TEACHER TENURE LAW LEAVES THOUSANDS OF ALABAMA'S CHILDREN ILLITERATE
Beginning as early as 1909 schools systems began to insulate all teachers from being fired unjustly due to a wide array of unfair reasons such as replacing them with the school principal’s daughter, personal conflict among another more favored teacher, political differences, perceived insubordination involving unreasonable task assignments, etc. Tenure has existed in K-12 education since then, when “good government” reformers borrowed the concept from Germany. The idea spread quickly from New Jersey to New York to Chicago and then across the country. During the Progressive Era both teacher unions and school accountability hawks embraced the policy. In brief, tenure was originally implemented to prevent teaching jobs from being given as favors by political bosses and school officials. Teacher tenure became embodied along with the growth of teachers unions, though usually carried titles such as the “teacher education association” or the “organization of “state” teachers”. Teacher tenure laws now exist in every state in the union. However, there the good news is that tenure for teachers is being weakened by court rulings and state legislative actions.
It should be noted that a common practice which pertained to tenure and existed in most states for decades allowed state treasuries to deduct from teachers’ salaries their teacher association or teacher union dues. In addition to these dues providing legal support from a teacher being terminated from service a portion was set aside and used as political and social leverage usually not what teachers wanted but for the agenda of the union bosses. Teacher association chief executive officers (CEO’s) or executive secretaries wielded much influence on national, state and local elections. Many teachers continue to allow these dues to be deducted from their monthly salaries despite their displeasure with to what political candidates, political parties and/or social issues are supported with their dues. Yet, this practice was alive and well for decades…until resently.
California provides a good case study on removing the political power of large and strong teachers’ unions. In the summer of 2014 a California superior-court judge, Judge Rolf Treu, ruled that the state’s tenure system discriminated against kids from low-income families. This usually meant minority students. Based on testimony that one to three percent of California’s teachers were likely “grossly ineffective”. Thousands of mediocre, ineffective teachers assigned to low-income schools, the judge opined, resulted in the poor and minority students being disproportionately disadvantaged in the teaching-learning process. The more effective teachers seemed to find their way to the more affluent schools in the suburbs. The same held true for first-year school principal assignments. Often these were first and second-year principals who were not seasoned and prepared for instructional leadership. The ruling in this case Vergara v. California had the potential of overturning several California State laws governing how long it took for a teacher to earn tenure; the legal maneuvers necessary to remove a tenured teacher; and which teachers would be laid off first in the event of budget cuts or school closings. This case also raised unpopular issues of the assignments of the most effective teachers to schools where achievement was among the lowest.
After 138 years of Democratic control over Alabama’s two governing bodies, in the 2010 election Republicans gained control of both houses of the Alabama legislature. This ended the long stronghold of the Alabama Education Association’s Executive Secretary, Paul Hubbert, who died in 2013. The Republican elected State Legislature (2010) voted to remove the payroll deduction for AEA member dues thus significantly reducing the number of members. This is similar to what occurred in Wisconsin after a similar law, Act 10, was upheld by a federal circuit court. The clout once carried by teacher unions has already been reduced nationwide.
While the historical facts of teacher unions and dues may be somewhat fascinating, the thousands of young victims of teacher tenure laws making it near impossible to remove a teacher for ineffective teaching is unconscionable. As a long-time public school teacher, administrator, education consultant, and local school board member (both city and county), I witnessed hundreds of inept teachers who somehow received a degree and an Alabama Teacher’s Certificate who were pathetic teachers lacking the knowledge, skills, genuine care, ability or understanding needed to teach children to read and do math in the early grades. Thus, children in the early grades were usually “socially promoted” or placed in Special Education” often because that first, second and third grade teacher failed to teach them how to read, write and do basic math on grade level. According to former U.S. Secretary of Education, William J. Bennett, “If a child has not been taught to read on grade level by the end of the third grade the likelihood of them not earning a high school diploma was 80 percent. (“The Educated Child”, the Free Press, 1999).
While there are many other factors in children failing to read, Alabama’s teacher tenure law is not usually on the list. Yet, it may be the single most frequent and damaging factor in the progress and learning process of basic skills as any one other. Alabama’s Tenure Law currently gives newly-hired teachers three years to be evaluated as effective in teaching. If the school system determines that teachers are not effective they may be released in writing without reason before the end of the third school year. The tragedy is that far too many principals, university supervisors, systems coordinators and school instructional leaders are unwilling to deal with the reaction of these ineffective teachers. Other reasons include their failure to effectively fulfill their roles avoiding adversity and confrontation with the individual teacher. Instead they perpetuate the continued failure of student learning especially in the early grades thus almost assuring that these struggling students will never earn a high school diploma but are more likely to become part of the 70 percent of Alabama prisoners who cannot read.
It is time for Alabama’s elected and appointed state officials, to include the State Board of Education, to address this serious issue of student failure by either doing away with tenure or modifying the existing law to make it easier with well-documented achievement measurements of effectiveness and hold school leaders accountable for failing schools. This is a better approach to raise student achievement than seeking more money from taxpayers and millions of dollars from the federal government with strings attached, regulations and mandates unproven to be effective. The first thing to do is to remove State Superintendents of Education in Alabama who sell out our children under the guise of another new federally funded and controlled curriculum/program which have had little to no effect on student achievement.
David Nichols, ED.D., is a retired educator who continues to research and publish on vital issues facing our public schools. He served on two local school boards in Alabama. He served as a teacher, leader and consultant at every level from k – 12 and universities. His publications include three books, featured commentaries in every major daily newspaper in Alabama and dozens of journal articles.