The tenure dilemma

Some want more teacher accountability, but districts say it's a personnel matter

A look at the rights and due process given to tenured public school teachers in California — especially when they've been accused of wrongdoing — makes one thing clear: There's nothing simple about it.

In 1921, California adopted a policy granting tenure to its public school teachers after a two-year probationary period, becoming the first state to do so. Other U.S. states have since adopted similar policies, although many have a longer probationary period.

Under the current rules, after a teacher has been with a school system for two years, administrators can recommend that the school board grant the teacher tenure, also called "permanent status," explained Barry Groves, superintendent of the Mountain View-Los Altos High School District. The new status confers a certain amount of job security; as Groves put it, such teachers are "protected from arbitrary and capricious reasons" for dismissal.

Groves said the status isn't granted lightly. "To gain tenure we have very high standards," he said. "We take tenure very seriously." Fiona Walter, a trustee of the Mountain View Whisman School District, said administrators watch over teachers and make recommendations to the board, adding that "If you maintain someone past two years, you essentially grant them tenure."

Tenured teachers can only be dismissed for certain violations, including "unsatisfactory performance or misconduct," according to UC Berkeley's Institute of Governmental Studies. But typically, there is a long and involved review process between allegations of misconduct and a tenured teacher's dismissal.

Dismissal not easy

The dismissal process varies from district to district. In the local high school district, teachers are given "due process" before appearing before the district school board, administrators said. The board's decision can be appealed to a panel of three judges, then appealed again up the judicial system.

According to a recent Los Angeles Times investigative series titled "Failure gets a pass," this process of appealing rulings can go on for years, potentially costing a school district millions in legal fees and lost work — and often creating an effective deterrent against pursuing complaints.

As for teachers' legal costs, Dina Martin, spokesperson for the California Teachers Association, said they are covered by CTA dues.

Often, the Times reported, a case gets complicated very quickly, with the end result being buyouts, forced retirements or strict disciplinary measures.

Because of these obstacles, problem teachers can be moved from school to school rather than fired, the Times reported. Parents also find it difficult to obtain a district's records on teacher misconduct.

Many local parents have asked the Voice what steps they can take to protect their children from an errant teacher, in the rare case that it becomes necessary. After a weeklong investigation into tenured teachers' rights — including interviews with local superintendents and school board members, representatives from the Santa Clara County Office of Education and the California Teacher's Association, and people from several offices of the California Department of Education — the Voice found that answers to this question were hard to come by.

Private vs. public

Because teachers are employees of a school district, and allegations of misconduct are a personnel matter, neither the Mountain View Whisman nor Mountain View-Los Altos school districts would discuss many specifics when it comes to the teacher review process.

When a district reviews a teacher's performance, said Fiona Walter, it "brings private rights into a public session." All disciplinary actions are done in closed session, she said, adding there was not much more she could comment on.

Walter directed further questions to Superintendent Maurice Ghysels and Stephanie Totter, director of administrative services. Administrators were on vacation as of last week, but Ghysels said that when it comes to disciplinary actions, his administration makes recommendations and the district board makes the final decision.

Representatives at the County Office of Education and the California Teacher Association said they were not privy to how districts reviewed their teachers' performance. As the CTA's Martin put it, "Every district is its own entity."

Attempts to find answers at the state level were even less successful. After looking through her database of specialists, Tina Jung, a spokesperson in the Department of Education, said there was no one there qualified to talk about tenure. She referred the Voice to the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, where a spokesperson said she too had no answers (and added that the Department of Education is always directing calls to them).

Several calls to the state Public Employment Relations Board and the California School Boards Association produced the same answer: ask the school districts. (The Association of School Administrators did not return calls as of press time.)

"We are an association," said CSBA spokesperson Brittany McKannay. "We are there to provide information for the school board."


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Posted by curious
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Jun 24, 2009 at 3:46 pm

Great reporting. Congratulations to the Voice for their coverage of this issue.

Now, as to the lack of response by the various bureaucracies ...

I think they are stonewalling you because they think they can. The bureaucrats know they can't be fired so they just hide behind "private rights." Well, the bureaucrats and the teachers work for the public. But they figure that if they hang on and obfuscate people will forget about it eventually.

I am going to pay a lot more attention to the school board candidates. I think they have failed the public on this issue since they are our only check on the bureaucrats.

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Posted by Huff Parent
a resident of Waverly Park
on Jun 24, 2009 at 3:59 pm

I don't understand why we need to provide "tenure" to public school teachers, especially if it's only there to protect the teachers and not the students. This is just another great example of carry over laws that do not make sense in the 21st century.

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Posted by seen it before...
a resident of another community
on Jun 24, 2009 at 4:10 pm

The deep dark not-so-secret truth about teaching comes to light....that "teacher tenure" is a ridiculously archaic, arcane, and asinine process that prevents any accountability whatsoever for job performance, and keeps teachers and administrators out of touch with how the real world does business. And we have the great state of California to blame for this idea?! ack!

