No tenure law undermines good teaching

October 19, 2013 

Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger has an idea that North Carolina is rife with incompetent teachers who coast along in the system thanks to tenure. That’s why he pushed through legislation this year that will end tenure protection for the so-called low performers and will reward the high performers.

The new law requires school boards to offer four-year contracts with a $5,000 raise over the four years to 25 percent of their teachers who’ve taught in their districts for the last three years and who were rated as “proficient” under the state’s evaluation system. To get the contract, the selected teacher must give up tenure, which isn’t the job protection granted a professor, but simply an assurance that they can only be fired for cause. The other 75 percent of the faculty get no raise and teachers who don’t currently have tenure will get one-year contracts that will leave them uncertain whether they’ll be back the following year. By July 2018 tenure will be completely eliminated.

But now the idea for creating a faculty on high alert with members striving for the cash and a longer contract is colliding with reality. The law provides no specifics on how local school districts are to choose the top 25 percent. It may be silent because there really is no fair and effective way of doing so. Anyone who has worked with other employees knows what it would be like if the boss went through the ranks designating some for special treatment and relegating most to second-class status. It wouldn’t spur competition. It would fuel resentment.

School officials who know and respect their teachers understand that teaching isn’t a competitive exercise. It is a collaborative one. The more teachers work together the better it is for the students they teach. That’s why school officials are complaining about the imperative to make Solomon-like decisions between which teachers to honor and which to denigrate. It’s not only that it’s unpleasant. It’s that it’s impossible. How do you decide which teacher is in the 25 percent and which is in the 26th percent? Do you look at test results or student surveys? Is there a tool that can truly measure dedication and ingenuity and empathy with such precision?

Berger’s spokeswoman scoffed at these objections.

“Only in the warped world of education bureaucrats and union leaders could a permanent $5,000 pay raise for top-performing teachers be branded as a bad thing,” Amy Auth said in a written statement.

What’s warped is the idea that lawmakers can motivate North Carolina’s 95,000 public school teachers by fiat. What’s really warped is thinking you can motivate them by fiat after doing nothing to improve average pay that ranks near the bottom in the nation.

Idaho tried a similar get-tough measure in 2011 by putting virtually all public school teachers on one-year contracts and stripping away their protection from being fired without good cause. It lasted a year before a parent-led effort put it on the ballot for repeal and the law was voted down by huge margins.

Now North Carolina’s leaders are pushing the misbegotten idea that educational progress means getting tough with teachers. Some school officials are considering an end run of the law by using a lottery to decide the top 25 percent. The North Carolina Association of Educators plans to go to court in a few weeks to obtain an injunction that will suspend the law.

Such evasion of and resistance to this requirement is not only appropriate, but essential. Quality public education in North Carolina cannot survive this misguided effort at improvement through demoralization.

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