Mixed Signals on Tenure Reform Could Halt Innovations

Published May 7, 2010

Thanks to Race to the Top, teacher tenure reform has gone from a relatively obscure issue to one of the most contentious education policy debates of 2010.

The $4.35 billion grant program requires states to include information on how they plan to reward effective teachers. Most states have taken that as meaning effectively ending teacher tenure, a move teachers unions strongly oppose. Federal officials made clear in April, however, the most successful Race to the Top applications would require statewide “buy-in” from stakeholders, especially the unions.

Despite the mixed signals from federal officials, lawmakers in several states, including Colorado, California, and New York, decided to take a second look at how teachers are hired, evaluated, and fired in the run-up to the next round of the federal Race to the Top competition in June.

Setback in Florida

Tenure reform received a setback in April when Florida Governor Charlie Crist (R) vetoed SB 6, which would have linked teacher evaluations and pay increases to student performance and would have ended tenure for new teachers in the Sunshine State.

Crist initially supported the bill, but he vetoed the final version because he said it infringed on the authority of local school boards.

SB 6 was strongly opposed by teacher unions in Florida, who lobbied heavily against the measure.

Performance-Pay ‘In Infancy’

Jamie Gass, director of the Center for School Reform at the Pioneer Institute in Boston, Massachusetts, says performance pay systems are in their infancy in many states and Florida’s proposal to expand merit pay would have provided important information on their effectiveness.

“Performance-based pay for teachers is considered a third rail in education policy,” Gass explained. “Consequently, the number of states and districts that have implemented merit pay are small, and the supporting research for its efficacy is still somewhat uncertain.”

“That’s why Florida’s legislative efforts to tie a portion of teacher pay to student achievement seemed so encouraging. That is, until for political reasons struggling Charlie Crist vetoed Florida’s merit pay plans,” said Gass.

Gass says what little research does exist suggests a high-quality teacher paired with a strong academic-based curriculum “is the best determinant of increasing student achievement.”

“One of the ways to ensure that students have access to well-educated and motivated teachers, especially in underserved districts and hard-to-staff subjects like math, science, and special education, is offering greater compensation,” Gass said.

Danger of ‘Merit in Name Only’

Research Gass conducted for the Pioneer Institute found the “performance-based approach is more likely to encourage the best teachers to remain, while perhaps also encouraging the least effective to seek more productive employment elsewhere,” he said.

“Even though merit pay or differential pay in public education is very much in the experimental phases in America, if there’s one thing that’s been lacking in public education policy it’s been the willingness to innovate and make bold experiments to reform the system,” Gass said.

Jay P. Greene, chairman of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, sees Florida’s experience as a proxy for the Obama administration’s criteria for Race to the Top awards.

“There is a very real danger that the centrality of union buy-in as a condition for states receiving [Race to the Top] funds will produce MINO programs—Merit in Name Only,” said Greene.

“You can call credentialing and professional development ‘merit,’ but it is the same-old pay for inputs rather than the pay for results that people normally equate with merit,” he added. ?

Expects ‘Watered-Down Reforms’

“The same is true for tenure reform,” Greene warned. “We may well see TRINO programs—Tenure Reform in Name Only.”

“If the unions can’t block something they hate, they co-opt it,” Greene said. “RTTT may be the vehicle by which they co-opt merit pay and tenure reform nationwide.”

Robert Enlow, president and CEO of the Foundation for Educational Choice, has similar concerns about Race to the Top and its requirement of union buy-in.

“With the required union buy-in to RTTT, I fully expect that we will see real reform shot down and replaced by watered-down reforms that will be sold as big victories,” Enlow said.

Lindsey Burke ([email protected]) is a policy analyst in domestic policy studies at the Heritage Foundation.