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Education

Teacher tenure still a live issue in Jefferson City

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: A bill that would bring big changes to how Missouri teachers are evaluated – and how those evaluations could affect their jobs – lost big in the Missouri House last week, but those who favored the changes aren’t giving up yet.

The legislation – House bill 631 – had sailed through committee to the House floor, but when it came up for a vote last Wednesday, opposition from teachers unions, some school districts and others resulted in a lopsided defeat, 102-55.

Still, even with the General Assembly’s May 17 adjournment date looming, no one is dismissing the possibility that all or part of the bill will make it to the floor again.

"Five weeks is a long time in legislative weeks," said Kate Casas, state director of the Children’s Education Council of Missouri. She and others have been pushing for passage of the legislation, saying that Missouri students deserve to have teachers in the classroom because they are the best, not just because they have been in their job the longest.

"If a teacher who has been there 15 years is judged to be minimally effective," she said, and one who has been there for five years is judged to be exemplary, they shouldn’t have to keep one that is minimally effective. That is what we are getting at.”

But Todd Fuller of the Missouri State Teachers Association says that evaluation of teachers is already taking place, and a new system that has been devised by Missouri education officials is just beginning a pilot phase, so there’s no reason for lawmakers to approve yet another change.

Besides, he said, teacher tenure is generally misunderstood by the public.

"I think individuals see tenure as job protection that keeps teachers in the classroom until they retire," he said. "That’s not what it is. Tenure is nothing more than a process that a district would have to go through in order to remove teachers from the classroom."

What the bill would do

Major changes in the bill included how teachers and other school personnel would be evaluated; how often the evaluations would occur; what the evaluation would depend on; and what would happen to teachers who consistently received poor evaluations.

Specifically:

  • Teachers would have to be evaluated at least once a year, and the evaluations would have to be "centered on student achievement." For teachers whose courses are aligned with state standards, 33 percent of the evaluation would depend on how well students do on standardized tests and how much growth they show from previous scores.
  • Other measures in evaluations would include student surveys and several observations of a teacher’s performance in the classroom by trained master teachers or administrators.
  • Teachers would be rated as highly effective, effective, minimally effective or ineffective, according to standards developed by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education or by a local district.
  • Staffing decisions, including retention, promotion or dismissal, would depend on the ratings from the evaluations. “Unless otherwise prohibited by law,” the bill said, “any contrary provisions of collective bargaining agreements, regulations, or policies shall be void.”
  • The contract of any probationary teacher who is rated ineffective for two consecutive years could not be renewed. Permanent teachers who are rated minimally effective or ineffective would receive an individualized improvement plan. No permanent teacher with three straight ratings of ineffective could be retained.
  • After four straight years of being rated effective or highly effective, a probationary teacher would be the subject of a formal review before becoming a permanent teacher.

Teachers affect learning the most

For those who favored the legislation, those provisions are common-sense ways to make sure that students have the best possible teachers in the classroom. Basing teachers’ ratings on how well their students do on standardized tests makes sense, says Lea Crusey, Missouri director for StudentsFirst, the nationwide education group led by Michelle Rhee.

"The purpose of these assessments is to gauge how much a student learns," Crusey said. "A teacher's job is to make sure that students learn. Teacher quality is the strongest influence on student learning. These are all interrelated."

She said that polling in Missouri shows strong public support for the provisions of the bill, but opposition from teachers’ unions and other politically influential groups have fed a resistance to change that has stymied education bills in the past.

"There is a lot of misinformation that people are sharing with legislators that they are close with," Crusey said.

Casas, of the Children’s Education Alliance, said she wasn’t surprised at the lopsided defeat of the bill last week. Because it is so broad, it has provisions that can draw opposition from a variety of constituents, but like Crusey, Casas stressed how the various parts are connected.

"If you change the way teachers and administrators are evaluated,” she said, "you should be making personnel decisions based on those evaluations. If you don’t make changes to the way you make personnel decisions, have you really changed much?”

Casas said that any legislation on the topic that she has seen would grandfather in current teachers, so concerns that they might lose their tenure is unfounded. For the future, though, she thinks Missouri’s students would benefit most by changes that would ensure that the best teachers are hired and retained.

"I don’t know any other profession where you only get evaluated every three years,” she said of current requirements for tenured teachers. “If you don’t evaluate every teacher every year, you have problems."

While the Missouri School Boards Association backed the bill, spokesman Brent Ghan said it was not among the group’s legislative priorities.

"We worked with the bill’s sponsor to reduce the mandates that were included in the original version,” he said in an email, “to give local school boards as much flexibility as possible in the area of evaluations.

