published Sunday, January 10th, 2010

Local teachers mixed on tenure plan

by Kelli Gauthier

Not all teachers are sold on Gov. Phil Bredesen's proposal to give student test scores at least 50 percent weight in decisions on granting tenure.

"There are many people who help to educate every child, and to attribute all the success or all the failure to one teacher is unfair," said Apison Elementary School assistant principal LaFrederick Thirkill.

The governor is expected to present his proposal at the special session of the Tennessee General Assembly that begins Tuesday. More closely tying teacher tenure to test score data is a requirement that states must meet to compete for $4.35 billion in federal Race to the Top funds.

In Tennessee, linking tenure to test scores would require a change in state law.


The General Assembly will convene Tuesday in special session to consider Gov. Phil Bredesen's proposed reforms on K-12 and higher education. The governor will address lawmakers at 6 p.m. EST.

The speech will be carried on live streaming video on the state's Web site --

The Tennessee Education Association officially has declared an impasse with the governor over the issue, and some local educators agree.

Some teachers -- related arts teachers and English Language Learner teachers, for instance -- can have a huge impact on students, Mr. Thirkill said, but there is no standardized test on which to judge them.

Extenuating circumstances such as extended illness or truancy also can keep students out of class for weeks at a time, affecting achievement, so it would be unfair to penalize teachers, he said.

"It'd be very interesting if Gov. Bredesen had to face some of these issues firsthand. I wonder how it might affect his decision to tie test scores to tenure," Mr. Thirkill said.

Originally meant to give teachers freedom to speak openly on controversial subjects without fear of losing their job, the concept of tenure has itself been contentious through the years.

Teachers' unions have fought hard to preserve tenure -- which is typically granted after three years -- while critics say the job security is given out too easily and makes it hard to get rid of ineffective teachers.

John Daum, who has taught history, world religion and philosophy at Central High School for eight years, said he thinks tying tenure to student achievement might make tenure more meaningful.

"A teacher gets tenure for not doing anything awful their first three years of teaching, and once they have tenure, it's very difficult (to fire them) if a teacher is not effective. They're almost untouchable," he said.

Still, as a teacher, he does have some concerns about the governor's idea.

"On the one hand, I'm fine with that. In other industries, your pay, your raises, your promotions are tied to how you meet your goals," he said. "But teaching students isn't like making widgets. There are a lot of factors that are out of your control."

Which is exactly why Jason Wohlers, a physics teacher at East Hamilton School, hopes that any changes to the tenure system would take teachers' opinions into account.

"If you involve the teachers in the planning of how it works, often it works better," he said. "I taught at an urban school, and now I'm at suburban one. Sometimes test scores can be different depending on your population."

Central High School English teacher Barbara Henry's concern is that the first three years of a teacher's career is often the most challenging. So making a decision on the teacher's future based on test scores from that time might be misleading.

"The way we're trained at the universities, they're wonderful, but there's nothing that can really prepare you for that first year when you're in a classroom, on your own, faced with 30 teenagers," she said. "It just seems like a short amount of time to use test scores to determine tenure."

about Kelli Gauthier...

Kelli Gauthier covers K-12 education in Hamilton County for the Times Free Press. She started at the paper as an intern in 2006, crisscrossing the region writing feature stories from Pikeville, Tenn., to Lafayette, Ga. She also covered crime and courts before taking over the education beat in 2007. A native of Frederick, Md., Kelli came south to attend Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in print journalism. Before newspapers, ...

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timoshenko said...

Teaching is like no other profession. With teaching, the student is actually both the customer AND the product. Historian and writer Will Durant (e.g. The Story of Civilization) wrote about the culture of education in 19th century India. Of the student, Durant said "Finally he was sent out into the world with the wise admonition that education came only one-fourth from the teacher, one-fourth from private study, one-fourth from one's fellows, and one-fourth from life."

In my years as a student, a teacher, and now as a parent, I found Durant's words and weightings to be true. There is plenty of accountability to go around. I think the governor's idea dumps twice as much accountability on the teachers.

January 10, 2010 at 8:30 p.m.
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