Welcome to the Profit of Education website. Continuing the conversation begun in the book Profit of Education, we discuss the latest economic evidence on education reform.

Tenure–What’s in a word? What’s up in DC?

Tenure for K-12 teachers is a hot button topic: a topic on which there are strong beliefs and too little analysis. Tenure isn’t really a you-got-it-or-you-don’t-got-it issue. Tenure is about how districts (and their  unions) choose to define it. Let’s talk about tenure in general, and then how tenure links up with DC’s changes in teacher evaluation.

In the United States, most private sector employees serve “at will.” That means the boss can fire you for almost any reason. Maybe because you dissed the quarterback of the high school football team. What’s  more, even if you’re fired for one of the very few illegal reasons you have  very little recourse. Basically, you have to hire a lawyer and sue. (Employee  process rights are pretty limited.) And if business needs shift so you’re let
go for economic reasons, you’re completely out of luck.

So tenure is really about the reasons you can be fired, the process protections you get, and what happens if you’re let go for economic reasons.

We really don’t want teachers worrying about being fired for dissing the local 17 year-old football hero. On the other hand, we do want to fire teachers who are regularly drunk in class. But drawing the line in between isn’t so easy. If a school wants to fire the teacher who’s flunking a “student” athlete, what’s to stop the school from claiming that said teacher is incompetent. Or if a teacher is raving incompetent, what’s to stop him from claiming that the firing is over athletics? The trick then is to set up a system that pushes out teachers who can’t teach while protecting the vast majority of teachers who do just fine.

Washington DC has changed the rules that go along with tenure. There’s some clever stuff here.

First, DC still has tenure in the very important sense that teachers can’t be fired willy nilly. Here’s the distinction the contract makes.

The standard for disciplining permanent employees shall  be just cause. The standard for disciplining probationary employees shall be not arbitrary or capricious, as opposed to at will.

But there has been a very specific change. The DC schools have put in place a performance evaluation system for teachers, tenured or not. Teachers who are rated ineffective—the bottom few percent—lose their jobs. There are two key elements. From the point of view of the teachers, the rating system cannot easily be manipulated by district administrators. So “dissing the quarterback” doesn’t put your job at risk. From the district’s point of view, the dismissal process arising out of the performance evaluation system is more or less automatic. The teacher is just gone.

There is also a change in economic protections. What happens if a teacher is “excessed” from a school because her position is no longer needed? The protections and benefits vary depending on a teacher’s performance evaluation. A tenured teacher with at least an “effective” evaluation (almost all teachers) has three options: compensation for up to a year until a new placement is found, early retirement or buyout.

But three changes have been made that link the new performance evaluation system to economic consequences. First, performance factors into deciding who gets excessed. While seniority still counts some, it is weighted far less. A teacher with a high rating on the performance evaluation system earns extra protection against being excessed. Second, a teacher rated below the “effective” level loses her compensation rights—and is terminated.

The most notable economic change is that highly effective teachers who are eligible for large, performance-rated pay increases have to give up their “compensation if excessed” rights in order to pay raises. An interesting trade-off, but not one linked to the usual contentious issues about tenure.

The DC system is relatively new. We’ll have to see how it plays out. For now, it sure looks like the district and the union have come together (perhaps grudgingly) to keep the most important tenure protections while letting go teachers who aren’t up to snuff.

(Thanks go to NCTQ’s Emily Cohen for advice on today’s post.)

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