"The bill requires annual personnel evaluations, which is solid practice anyway so boards and administrators can have the data they need to improve the delivery of instruction. The bill also includes the concept of multi-year contracts for teachers as opposed to lifetime tenure. That’s something we’ve supported for a long time.”

State Rep. Kevin Elmer, R-Nixa, who sponsored the bill, said the situation involving its provisions remains fluid. He said he expects that parts of it will be attached as amendments to other legislation as the session winds down, but he couldn’t say which provisions are likely to resurface.

On Wednesday, a Senate bill that has passed in that chamber and would affect how teachers in the city of St. Louis are evaluated and how those evaluations would affect their jobs was passed out of the House Education Committee.

Why reform a reform?

State Rep. Genise Montecillo, D-south St. Louis County, hopes that doesn’t happen.

"That bill does nothing in my opinion to improve educational outcomes,” said Montecillo, a longtime special education teacher. “My concern is that people are more concerned about passing anything than they are about passing something that would improve educational outcomes.

"I would hope that supporters and proponents understand there are grave concerns with the bill.  I would hope they would go back and have some conversations with folks that understand education issues and get what we all want, improved educational outcomes.”

She is particularly concerned about the reliance on test scores to determine teacher competence.

"Those tests are not there for that purpose,” Montecillo said. "They show how students are performing on any given day, and there are so many factors that go into that.”

Fuller, spokesman for the Missouri State Teachers Association, noted that the state department of education is already beginning a pilot program for teacher evaluation. On Tuesday, the state board of education approved seeking public comment on a rule to direct districts to devise evaluation plans based on student progress, and to use the results to guide teachers’ status and interventions if necessary.

With that process underway, Fuller said, lawmakers do not need to get involved.

"There are too many moving parts of this bill, in terms of tenure along with evaluations,” he said. “Why are they trying to revamp a reform of a reform?”

He said that in most districts, teachers already receive yearly evaluations, particularly in the first five years.

"If there is no evaluation process in place,” Fuller said, “there is a problem with the administration in that district, not with the teachers.”

Mike Wood, also with the teachers association, said that he thinks the biggest source of opposition to the bill “was the lack of local control. You can’t pass a bill telling a school district what to do and how to do it and call it local control, and that’s what this bill did.”

PIN sources weigh in

In addition to individuals who deal with education issues in Jefferson City, the tenure bill also drew a lot of interest from teachers and others who responded to a Beacon query from the Public Insight Network. Respondents took both sides.

Cheryl Blake, a St. Louis Community College instructor, said that teachers have too much job protection and need to be more accountable.

"Time served does not necessarily indicate teaching excellence," she wrote, "Tie teacher evaluation to student performance. Protect teachers from replacement by cheaper but newer instructors. Throw out tenure."

She added:

"Student achievement should be 70 percent or more of the evaluation. Deciding on the measurement tool would be the difficult task. If the ongoing evaluations have worked, the longstanding teachers would be as good as or better than the more recently hired. Thus last hired would be first fired."

But Deborah Davis, a longtime teacher from St. Charles, countered that job protection for Missouri teachers is just right, and those who are willing to stick to what can be a demanding profession deserve support.

"I think it’s very destructive," she said of the bill, in a follow-up interview with the Beacon. "I’m not very enamored with tenure, but teachers don’t have the kind of negotiation rights that a person in business does. We’re paid by the government. We don’t have the right to say I want a little more, or I’ll go with this other school and try to get more, like a business person can, in good times anyway."

In her experience, Davis said, evaluations can be highly subjective, but she wouldn’t want test scores to count for a lot.

She said that bills like the one in the legislature "are sponsored by very high-dollar people who are trying to destroy public education. They want to change it all over to vouchers and charter schools. Unless they want to do something positive and fix the things that are broken, this isn’t fixing anything. This is just an attack on teachers, that’s what it is."

Teacher Ramona Fouse of Mehlville also believes job protection for her and her colleagues is just right and wants to see seniority respected.

"I believe first in last out," she wrote. "Individuals work hard to get their foot in the door of a company or school district they want to work for. They should respect that right. Much proof must be made available to prove otherwise. This proof should come from someone other than a supervisor... there may be bias coming from the supervisor."

And Don Leisman, who teaches in St. Louis, emphasizes that many factors besides what is going on in the classroom can determine how well a student does on tests, so using results of those exams for more than 10-20 percent of an evaluation wouldn’t be fair to the teachers.

He notes that schools don’t always have support personnel like counselors and nurses to give students the boost they may not be getting at home.

“Many come from homes where they don’t have support,” Leisman said, “or they may live in poor neighborhoods where they’re dodging bullets all night long. They come with too much baggage.

“We’re doing our job, but we could be doing a better one if we had more manpower.”

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