Tenure for teachers in Georgia, and most states across the country, means that once they're offered a contract, they will never lose their jobs, according to a Drew University researcher.
"The extremely low rates of dismissal for tenured teachers, and the fact that dismissal is generally pursued for egregious conduct violations rather than performance, means that tenured teachers in most states enjoy the functional equivalence of employment for life," said Patrick McGuinn, an associate professor of political science and education at Drew University in New Jersey.
Across Georgia, the average school district dismissal rate for experienced teachers was 1.4 percent in 2007-08, according to reports from the National Council on Teacher Quality and the National Center for Education Statistics. Dr. McGuinn cited that figure in his February report, "Ringing the Bell for K-12 Teacher Tenure Reform."
Statistics from two of North Georgia's largest county school systems, Catoosa and Walker, parallel state figures. More than 95 percent of Catoosa and Walker teachers who stay for three years get tenure. Records show that few teachers were fired in the last four years and no tenured teachers were dismissed.
But nationwide, the lure of millions of dollars in federal Race to the Top money to improve education is motivating states to reform tenure processes and teacher evaluations.
"What we've seen in the last six months is more reform and more debate around teacher tenure than we've probably seen in the entire history of tenure in America," Dr. McGuinn said.
However, teacher organizations in Georgia and other states balked at the "boldness" of Race to the Top reforms, he said. The Peach State placed third in the Race to the Top competition, behind Tennessee and Delaware, and some say that's because of the lack of universal support from teachers statewide.
Georgia Association of Educators President Jeff Hubbard said the "failure to include the voices of the individuals responsible for improving our schools in Phase 1 hurt Georgia's application."
Marissa Brower, Catoosa Schools spokeswoman, said few tenured teachers are dismissed in Catoosa because ineffective teachers are weeded out or placed on a professional development plan to make them better before they are granted tenure.
But evidence shows that's not necessarily true statewide. In a teacher survey included in Georgia's Race to the Top application, 63 percent of respondents disagreed that "ineffective teachers are removed consistently from the classroom."
Chris Chambers, Walker County's coordinator of student services and a former principal, and Sandy Boyles, principal at Battlefield Primary School in Catoosa County, say the burden falls on the principal to make sure teachers are doing their jobs.
Principals start getting an idea of a new teacher's weaknesses in the first year, and remediation and mentoring from experienced teachers strengthen the new teachers' capabilities, they said.
"You've got to spend time with them. You've got to be in there more than five minutes at a time," Mr. Chambers said. "You've got to be able to see the beginning of a lesson, the middle of a lesson and the end of a lesson, and then you've got to go back and see if the students can apply what they learned."
Dr. Boyles said principals must make evaluations "a priority."
"Every new teacher comes in needing some help, needing some mentors," she said. "Ninety percent of the time, that pays off. That teacher develops and continues to grow."
Tenure is not ironclad protection, they said.
"The expectation of 'continued employment' is wonderful, but the reality is, if they can't do the job, then I'm going to go through the steps to make sure every boy and girl in every classroom in my building has the best opportunity for instruction, period," Mr. Chambers said. "If that means they (poor teachers) have got to go, then that means they've got to go."
He said he's never had to go through a dismissal hearing, but he's always thoroughly documented teachers' work as part of the evaluation process.
"I've had a lot of teachers who stepped up. They either got on the ball and did what I expected, or they left," he said.
Brandi Chilton, in her second year in the Catoosa County district and her eighth year as a teacher, is not worried about whether she'll get tenure a couple of years from now. Tenure can be granted only after a teacher works three years in the same system.
"I feel like, if I'm doing my job, I'm not going to have to worry about whether I have tenure or not," said Ms. Chilton, who formerly worked in Nashville Public Schools in Tennessee.
Georgia's tenure laws, defined under the Fair Dismissal Act of 1975, protect teachers from nepotism and local politics, but they can hinder the removal of ineffective teachers, according to Kelly McCutchen, president of the nonprofit Georgia Public Policy Foundation.
The Fair Dismissal Act makes it "too difficult" for administrators to get rid of bad teachers, he said. Fair Dismissal creates a protocol for dismissing ineffective teachers, but "it is very, very difficult," he said.
"We hear consistently from principals and superintendents that ... there are a certain number of teachers in our classrooms that should be removed 'for cause,' and that the current laws make it very difficult to do so and should be changed," he said.
But Mr. Chambers said that, if used properly, the Fair Dismissal Act works.
"As long as you say, 'Oh, they've got tenure, there's nothing I can do about it, I'll just have to accept it,' then you get what you accept," he said. "But if you say, 'I don't care if you've been here for 32 years, you're going to do your job,' they either accept it or they don't."
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