The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"Teaching is not a lost art, but the regard for it is a lost tradition."...  ... Jacques Barzun.

Commentary of the Day - July 31, 2005:  California's Teacher Tenure Reform Initiative - A Reluctant "No".

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger made education a high priority in the  "State of the State" address that he delivered this past January.  Two initiatives on the November 8th special education ballot address the governor's education priorities.  One, Proposition 76, would revise the school funding mandates that were included in the previously approved Proposition 98 to make it easier for the governor to reduce school funding during budget shortfalls.  The other, Proposition 74, would revise California's teacher tenure laws to make it more difficult for a probationary teacher to be granted tenure; and, to make it easier to fire tenured teachers whose performance is deemed "unsatisfactory".

Under current California law, probationary teachers are granted tenure (actually "permanent employee" status) after two years of satisfactory performance.  Once granted "permanent employee" status, teachers can be dismissed from their positions for a variety of "just causes".  These include among others: immoral or unprofessional conduct, dishonesty, "unsatisfactory performance", "evident unfitness for service", alcoholism or drug abuse, and the commission of a felony or crime of moral turpitude.

The initiative would make it more difficult for a probationary teacher to be granted permanent employee status by increasing the probationary period to five years.  It also would make it easier for school districts to fire teachers with permanent employee status by making two consecutive annual unsatisfactory evaluations prima facie evidence of "unsatisfactory performance" within the meaning of the education code.  The initiative, if passed, would allow school boards to ignore two sections of the California education code that provide important protections to a tenured teacher who has been accused of unsatisfactory performance.

The Irascible Professor favors the part of the initiative that would lengthen the probationary period.  Two years just is not enough time to determine if a probationary teacher is making sufficient progress to grant permanent status.  At the college and university level the probationary period usually is seven years.  While the credentialling process in California often requires a certain amount of practice teaching, most probationary teachers still have much to learn about actual classroom teaching.  Learning to teach is, in most cases, a gradual process.  A probationary period of five years would give both the teacher and the school district enough time to ensure that (1) the probationary teacher has made satisfactory progress, and (2) that classroom teaching really is what the candidate wants for a profession.

The argument most often made against extending the probationary period for public school teachers is that it already is difficult enough to find people to fill the many teaching vacancies in urban school districts because of low pay and hard working conditions.  Making tenure more difficult to attain would only reduce the number of applicants.  Another argument against increasing the probationary period is that in California, as in much of the nation, new teachers on average leave the profession after about five years on the job so an extensive probationary period is not needed.

The IP thinks that both of these arguments are weak.  Low pay and difficult working conditions are a fact of life in public education.  However, that is no reason to grant permanent employee status to applicants whose competency is marginal or worse.  The fact that the average tenure of a new teacher is only five years also is not a good argument to grant tenure after only two years on the job.  Tenure implies a long-term commitment on the part of the employer, so it should be reserved for those teachers who are willing to make a long-term commitment to the profession.

While the IP supports the part of the initiative that would extend the probationary period, there are two features of the initiative that are troubling enough to cause him to recommend a "no" vote.  The first is that the five-year probationary period would apply to all probationary teachers whose "probationary period commenced with the 2003-2004 fiscal year or any fiscal year thereafter."  This means that probationary teachers who already have been hired with the understanding that the two-year probationary period applies to them would be affected by the new law.  There is something distasteful about changing the rules in the middle of the game, and the law -- if approved by the voters -- should only apply to those hired after the date the law goes into effect.

More troubling is the section of the initiative that would allow school boards to ignore sections 44934 and 44938 of the California education code when dismissing tenured teachers for unsatisfactory performance.  The first of these sections ensures that the teacher is given an adequate notice that outlines the specifics that resulted in the unsatisfactory performance evaluation.  The second section gives the teacher the opportunity to correct his or her deficiencies.

If the probationary period for tenure is extended to five years, then the tenured teacher should be presumed competent unless a good case can be made for the contrary conclusion.  Dismissals of tenured teachers should be made only for good cause, and only after due process.  The changes proposed in the initiative would make it too easy for vindictive administrators to dismiss tenured teachers for reasons other than genuinely unsatisfactory performance.

For these reasons, The Irascible Professor concludes that the initiative is fatally flawed, and urges a "no" vote on it.

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© 2005 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.