There is little doubt that teacher quality is important. High-quality teachers produce superior academic outcomes for students, regardless of a childs challenges and circumstances. Like most states, the quality of North Carolinas teacher work force varies from school to school and district to district, but the overall quality of the states teacher work force is alarmingly low.
Last year, the National Council on Teacher Quality awarded North Carolina a D+, one of the lowest average teacher quality grades in nation. This included Cs for identifying and retaining effective teachers and a D- for removing ineffective teachers. North Carolinas teacher tenure policies, which provide employment protection to teachers regardless of competence or performance, are likely a major reason why.
The existing process of granting tenure in North Carolina is inadequate. State law requires teachers to be employed by a North Carolina public school system for four consecutive years. Prior to receiving tenure, teachers are observed and evaluated four times a year by one or more school administrators. Yet researchers have concluded that observations by school administrators are unreliable and seldom reflect the quality of classroom instruction. As long as a teacher stays out of trouble, tenure is virtually guaranteed.
After teachers receive tenure, their professional habits change, often for the worse. A 2008 University of Washington study of teacher absences in North Carolina found a significant relationship between increased absenteeism and tenure. Absenteeism is associated with declines in student performance.
In addition, a June 2012 study by University of Cincinnati economics professor Michael Jones examined teachers behavioral response to tenure. He concluded that, relative to the tenure evaluation year, teachers who received tenure communicated less with students and parents and participated in fewer school and district committees. Jones also found that elementary school teachers reallocated their teaching time in response to tenure decisions.
There have been only minor modifications to the original 1971 North Carolina teacher tenure law. Today, legislators agree tenure reforms are long overdue. They are committed to maintaining reasonable due process protections to ensure teachers are not fired without cause. More importantly, they share a common goal ensuring that the highest-quality teachers available teach in our public schools. At the moment, however, the state House and Senate disagree about the design and scope of tenure reform.
A bipartisan group in the House proposed a system that would raise the standards required to earn tenure. Their plan would continue to require new teachers to be employed by the North Carolina public school system for four consecutive years. Yet tenure would be granted only if the teacher earns certain ratings on teacher evaluations and has students who achieve performance growth on standardized tests. If a tenured teacher fails to maintain adequate levels of performance for two consecutive years, the teacher would lose tenure and be required to re-enter probationary status for the subsequent two years.
The state Senate proposal would eliminate tenure by 2018. Teachers employed for fewer than three years would be retained on one-year contracts, while those employed for more than three years would receive a contract that ranged from one to four years. The school district would have discretion about the contract length. During the next school year, superintendents and school boards would be directed to convert 25 percent of their tenured teacher work force to four-year contracts. Only teachers with favorable evaluations would qualify. These teachers would receive a $500 annual pay raise.
I expect that the two chambers will meet somewhere in the middle. By doing so, North Carolina would join a number of other states that have tied employment decisions to teacher effectiveness. Sixteen states, including Florida, Louisiana and Tennessee, have adopted policies that require the use of teacher evaluations or performance standards to award tenure or teacher contracts.
These states demand that only the highest-quality teachers be entrusted with the responsibility to educate their children. North Carolina should follow suit.
Dr. Terry Stoops, a former classroom teacher, is director of research and education studies for the John Locke Foundation.