Good first step on tenure

May 24, 2011

The legislative debate over tenure has been kicked off with exactly the right idea: No teacher should have a guaranteed job for life.

Both state Sens. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) and Joseph Kyrillos (R-Monmouth) are proposing laws to reform tenure, with that credo in mind. Each would require teachers to be evaluated annually. If they perform poorly, their tenure would be revoked.

And it should be. Because no matter how many dollars we invest in our schools, we’re not likely to see much real progress until we zero in on the quality of teaching. We’ve already seen that’s crucial: Students who get two or three strong teachers in a row improve, despite their backgrounds, while those stuck with a series of weak teachers may never recover.

Teachers now earn tenure after three years on the job. Districts don’t need to consider student performance when deciding whether to grant tenure. And once teachers have it, their jobs are protected, regardless of their skill in the classroom.

Instead, they should be regularly evaluated, based in part on student performance. Since long-standing state tenure laws now block this kind of change, the fix must begin in Trenton.

Ruiz and Kyrillos’ bills would each require teachers to receive three consecutive years of positive evaluations to earn tenure. Kyrillos, who introduced his bill last week, includes higher pay for good teachers. Ruiz, who plans to introduce her bill on Thursday, adds an initial year of mentoring to the probationary period. That’s a sensible provision that would better prepare and support new teachers, many of whom leave in their first few years on the job.

Both bills would give principals more power to select which teachers they hire, instead of having to submit to involuntary placements by the district. The best teachers should be rewarded, the struggling ones helped to improve and the worse ones fired.

No longer can we allow inertia and chance to determine what kind of teacher is standing in front of the class.