I appreciate the time and effort that Casey Weiss put into this story and hope that the Voice will persist and keep pushing for answers all the way up and down the system.

Tenure makes teachers look insecure and immature; aren't teachers confident enough that they would rather be paid for their competency and performance than just seniority and number of college credits?

We need to abolish tenure and start paying teachers the much higher salaries that they are really worth. Put the millions (billions?) in union dues to better use by spending it not on lobbying but on more program and services for students.

by the way...I've taught at schools where the principal couldn't get rid of an alcoholic teacher (so they put him out in PE) and even an incompetent janitor was impossible to fire! Imagine a principal standing in the bushes peeking through the windows with a stopwatch to see how much time was spent cleaning each room.

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Posted by Ned
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Jun 24, 2009 at 7:01 pm

This is good reporting and what we need. Astonishing, but not surprising I suppose, the responses this reporter recorded from the local to the state level.

That said, if a poor-performing teacher gets tenure, blame the teacher?? It seems to me that we have lost a sense of what makes a good leader for our schools and district. So many appointments of principals lately. A director of human resources who had been sitting in the same job for years while performance has been flat. Last time I checked, these folks don't have tenure as administrators. So let's begin there with change if they think they can hide behind the law. It's time to clean house since I imagine there are plenty of qualified candidates looking for a challenge in this tough economy.

And then there's the school board. I think we can do better than have many of the same write-in, non-contested repeat, and appointed candidates. It might sound harsh, but politics are harsh.

Mountain View did at one time have an excellent principal at Landels, Dr. Krumbien who hailed from Stanford. He knew how to manage teachers and respect and support them at the same time. The ones that didn't get on board, he professionally managed, counseled, observed, and, for the few troubled ones, spared them no freedom from his oversight role as true leader. If necessary he wrote them up--documented issues in accordance with the law and the union. He never let up. He led from the front. Guess what, many of the bad apples left and he professionally supervised the ones that didn't until they conformed. Unfortunately, the distict found that his vision didn't fit with theirs, so he left to Sunnyvale where he turned a poor performing school around. This is one succesful case case of many. There are many top performing school district in California, but it comes down to leadership, but from what I have observed over the past several years, I just don't think this district has got it.

In short, don't put all the blame on the teachers, the union, and their contract while sparing the obvious deficiencies in the school administration.

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Posted by Overworked Teacher
a resident of another community
on Jun 24, 2009 at 7:32 pm

yes, blame the teacher, blame tenure, blame the union, never blame the principal, the administration, the board, or the parents.

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Posted by 10 year teacher
a resident of another community
on Jun 24, 2009 at 8:00 pm

Tenure works to protect teachers from capricious administrators attempting to create fiefdoms at their schools. If it were not for tenure, teachers who go against the administrators could be fired.

An example: in my 2nd year of teaching, I was told I wasn't "a match" with the particular school. I found out later the principal who fired me without any reason was trying to create positions so he could recruit teachers from his old school. (I had been hired by a different principal who had changed jobs the previous year.) Four or five of us were let go in this manner. Two years later, he was gone.

Another example: both vice principals had young adult sons who needed teaching jobs. Both fired a non-tenured teacher so they could hire their son.

At my current job, a former principal hired his wife and son to work in the district and the school.

From what I have seen, incompetent teachers are counselled out of teaching or are required to under go PAR (peer review) and they either get better at teaching or they resign.

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Posted by Nancy
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Jun 24, 2009 at 9:21 pm

Poor Ms. Casey...Looking for answers in all the wrong places! DID YOU THINK ABOUT ASKING A TEACHER ABOUT THE REVIEW PROCESS, TENURE, ADMINISTRATOR REVIEWS,ETC? Betcha woulda found some answers there babe. Okay, maybe we will forgive you. You did spend a whole week "investigating" and making calls... Talk to the teachers next time you could have gotten some good information. As for Totter, she loves to hide behind her lawyers and "privacy" cloak. She didn't do her job folks. Can we just agree on that point? She needs to be evaluated and monitored!!!

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Posted by Mike Laursen
a resident of Monta Loma
on Jun 24, 2009 at 11:55 pm

10 year teacher, couldn't tenure also be used to protect fiefdoms once established? Especially since the administrators are the ones who decide who gets tenure?

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Posted by CL
a resident of Jackson Park
on Jun 25, 2009 at 6:29 am

Either way, its the administrators and principals who influence the tenure process the most. Let's no forget that all administrators in this district were once teachers, so they know how to play the game. It's the fox guarding the hen house.

And BTW, administrators have tenure too. Get fired as an administrator and you have bumping rights to go right back into teaching in the district.

How about an article slamming the administrators and all their perks now?

All this is like blaming the line level employees of the auto makers for failures by those in charge.

