The Public Turns Against Teacher Tenure

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It's back-to-school season, but teacher tenure has been a hot topic since summer began. In June a California court ruled that the state's tenure and seniority laws are unconstitutional in Vergara v. State of California. Minority students have filed a similar case in New York, with more to come elsewhere.

Republican governors such as Chris Christie in New Jersey and Bobby Jindal in Louisiana have persuaded their legislatures to rein in teacher-tenure laws. Teachers unions are complaining bitterly, arguing that teachers deserve job protection because principals rate most of them as excellent or satisfactory.

But where does the public come down on teacher tenure? Do they agree that almost all teachers are performing well—or at least satisfactorily? What do parents think? And how do teachers rate their own colleagues?

Here are a few answers to those questions from the just-released eighth annual Education Next poll, overseen by the Harvard Program on Education Policy and conducted online in May and June by the polling firm Knowledge Networks. The survey was administered to representative samples of the general public, parents and teachers.

The public response to the poll raises doubts about claims that nearly all public-school teachers are performing adequately. Respondents were asked to state the percentage of teachers in their local school district who deserve one of the five grades on the traditional A to F scale. To make sure the responses were consistent, the percentages had to add up to 100% before the respondent could move on to the next question.

About 22% of public-school teachers are not performing adequately in the public eye, if one assumes that satisfactory work requires at least a C grade. Citizens do like a majority of the teachers in their local district, saying, on average, that 51% of them deserves an A or a B. But 13% earned a D, and no less than 9% of teachers were given an F.

Parent surveys are nearly identical. Parents give 56% of the teachers in their local schools one of the two top grades, but they hand out a D to 13% and an F to 10%.

Teacher ratings are perhaps the most telling. Educators tend to be the most generous in giving high marks, saying that 69% of their colleagues in the local school district deserve an A or B. Not everyone scores so well. Teachers report that 8% of their colleagues deserve a D, and that 5% deserve an F.

Union leaders could argue that the public is too harsh in its assessment, and that parents blame teachers for their children's faults, but they may find it difficult to explain away the fact that even teachers identify a sizable percentage of their colleagues as woefully inadequate. Teachers themselves say that as much as 13% of the educating force is performing at an unsatisfactory level, with 5% failing outright.

You can't have good schools without good teachers, but improving the lowest-performing segment of teachers would go a long way. Good teachers are so important to student learning that if roughly the lowest performing 5% of all teachers were replaced with merely average teachers, Stanford economist Eric Hanushek estimates that it would increase the annual growth rate of the U.S. by 1% of GDP. Student performance in the U.S. would also catch up with that in Canada, Finland, Germany and other high-performing countries.

The public seems to agree that something needs to be done, and that is where tenure laws come in. Survey respondents favor ending tenure by a 2-to-1 ratio. By about the same ratio, the public also thinks that if tenure is awarded, it should be based in part on how well the teacher's students perform in the classroom. Only 9% of the public agrees with current practice in most states, the policy of granting teachers tenure without taking student performance into account.

Interestingly enough, many teachers agree that it's time for some change. While most teachers are in favor of tenure and most don't like the idea of basing tenure on student test performance, only 41% of teachers both favor tenure and oppose using information from state tests when awarding it.

Courts have yet to reach a final verdict on teacher tenure and seniority rights, but the court of public opinion has already made a clear determination.

Mr. Peterson, director of Harvard's Program on Education Policy and Governance, is a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. The full results of the 2014 Education Next poll are available at educationnext.org/edfacts.

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