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Does tenure protect bad teachers or produce good ones? Missourians may decide

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 20, 2012 - Chris Guinther and Marc Ellinger both agree that Missouri children deserve to have the best possible teachers standing in front of their classes every day.

Beyond that, though, they don't agree on much.

Guinther, the president of the Missouri National Education Association, says the way to make sure the state has excellent teachers is to have regular evaluations that judge what teachers are doing well and where they are falling short. They also need legal protections to make sure they don't lose their jobs for the wrong reasons.

Ellinger, who is working for a constitutional amendment that would abolish teacher tenure, says a teacher's continued employment should depend not on longevity but on strong performance. If a district hits tough financial times and has to cut its workforce, he says, the ones who stay should be the best, not the ones who have been there the longest.

"We always talk about wanting to get the best and brightest into education," he says. "One of the reasons they don't is because teaching is not viewed as a profession where if you are really good, you can excel in terms of salary and status."

"Experience matters," Guinther counters. "If you are going to have surgery, don't you look for an experienced doctor who has a good record? There is no reason in the world that all of a sudden we should find out that a teacher with 15 or 20 years of experience is a bad teacher. Who has been evaluating this teacher all this time?"

What the Petition Says

Ellinger, a Jefferson City lawyer who has worked in the past with Rex Sinquefield on issues such as the earnings tax in St. Louis and Kansas City, filed the teacher tenure petition with the Missouri secretary of state's office earlier this week.

If approved by voters, it would amend the state constitution in the following ways:

  • All new teachers would become at-will employees, with contracts that could last for three years at the most.
  • All public school districts would be required to "develop and use local performance standards to retain, remove, promote, demote and set compensation for teachers ... based upon quantifiable student performance data as measured by objective criteria."
  • Any school district that uses seniority or length of employment as a factor in retaining, removing, promoting or demoting teachers could not receive any state funding or local tax revenue funding.

Ellinger stressed that the provisions would not affect teachers currently working in Missouri classrooms who have received tenure after the five years that the system now requires. School districts that want to dismiss a teacher with tenure have to follow a process involving proper notice, then a hearing.
People familiar with the process say they have heard anecdotally about teachers who have lost their jobs after going through the process, but no one, including the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, keeps statistics on the issue.

The push to abolish tenure is in its early stages. Now that the petition has been submitted, a ballot title has to be written before it can be circulated. Before it can go before voters, the proposition needs signatures totaling 8 percent of the vote in the last vote for governor, from six of the state's nine congressional districts -- estimated about 150,000, depending on the districts involved.

For the amendment to be on the November ballot, signatures have to be submitted by May 6, six months before the election.

Ellinger said that Sinquefield is not involved at this point, adding:

"I certainly assume that at some point we would ask Rex and a whole panoply of business leaders across the state to help us."

Why Tenure Needs to Go

Ellinger said that what the amendment proposes is a common-sense remedy to improve schools that he says are not performing. "Look around the state," he added. "The education system is broken, and we need to fix it."

The best way to improve student achievement, he said, is to make sure that teachers get and keep their jobs because of how well they perform.

"Longevity doesn't mean a teacher is excellent," Ellinger said. "It means that they have been there for a long time. If they are good, whether they have been there a short period of time or a long period of time, they ought to be rewarded."

He dismissed the notion that if salaries are based on performance, not experience, teachers would be less collaborative and keep their best ideas to themselves.

"Now, he said, if a teacher is in his fourth year and has a great idea but no tenure, and there is a shortage in the budget, he's gone," Ellinger said. "Here's a guy who has a great idea, thinking out of the box, but he's gone because he doesn't have tenure."

He said that local districts should have no problem coming up with standards to determine which teachers should be hired and how much they should be paid.

"We don't want a one-size-fits-all, state-run regime that says here is how you evaluate your teachers," Ellinger said. "We want local districts to say what their performance standards should be, depending on their socioeconomic environment and the issues they are faced with."

Brent Ghan, spokesman for the Missouri School Boards Association, said the treatment of tenure in Ellinger's petition is similar to the stance his organization has taken for several years, though he's not sure that making it a constitutional amendment is the best approach.

"The vast majority of our teachers do an excellent job," he said. "But there are isolated cases where we have poorly performing teachers, and we feel school boards ought to have a little more control over their teaching staff. The goal is to ensure, to the extent that we can, that there is an excellent teacher in every classroom."

Now, Ghan added, "it is possible to dismiss poorly performing teachers with tenure, but it is extremely costly and extremely time-consuming. The process in place right now discourages school boards from attempting to dismiss a poorly performing teacher."

Ellinger acknowledges that tenured teachers can be dismissed for poor performance now, but he says the process is difficult, and teachers' unions in Missouri have fought to keep it that way.

"They are against any type of change," he said, "and tenure is the holiest of holies for them. When you talk to younger teachers and truly excellent teachers, they are afraid to come out in public because the unions are vindictive, but behind closed doors they will say this is the kind of change that is needed. We can't keep doing what we've been doing."

Why Tenure Needs to Stay

Not surprisingly, the unions look at the issue differently. In fact, Todd Fuller, spokesman for the Missouri State Teachers Association, wants Missourians to know that tenure provisions in the state are much weaker than those in places like Wisconsin and Michigan, where tenure has garnered more attention.

The MSTA has a Q&A on tenure that addresses the issue in detail. Fuller emphasized that tenure for public school teachers is not the same as it is for university professors, and Missouri's five-year probationary period before teachers get tenure is one of the longest in the nation.

"What is happening is that individuals are seeing the way tenure functions in other states and say we have tenure here, we should get rid of it," Fuller said. "They haven't done their homework. Tenure here is a procedure that protects teachers. It could be made stronger.

"One of the first things to be done would be to find a more impartial group of individuals to hear teachers' appeals. It's kind of disheartening to go before board members knowing full well that they have already made a decision not to have you back."

Fuller and Guinther of the MNEA both stress that teachers on the job for a number of years should have that seniority because they have received positive evaluations by school district administrators, so it's not the case that they are only there because of longevity.

Guinther adds that tenure benefits more than just teachers.

"Tenure also protects students," she said. "When you are tenured, it allows you to speak out to students without reprisal. It allows you go to the principal and the school board and speak out without fear of being fired. Teachers need that protection to speak out freely about what students need. We have to be empowered to be able to speak out in favor of our students."

Guinther said the petition drive in Missouri is part of a nationwide effort to devalue unions.

"NEA's vision is a great public school for every child," she said. "We are working with school boards and our communities to make sure our schools are great for every student. We are totally focused on kids. We absolutely believe we should be accountable, but we also believe we should be held to accountability standards along with administrators and parents. We can only do this if we all work together."

Guinther, who is on leave from her position as a special education teacher in the Francis Howell school district in St. Charles County, said she wants to make sure the public realizes that experience counts.

"In my first year," she said, "I was a good teacher, but every year I taught I got better. Everybody thinks they are experts on education because they have been in school. But I've flown in airplanes for thousands of hours, and nobody has ever offered me a seat in the cockpit.

"If a good, strong, high-quality evaluation system is in place, there will not be bad teachers in the classroom. Having that would take care of the problem that this initiative is supposedly trying to address. But going after teachers like this is like going after a gnat with an elephant gun."

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.