By administrators own admission, one out of every three teachers in Tennessee is ineffective. But after three years on the job, between 90 and 100 percent of them receive what usually amounts to lifelong job security.
Since 2006, only seven teachers in Hamilton County's nearly 3,000-member teaching force have been fired, or resigned before administrators had the chance to get rid of them.
"Tenure, in a lot of districts, is sort of a foregone conclusion," said Will Pinkston, managing director of Tennessee's State Collaborative on Reforming Education. "If you do your time for three years and there aren't any major problems, odds are, you're going to get tenure, which carries with it a certain level of job security for a long time."
Because tenure entitles those who have it to due process before being terminated, firing incompetent or underperforming teachers often involves a costly legal battle, one in which school systems rarely engage.
In documents from the Tennessee Department of Education, Hamilton County Schools officials recently warned a local principal to keep better paperwork on poor teachers, so "we don't get into a pass the trash situation again," where bad teachers are shuffled from one school to the next.
East Side Elementary School principal Emily Baker says the current tenure system is broken.
"As it is now, there are some people who think that after three years, they can coast, because they have guaranteed employment," she said. "And once someone has tenure, then if their performance drops substantially, it's very difficult to terminate them."
The importance of quality teachers and the idea of tenure have gotten a lot of attention in Tennessee lately, as the Race to the Top winner is on the national education reform stage.
To bolster the state's efforts to win $500 million in federal grant money, legislators enacted a state law that says student test scores now will account for 50 percent of a teacher's tenure fate, and teachers will be evaluated annually.
And in deciding how to spend their Race to the Top winnings, state education officials set aside about 45 percent for professional development for teachers and administrators, mostly in the hopes of creating better teachers.
If it were used for teachers only, it would be the equivalent of about $3,500 spent on each teacher in Tennessee.
The state's goal is to reduce the number of ineffective teachers -- those whose students are unable to achieve a year's worth of academic growth -- from 30 percent to 10 percent in four years.
Experts have long said that a teacher is the most important variable in a child's education, and research shows that while a good teacher can teach a student more than one year's worth of information, a bad one easily can drop a student two grade levels, says Hillcrest Elementary principal Katrina Overton.
"You have to know that that adult is affecting that child's life for eternity," she said.
Mrs. Overton knows she has a reputation for being tough on new teachers and granting tenure with great discernment. Since taking over Hillcrest, she's let two teachers go who she felt didn't deserve tenure.
Often, she said, teachers will come to the conclusion that they need to resign or look at transferring to another school.
Mrs. Overton prefers to think of her reputation in slightly different terms. Her tenure litmus test is simple: Would she put her own child or grandchild in a classroom with a certain teacher? If not, chances are, that teacher won't get tenure.
"The reputation that I have is that I have high standards," she said. "In a classroom, we ask students to rise to our expectations. As an administrator, why should I not ask a teacher to do the same thing?"
She points out that as a principal, she has no tenure equivalent for keeping her administrative job. She has a "very high level of accountability" to Superintendent Jim Scales and feels teachers should feel the same.
"It just cannot be a rite of passage," she said. "As an instructional leader, I am responsible for weeding out teachers who are not teacher material."
Clara Sale-Davis, director of the Benwood Initiative for the Public Education Foundation, said when principals have high expectations, their schools start to get a reputation. Her first year as a principal at a high-priority school in Texas, Ms. Sale-Davis had 13 teachers leave the building.
"(At my school), if you were going to be marginal or lousy, you knew to not even apply," she said.
Mrs. Overton is quick to point out that not renewing a new teacher's contract is a last resort.
Eligible teachers receiving tenure
HAMILTON COUNTY SCHOOLS
* 2007: 93%
* 2008: 97%
* 2009: 98%
* 2010: 94%
CLEVELAND CITY SCHOOLS
* 2007: 96%
* 2008: 100%
* 2009: 94%
* 2010: 93%
Source: Individual school districts
BY THE NUMBERS
* 530.4: Average number of teachers in a school district
* 5.6: Average number of teachers in a district who were fired or whose contracts were non-renewed (1.1%)
* 4: Average number of non-tenured teachers who were dismissed (0.8%)
* 1.5: Average number of tenured teachers who were terminated (0.3%)
* 631.4: Average number of teachers in a school district
* 10.2: Average number of teachers in a district who were fired or whose contracts were non-renewed (1.6%)
* 1.6: Average number of non-tenured teachers who were dismissed (0.3%)
* 8.6: Average number of tenured teachers who were terminated (1.4%)
Source: Center for American Progress
Under state law, Tennessee public school teachers may be granted tenure if they:
* Hold a degree from an approved four-year college;
* Hold a valid professional license based on training covering the subjects or grades taught;
* Have completed a probationary period of three school years or not less than 27 months within the last five-year period, the last year to be employed as a regular teacher;
* Are re-employed by a local board of education for service after the probationary period.
