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Replace tenure with area competency in LA schools

Perhaps momentum continues to build for a truly comprehensive restructuring of Louisiana elementary and secondary education, through the elimination of teacher tenure as this space long has recommended. Adding another element to the effort can help overcome resistance from defenders of the concept.

The latest statistics release shows a tenured teacher in Louisiana has a greater chance of dying during the school year than being dismissed for poor job performance. The trend continues where 98 percent or more each year continue to receive satisfactory evaluations, bringing into question the validity of the entire process. As with the state civil service that posts similar retention statistics, the only justification for this is that these government jobs recruit talented individuals far disproportionately to the private sector.

Dismal achievement statistics by Louisiana students should disabuse anybody considering that possibility, and tenure is held out as the reason allowing subpar teachers to continue on.
As with the state civil service, the system has its own members evaluate themselves with little standardized or objective measurement with a system established creating every incentive to let continue poor performers in their positions even if as a whole administrators would just as soon weed out these underperformers.

That aspect opponents of tenure abolishment use to defend the practice, arguing the practice is not so much broken as is the system – without understanding and/or admitting that the many protections afforded by tenure create such a difficult process for removal that it discourages firing for cause. The solution would be to institute procedures that place greater weight on objective measures, removing administrators from having to make subjective calls where uncertainty or discomfort make them shun proceeding with an attempted discharge.

This could occur by requiring passage of subject area competency exams on a periodic basis. For example, Florida, since 2002, requires all prospective teachers to pass general competency exams (73 percent correct in English, 58 percent correct in mathematics) as well as a subject area exam. Overall passing rates have hovered in the low 70 percent area, suggesting that the Louisiana practice of allowing teaching in an area through mere coursework passed in pursuit of a degree and taking the general PRAXIS exam (which covers aspects of teaching, not subject knowledge) is allowing in a significant portion of new teachers into state classrooms who could not pass the Florida exams. For comparison sake, in the subjects with more than a handful of takers, most recently the easiest to pass were in journalism (99 percent) and speech part 2 (94 percent), while the most difficult were mathematics (47 percent) and physics (44 percent).

Again, these statistics suggest that Louisiana schools employ a number of teachers not competent in their subject areas, particularly in the hard sciences. Inevitably, this leads to poor student preparation and performance. To avoid this permitting of mediocrity or worse, teacher evaluation systems mainly could be weighed towards three criteria, annual student achievement, annual student progress, and periodic competency exam performance.

Instead of today’s tenure, which would come after three years under the normal process, have passage of the subject area exam as an initial requirement, then let’s say every five years job evaluation occurs for provision of a five-year contract. Review of the annual statistics up to then from the last evaluation would occur. If a sufficiently high proportion of the teacher’s students score at basic or above on the appropriate subject exam, then the teacher must pass the competency exam and, if classroom observation and other reports reveal no major deficiencies in pedagogy, automatic rehire occurs. If the teacher does not achieve the benchmark pass rate among students, there can be a sliding scale where the lower the rate the greater year-over-year improvement in scores can compensate.

Such a regime would come close to eliminating avenues for mischief among administrators in teacher retention decisions. As long as a teacher made his marks in the pass rate, including compensation for progress, over the period, passed the competency exam, and followed rules and regulations in relations with students and the administration, he could not be fired for any reason including politics.

The current tenure system with no direct objective measurement of a teacher’s knowledge has its protections abused by low performers. Introducing that measurement can provide protection as good while ensuring higher-quality instruction. Only interests vested in protecting jobs of incompetents would reject this reform.

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