Guest Column

Overselling the Myth of the Bad Teacher and Tenure


Eliminating teacher tenure is at risk of being seriously oversold.

Over the past year, I researched more than 40 successful school districts, high-performing charters and respected private schools, which included visits to most of them, for a book on what is working in education. While many superintendents I interviewed favor the elimination of tenure, no one had done it. It was not a vital step in what the districts have been able to accomplish. (Nor was pay for performance based on student test results, which a few districts had instituted in modest ways — a discussion for another time.)

So while tenure is often central to press coverage and political talk, it turns out to have little to do with success on the ground.

Peer Pressure
In school districts that have organized themselves to promote high-octane learning, teachers were motivated even with tenure in place, and the system had its own way of encouraging poor performers to leave.

The public disclosure of No Child Left Behind’s school subgroup scores is a motivator, but in good districts, that is not the only way student data motivate teachers. These districts, such as the Blue Valley School District in Kansas or the Iredell-Statesville County Schools in North Carolina, regularly assess students, sometimes as frequently as every week, to see whether they are falling behind or have gotten ahead of the rest of the class. Because the data are computerized, they often are shared among teachers and principals.

That creates real peer pressure. For example, in a meeting of a school’s four 5th-grade teachers, if the data show that almost all the kids in three of the four classes have mastered long division, the three teachers are going to turn to the one with poor results and say, in effect, “Are you having a problem?” No matter how supportively those words are stated, that fourth teacher will do whatever he or she can to avoid being on that hot seat. That is motivation.

All that shared student data make clear to some teachers they need to move on. Peer pressure works not only to improve teachers’ game, it also has the equal and opposite effect of pushing them out when they do not measure up. The result of the introduction of major data systems in several districts I visited was that teachers who did not like the measured environment, or who could not meet its demands, simply left or were counseled out without a fight.

Absent Pipeline
Nonetheless, for some advocates of eliminating tenure, that is not enough. They have talked about adopting General Electric-like strategy of targeting the lowest-performing 10 percent of teachers (based on student test scores) for dismissal. That sounds more attractive on political talk shows than it is in reality.

The idea of a mass termination (10 percent of the nation’s public school teachers is about 340,000 people) assumes there are more qualified, capable teachers available to replace those who get fired. That is easier said than done. While the pipeline for new teachers may be exceptionally large in this year of economic downturn, many of the school districts most in need of better teachers have had a hard time filling slots over most of the past 40 years.

No one wants to be forced to keep bad teachers. (When I was general counsel of the Los Angeles Unified School District, it was constantly irritating.) Tenure makes a mockery of what should be a serious enterprise. But the myth of the “bad teacher” is simply too simple a fairy tale to be the right answer for reform.

Even if 10 percent of teachers are fired, that still leaves the 90 percent who are going to remain after tenure is gone. What do we do with them?

The key to success is not about the few wonderful teachers at the top of the scale, or the few awful ones at the bottom. The answer is about building a system — a system — where all the ones in the middle can rapidly and radically improve their game.

Good school districts are not good because they have created legions of magical teachers or fired hundreds of bad ones. Good districts have good systems where most teachers, not just the magical ones, can flourish.

Good school districts have a focus on student achievement. Teachers have been trained to teach meaningful course work. The districts have built computer systems to capture vast amounts of student data, including regular assessments. They have taught teachers and principals to use the data to drive instructional decisions and created time for teachers to collaborate on how to help students and work on their own professional development. There are mentors and master teachers waiting to help.

All those things, not any one but all of them collectively, are what make good districts work.

If a school district had none of these things in place but eliminated tenure, would test scores likely rise? Probably not by much. The teachers have no better curriculum, no more training and no more data. What is going to make them better?

Opportunity at Hand
So here is the challenge. If our politicians and education leaders are going to seize the current opportunity for reform, the myth of the incompetent teacher (and its twin, the magical teacher) needs to be put to rest. No more facile reliance on superheroes or scapegoats. The focus has to be on the system in which they work. Otherwise, taxpayers may get what they have been told they should want, only to find it has not changed a thing.

That would be a terrible tragedy, not just for our kids, but for our democracy.

Harold Kwalwasser is a private attorney in Washington, D.C., and author of a forthcoming book, tentatively titled School Daze: A User’s Guide to What Really Matters for Education Reform. E-mail: