Is 2014 the Year of Teacher Tenure Reform?

Every child deserves great teachers. Unfortunately, making sure we keep the best educators in our nation's classrooms is an ongoing battle.
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Every child deserves great teachers. Unfortunately, making sure we keep the best educators in our nation's classrooms is an ongoing battle, as states continue to hash out teacher retention policies in light of budget constraints. Personnel decisions should always be based on a number of factors, including performance, student achievement and experience level. Yet in about a dozen states, these decisions are still based solely on the number of years a teacher has spent in the classroom.

Retention policies based on seniority are known as LIFO -- "last in, first out." Around the country, they are getting a needed second look. Nine students in California are suing the state's school system over rules that require layoff decisions to be based solely on seniority. In Newark, New Jersey, School Superintendent Cami Anderson has asked the state's Department of Education to allow teacher evaluation to be considered along with tenure in personnel decisions.

Many school districts nationwide are facing teacher layoffs due to budget shortfalls and cuts. Last summer the Philadelphia school district laid off 676 teachers. Chicago laid off 1,036. Newark may have to lay off 1,000 teachers over the next three years, and Kentucky may have to let go 1,500 - 2,000 educators.

Educators with more years in the classroom will usually be among the best qualified to teach, and tenure should be one of the factors in making these tough decisions. But strict LIFO-only policies risk forcing out high-performing teachers who have a passion for educating students and bring fresh, innovative ideas to the classroom. This punishes children by depriving them of the most talented teaching force they deserve. One study found that only 13 - 16 percent of teachers who are laid off under LIFO policies would actually be terminated if they were rated on their effectiveness in the classroom.

To be clear, LIFO protects lots of great teachers, as it is designed to do. But no successful company, organization or industry makes decisions on what talent to keep solely based on time in position.

A good teacher puts students on the path to lifelong success. Studies have shown a great teacher can help students achieve 1.5 years of learning in one year, while a poor teacher can cause students to lose half a year. And it's not just academic achievement that's at stake, but career success as well. Having a good teacher for just one year can increase a child's lifetime earnings by $80,000.

Tying personnel decisions to performance has already had a big impact in the districts where it's being done. Four years ago the District of Columbia passed teacher evaluation standards that included a value-added measure to track student outcomes. Since then, nearly 500 of the lowest-performing teachers have been let go and all the remaining teachers have improved their performance significantly.

Fortunately, a number of new measures are being put in place around the country to evaluate teachers. In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie signed a law that requires teacher performance to be included in yearly evaluations. Many other states have adopted similar standards -- in fact, as of last September 35 states plus the District of Columbia included student achievement in teacher evaluations. Ending LIFO-only retention policies and moving forward with comprehensive evaluation systems that consider performance is an important and natural next step, giving teeth to the systems that are already in place and encouraging teacher improvement.

It isn't an easy political path, but principals, school administrators and policy-makers at all levels should be working together to change policies that don't put our kids' needs first. Schools should be allowed to dismiss ineffective teachers to make room for teachers who are getting results. Policy-makers and administrators must come together to enact solutions that will set our kids on a path to success, by ensuring all students have access to quality teachers and an education that will prepare them to be successful in college and beyond.

Mashea Ashton is the chief executive officer of the Newark Charter School Fund. She holds a master's degree in special education from The College of William & Mary, and taught in several failing school districts before becoming a full-time advocate for comprehensive education reform. Follow Mashea on Twitter @mashea.

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