No teacher is guaranteed continuity of employment in a particular assignment or school. A superintendent may transfer a teacher from one location to another within the school system, or from one type of work to another for which the teacher is qualified and licensed, when necessary to the efficient operation of the school system. Tenured teachers who move to another system must serve the regular probationary period (three years) in the new system. However, the local board of education may waive this requirement and grant tenure status or shorten the probationary period at the superintendent's recommendation.
Source: Offices of Research and Education Accountability, Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury
REASONS FOR DISMISSAL
Tennessee's tenure statute lists five causes for the discharge of a tenured employee:
* Neglect of duty
* Conduct unbecoming a member of the teaching profession
"Working with new teachers is an absolute priority. We are molding their careers," she said.
If a new teacher is struggling, especially in a high-poverty school like Hillcrest, the principal said she will pull out all the stops, including bringing in consultants and mentors and offering professional development.
"You must try every possible intervention in their room," she said. "But if they're still not up to par, or they're non-compliant, then we have to look at non-renewal."
Connie Smith, Tennessee assistant commissioner for the division of accountability, teaching and learning and a former principal, said the main problem she sees around the state is a lack of communication among principals and teachers about expectations for student learning.
She has seen principals in many school systems across the state who do not take their job seriously, she said, and do not properly evaluate their teachers.
First-year teacher Amanda Smith, who teaches math at Hillcrest, said she appreciates that Mrs. Overton frequently stops in her classroom to see what's going on. She was told Mrs. Overton was tough before coming to teach at the school, but the new teacher says she thrives on the pressure.
"I was told she really wanted good teachers in her school," Ms. Smith said. "(Hillcrest) is looked down on, and she wants these kids to shine."
And while Ms. Smith's practice scores from the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program test have shown she's made good progress with her students already, she still thinks a lot about tenure.
"It's on my mind. Every time I go home and plan a lesson," she said. "I'm sitting here thinking, 'I've gotta get these kids pulled up.'"
Student test scores should be considered in evaluating teachers and granting them tenure, she said, but not 50 percent. The end result, though, will be that teachers take their jobs even more seriously, she said.
"I believe all teachers will step up their game," she said. "You can't just sit back in the classroom and give (students) busywork. You're going to have to slow down and really teach them."
Mrs. Baker has plenty to say about tenure. And after nearly 25 years as a teacher and administrator, she has some ideas to correct the problem.
Her proposal is to make teachers renew their tenure every three to five years. It's important to keep some sort of job security in place to guard against politics and personality conflicts, but there's no reason teachers shouldn't have to earn that protection, she said.
"I think it's important for people to be encouraged to continue to learn and grow in their profession," she said. "It's what doctors do, it's what lawyers do, it's what accountants do."
Principals must have the proper training to identify quality teaching, Ms. Sale-Davis said, if teachers are going to trust them to give fair evaluations.
"We've got to make sure our leaders have those skills so they're not arbitrary and capricious," she said. "They have to know what good teaching looks like and sounds like."
Recently many states have begun increasing the number of years it takes to earn tenure or improving the evaluation process by which due process rights are granted. A bill is making its way through the Florida legislature to get rid of tenure altogether.
Much of the emphasis on education reform aimed at improving teacher quality was brought about by states' desire to compete for Race to the Top money.
Although a 15-person committee has yet to determine what the new teacher evaluation system will look like in Tennessee, it is likely that instead of a few long classroom evaluations once every several years, the requirement will be for shorter sessions about 10-15 times throughout every year, the state's Dr. Smith said.
"I think we have an opportunity to craft a process unlike any in the nation, and I think we're going to take that opportunity," she said.
For all the discussion about tenure, Mr. Pinkston said Tennessee officials' initial focus on teacher evaluation is on the right track. Time will tell the measure of the state's success, he said.
"Nobody wants to tinker around the edges of tenure when we're not doing a good job right now evaluating teachers."
Follow Kelli Gauthier on Twitter at twitter.com/gauthierkelli
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