All the children in Lake Wobegon are above average. In the past 10 years, the Parkway School District in Saint Louis County, which employs more than 1,200 teachers, has terminated five teachers. Perhaps all the teachers at Parkway are above average. More likely, poor-performing teachers continue to teach Parkway students.
Teachers can make all the difference in a child’s education. This is precisely why we should reward our best teachers while encouraging teachers with a track record of failure to find another job. The only way to do this is to reform Missouri’s existing teacher tenure law.
The Missouri Legislature is considering a bill that would end teacher tenure and help districts and school boards implement performance-based evaluation systems.
If the bill passes, teachers could be fired for doing a bad job. For most of us, consistently doing bad work means losing our job. Not so for teachers. Current laws state that a tenured teacher can be fired only for egregious conduct, such as willful or persistent violations of the school laws, excessive or unreasonable absences, and felony convictions. Even then, a severely truant (or criminal) teacher receives generous procedural protections. Teacher tenure reform would allow schools to dismiss teachers for unsatisfactory performance.
The reform bill would eliminate “permanent” teachers and indefinite contracts. Most of us operate with at-will employment. Again, not so for teachers. Currently, a teacher who survives a five-year probationary period becomes “permanent personnel” with an indefinite contract. Even if a district reduces staff due to budgetary constraints, school boards must thin the ranks on a last-in-first-out basis. The most senior teachers stay on the job regardless of their teaching ability.
The proposed legislation gives school administrators more discretion to retain the best teachers. Schools could contract directly with teachers for up to four years, but the board would retain the power to terminate a multi-year contract if the teacher scores poorly on evaluations. The last-in-first-out policy would be eliminated and school boards would be required to base staffing decisions on teacher performance.
Teacher tenure reform would ensure that teachers get paid for what they do, not how long they have done it. School districts currently are prohibited from basing salaries on performance-related criteria. Instead, districts pay their teachers based on length of service and level of education. The proposed bill removes this prohibition and requires school boards to consider teacher evaluations when making decisions related to pay, retention, promotion, and dismissal.
Enacting a performance-based scheme would be a big change for Missouri school districts. But the bill addresses implementation as well as substance. It requires districts to create a performance evaluation system, and mandates that certain criteria be considered in teacher evaluations, while allowing school boards and administrators to tailor the system to fit their own needs.
Not surprisingly, teachers’ unions have criticized tenure reform. Missouri National Education Association President Chris Guinther told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that “we’ve got to be given the protection that we need to give those kids the quality education that they need.” Teachers do not need protection. They need accountability. A bad teacher can teach bad classes for years. Year after year, students cycle through this teacher’s classroom, only to receive an inadequate education. Wouldn’t these students have a better education if teachers were held accountable?
Teachers do not have a right to their jobs. The Missouri Constitution gives students the right to a public education, and they should have good teachers.
Audrey Spalding is a policy analyst and Ben Barnes is an intern at the Show-Me Institute, which promotes market solutions for Missouri public policy.