Education in the Media
Perth Amboy Superintendent: Tenure Laws Keep Bad Apples in the ClassroomNovember 23, 2011
As the superintendent of the Perth Amboy school district, I am responsible for the education of more than 10,000 children.
We are fortunate to have the dedication of hundreds of committed and talented teachers and administrators who focus on education every day. But for 15 to 20 percent of each week, I shift focus from our students, who should be at the center of all we do, to certain adults who no longer have a place in our education system, yet simply can’t be dismissed.
There has been much discussion about teacher evaluation and its potential to improve learning in our classrooms. This issue focuses on things like linking teacher tenure and pay to student test scores, and so-called value-added data. There are many disagreements about these measures, but I believe we can agree on the fact that there are certain teachers who just should not be working with children. We don’t want teachers in our classrooms who talk explicitly about sexual acts, or who hit children, put soap in their mouths or curse at them. We certainly don’t want teachers who make repeated sexual advances to other teachers, do drugs at school or fly into rages for no apparent reason. I have active cases like these, and have returned almost all of these teachers to their positions.
How can this be? New Jersey’s tenure law, enacted more than 100 years ago, effectively confers lifetime employment to teachers. And the process to remove tenure is so onerous, it is essentially impossible to do so.
The overwhelming majority of Perth Amboy’s — and, indeed, New Jersey’s — teachers are honest, hard-working people of great integrity who have kids’ best interest at heart. I’m not talking about them. I’m talking about the very few who don’t show up for work or who shouldn’t be around kids. Because of the current tenure process — one that can take as long as three years and cost more than $100,000 in legal fees to remove a teacher — I must engage in a rarely successful process to remove these individuals.
No district should have to bear that burden. And most, as a result, do not challenge tenure. Even if we make our case thoroughly and successfully, and a judge agrees to let me dismiss a teacher, he or she can still appeal to the commissioner of Education, the state Board of Education, the Superior Court of New Jersey and, potentially, the state Supreme Court.
Proponents of tenure will tell you that any school or district can remove a teacher by the due-process system that the tenure law affords. That may be the intent of our tenure law, but it certainly doesn’t work that way.
Some people say the current law is fair because a principal or a school system has three years to figure out whether a teacher is good before tenure is awarded, and they can deny it during that time. Why would we assume that someone who works well for the first three years will be equally effective 10 years later? In a profession as important as teaching, shouldn’t our classroom professionals prove themselves every year?
Is tenure something that our teachers need to protect them from capricious actions of managers? Or should they simply have the same due process rights as other professionals? Shouldn’t a principal and superintendent have the right to remove a teacher who poses true danger to children?
We owe it to the majority of the hardworking, effective teachers that they be surrounded by respectful educators who behave in a professional manner. We owe it to taxpayers who pay exorbitant sums to dismiss egregiously bad teachers. But most important, we owe it to the children to ensure that only the very best educators will be in our classrooms.