In 2005, Harry Drendall, a retired Easton Area music teacher, told me about being a student in a small Luzerne County school district in the 1930s when the school board met one night and fired five teachers.
He said most of the firings were to open up jobs for the offspring of prominent local families, and one teacher – a much-loved coach – was fired because he was Catholic. Drendall and others organized a town meeting and got the majority of the board to rehire the teachers.
Drendall died in 2010 at age 89; with the passing of his generation, it’s easy to forget the reasons teacher tenure became law in the first place.
Surely we can all agree that a terrible teacher can do a lot of damage in a short time – leaving students unprepared and soured on a subject. And the process to get rid of one with tenure can be time-consuming, requiring evaluations, improvement plans and lots of documentation.
But I have mixed feelings about tenure and here’s one of my fears: the day it’s abolished would be the last day any school board member’s kid ever got a grade below a B.
A Bethlehem teacher told me she feared that without tenure teachers would be afraid to say or do anything that was the least bit controversial. “I don’t think it would make them better teachers,” she said. “They’d be more concerned with saving their jobs than doing their jobs.”
East Penn School Board President Charles Ballard said that it should probably be easier to fire a lousy teacher but agreed that scrapping tenure could have a chilling effect on the classroom. A group that wanted to roll back taxes could win school board seats and get rid of the more experienced, higher paid educators. Others with religious or social agendas could threaten to fire educators for teaching certain books or lessons.
Tenure critics often point out that currently few teachers are fired, but the low rate doesn’t tell the whole story. Board members and teachers say many others are “counseled out” of the profession by administrators and colleagues.
A middle school teacher told me some new teachers coming from other professions are lured by perks, such as summers off, and aren’t prepared for how hard teaching can be. “We had one guy come in from the business world,” she said. “He didn’t last the marking period. They just don’t realize how much work it is to keep 13- and 14-year-old kids engaged.”
About a third of new teachers leave the profession within five years, according to the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future; in urban districts, it’s about half.
So here’s the question: Is there a way to streamline the process of getting rid of bad teachers without scrapping the protections for good ones?
In a future column, I’ll talk about the state’s efforts to revamp teacher evaluations.