Tougher tenure stirs debate

A state proposal to lengthen track by year generates talk about mentoring, higher teacher standards

February 21, 2010|By Liz Bowie |

A proposal to make Maryland's teachers wait longer before receiving job protection - a change that officials say might help the state gain federal funding - is sparking a debate over how to elevate the quality of the teaching profession.

Some educators say that tenure should be reserved only for those teachers a school system is willing to invest in for decades and that new teachers should be given far more training and mentoring.

The legislation to change teacher tenure was introduced last week by Gov. Martin O'Malley after being proposed by schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, who believes it will help the state's chances of getting federal Race to the Top funding. More than three-quarters of states - 38 in all - already require three years before a teacher can get tenure.

"I think another year permits a new teacher to feel a greater sense of professional confidence. They have had another year to gain experience," said Grasmick, who believes teaching's high attrition rate would be reduced. "We have to make sure we have more stability in the profession."

Many other educators support the change because they believe too few questionable teachers are being dismissed before they receive tenure.

Sen. Paul Pinsky, a Prince George's County Democrat and teachers union organizer for the past 15 years, has gathered statistics from each of the state's 24 school districts. During the past decade, at a time when large districts were hiring as many as 1,000 teachers a year, 1,500 were dismissed in their first or second year of teaching.

Pinsky says that is proof districts aren't doing a good enough job of using the power they have now to get rid of teachers who shouldn't be in the profession.

While he said he is not opposed to O'Malley's measure, he questions whether the changes would improve education as proponents have suggested they will.

Kate Walsh, a state school board member and president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, said that while Maryland's dismissal rate is no worse than many other states, all states should seek higher standards for educators. Walsh says some argue that as many as one in four teachers might not be suited for the profession.

Baltimore schools CEO Andrés Alonso said teachers should get behind the governor's initiative. As the state and country move toward making student test data part of teacher evaluations, teachers will want to be judged on a body of work over several years rather than one year, he said.

"Tenure has not been used to establish a standard. There is an opportunity to do so now but it requires that we be thoughtful about how we support young teachers," he said.

Nicholas Greer, a ninth-grade biology teacher at Polytechnic Institute and Baltimore's teacher of the year, agrees that adding a year before tenure "is a really great idea. I think anything that is going to make it harder to become a teacher is going to elevate the profession."

Greer, in his seventh year of teaching in Baltimore, said starting new in the city was "like being thrown to the wolves" and even now he wishes for mentoring.

Pinsky, a former teacher, said spending more on mentoring would probably pay for itself because it would improve the quality of teaching and have an impact years down the line on student achievement.

Pinsky said that part of the reason too few teachers are being dismissed is that some districts have been reluctant to get rid of marginal teachers because they didn't have anyone to replace them.

That situation is now changing in the city, which has had more qualified applicants than openings for the past two years, Alonso said. Too few teachers have been denied tenure and he said he has instructed his principals to be more selective. But he also thinks school districts have "failed miserably" in giving new teachers support.

"The granting of tenure should be a momentous event in the life of the teacher and the district. It is tremendously underused as a mechanism for establishing a standard not only in Baltimore City but in the country as a whole," he said.

The state does not keep data on how many of its 60,000 teachers are tenured. Statistics from one local jurisdiction, Howard County, show that 88 percent of its teachers have received tenure.

Walsh said that extending tenure would be a positive step only if the state "decides to make tenure meaningful." One of the ways to do that, she said, is to make tenure a real milestone for a teacher that would require both the principal and the teacher to come before a board to make their case.

Walsh said school systems should view the decision to give tenure as a crucial one worth $2 million, the amount a district will pay out in salary and benefits to a teacher over the course of a 30-year career.

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