First Person

A retired Dougco teacher's take on tenure

There has been much discussion of late about teacher tenure and whether it impedes reform and the quality of public education by protecting bad teachers. EdNews Parent expert and retired Dougco teacher R. Kim Herrell shares his personal views on the subject.

You would think this would be simple to answer, but in the three school law courses I have taken, the issue of teacher tenure has been one of the most hotly debated. Some folks in the general public, led by others with a clear anti-union agenda, seem to think that it is a magic forcefield that makes teachers untouchable, at least from firing. In my opinion, that is simply not the case.  It has never been that way, but it sure can look that way if procedures aren’t followed.

In my first school law course, we were asked to equate tenure with “due process.”  Teachers who didn’t behave for three years would have to be told why they were being fired and could counter the firing at a hearing.  The administration and district could move for dismissal, though, of a teacher anytime during those first three years:  first week; first semester; first year; second; third.

That doesn’t sound so bad to me.

Due process itself, however, is a little more complicated.  The 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution provides that the government may not “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”  In the case of Cleveland Board of Education v. Loudermill, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that even teachers could expect procedural due process. It listed four distinct steps in due process:

  • Tenured teachers must be given notice of dismissal, written or oral
  • The reasons must be noted
  • An explanation of the evidence must be provided by the employer
  • A fair and meaningful hearing must be given the teacher if requested

So, after three years, a teacher gets to learn why he or she is being dismissed and can present contrary evidence in a fair hearing. I think anyone would want to know why they were being dismissed.  Because due process requires reasons and evidence from the employer, it keeps firings from being arbitrary and capricious.

One long discussion in the first school law class I took centered around a small school district in southeastern Colorado that fired all its teachers after three years, only to rehire them one month later.  This kept all teachers in that district from ever reaching a tenured level.

The second school law course ignited a small celebration over the fact that Colorado labor law extended due process to all workers. Employers had to tell an employee why she was being let go. So where did that leave teacher tenure?  No one really knew. And what about teacher evaluation systems?  No one saw them going away.

The third school law course, the most comprehensive of the lot, explained how through labor agreements, a form of tenure (teacher protection) and teacher evaluation could continue. School district management wanted a way to streamline teacher dismissal, especially in the first three years. Labor leaders agreed. They didn’t want incompetent members, either. The current systems of teacher evaluation in Colorado are supported by both labor and district management.

Enter Colorado Senate Bill 191. Colorado has very little industry from which to gain school funds so we get a piece of property taxes and car sales taxes. So, we passed SB-191 to improve our schools. The main focus of the legislation is to get rid of bad teachers and put an effective teacher in front of all students in the state. Noble, but that has always been the goal of education. It will go through development and trials from now until 2013 and be implemented in 2013-14.

Under the new law, teachers will be able to gain, lose or regain tenure by jumping through the right hoops. School districts, with less money and less evaluators, are to do more evaluation than before, still manage the school, provide vision and leadership, and discipline those few students who need disciplining.  The new legislation wants to get rid of “ineffective” teachers but doesn’t define what that is. I’m dizzy.

SB-191 has left us not knowing what tenure is, if due process will be followed, or how an ineffective teacher is defined. Nor does it provide money to help school districts to evaluate their staffs or hire the most effective teachers (depending on the survey, Colorado is somewhere between 49th and 39th in school funding).

Clear as mud?  Turns out I can’t tell you what tenure is anymore, or whether there will be due process for teachers in the future. The state doesn’t seem to have the answers, either.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.