principals being reluctant to fire teachers, I doubt it. I think it’s more likely that the large number of delayed decisions reflects the belief that two years is just too early to tell. Certainly we know that teachers are still on the steep part of their learning curve at that point. They are improving, and how much more they will improve is tough to know.

It’s always tempting to think that one’s own training was optimal, but I do think higher education has a more sensible approach to tenure, simply because we take longer to make the decision. At most universities, professors’ tenure decisions are made in the sixth year (based on the first five years’ worth of performance data.) There is a less rigorous review at the end of the third year. That review provides useful information to the candidate to know where he or she stands and what needs to be improved in the next few years. It also gives the university a chance to fire someone if things are going really poorly.

Whether tenure makes sense at all today and the possible consequences of eliminating are viable questions, but ones I’m not tackling here. But if you’re going to continue offering tenure, it’s a decision that ought to be made on more data than can be gleaned from the first two years.

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