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Posted by Dana
a resident of The Crossings
on Jun 25, 2009 at 11:20 am

I teach at several community colleges as an "adjunct." Under CA Ed Code, we are designated "at will" and "temporary" employees forever, no matter how sterlingly we teach. Local unions can negotiate a few atoms of job security and benefits, but we are still "at will." Most of us are too afraid of losing our jobs to speak out against anything at all--from lack of a mail slot to the dean hiring his non-degreed son over a long-term, highly evaluated adjunct, etc.
My full-time colleagues with tenure use it to speak loudly and often against administrative corruption and financial misdeeds. The original purpose of tenure was to premit the faculty to openly address bad administrative practices without threat of punishment and in the classroom, to teach controversial material without retribution. For this reason tenure does serve academia productively.
But I've also witnessed tenured faculty who come to class drunk, fall asleep in class, spend the entire class discussing personal problems, directly insult overweight or non-white students, or show up for onlly one day a weeek for a MWF classm, just to pick up homework and hand out the next assginment. One literally did not change his syllabus for 30 years. When students go to our chair and then the dean to complain, nothing is done because it's too much of an expensive hassle to discipline, no less fire, a tenured instructor, especially one who's taught for over 30 years and is near retirement. Tenure permits one to eventually sleep through his or her job and never be held accountable to the students or the public who pays his or her salary.
Only a supreme court judge has as much job security as a tenured instructor. We need some way to guarantee protection against academic infringement and whistleblowing without fostering laziness and complacency.

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Posted by no
a resident of Cuernavaca
on Jun 25, 2009 at 9:03 pm

Ned makes the correct takes committed leadership to make sure tenure is granted carefully. School districts have the power they need if the principals actually use it. It seems like Mtn View-Whisman principals are not on campus as much as they used to be-constantly being pulled to the District Office for meetings. In order for principals to truly know what's going on in classrooms and with teachers and students, they actually need to be on campus.

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Posted by Brett
a resident of another community
on Jun 26, 2009 at 8:31 am

I believe tenure is one of the main sources, if not the main source, of poor teaching. There is little incentive besides character to achieve. Believe me, it is hard to stomach seeing some of the teachers in the public school system. I just recently got out and am teaching in a private school. I am happy to shake off the dust of the CTA and their strangle hold on public education and politics. They claim to care about the students. They do care about them, only after they have taken care of themselves.

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Posted by Yup, I'm a teacher
a resident of another community
on Jun 26, 2009 at 1:17 pm

Yes, tenure protects bad teachers. There, I said it. In my multi-decade career, I can count on more than two hands the number of teachers who should have cashed in their chips years ago. They know it, their administrators know it, the kids know it.

But it also protects good teachers. It forces administrators to admit that they don't know everything about everything. It means that there are no knee-jerk responses and remediation is always a first step. It means that everyone is worth saving.

What's the answer? The system is broken. There needs to be a new version of tenure. Some sort of review at 5, 10, 15 years where a teacher has to prove that they are worth the tenure to a committee that isn't just comprised of administrators. Some kind of proof that the teacher is striving to stay current with techniques and improve him/herself and the teaching strategies used in the classroom.

I'm done preaching now.

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Posted by Carolyn
a resident of Shoreline West
on Jun 26, 2009 at 2:39 pm

10 year teacher, the exact same things happen everywhere, not just in schools. Do teachers deserve more job protection than someone in the corporate world? Everyone has the option to sue for wrongful termination, even teachers.

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Posted by Jane
a resident of North Whisman
on Jun 26, 2009 at 5:06 pm

Businesses all over Silicon Valley are making tough decisions to lay off workers - we all know people who are laid off. Many of the people I know who are looking for work were with the same employer for 5-15 years, some even longer. They did good jobs, and companies kept them as long as possible, but not jobs because they had tenure, but because of their performance. Imagine if all companies in Silicon Valley had tenure for their employees... we would work where lognevity=guarantee, not performance=longevity. And I think we ALL have experienced new management or management transitions; reorganizations shake things up - and it sounds like tenure is also used to guarantee a teacher's position when there are management changes. What a different world than most of us work in, where proving our value is our challenge; I think we would have better teachers if they did not work in a world where they expected to keep a job based on the length of their service.

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Posted by Confused
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Jun 27, 2009 at 9:14 am

It works both ways. Tenure also ensures longevity by providing an incentive for the good to teachers to stay and not pursue a higher salary. If you get rid of tenure, you had better be prepared to significantly increase teacher salaries. Either that or the distict can start shopping around for teachers at the Day Worker Center.

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Posted by Debbie
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Jun 27, 2009 at 10:44 am

As a tenured teacher in the Cupertino school district, I can tell you that there are good arguments on both sides of this issue. Yes, there are teachers in my district and my own school who should probably NOT be teaching any longer, but it is impossible to get rid of them unless they commit some kind of agregious offense, such as helping students cheat on STAR tests, or using some type of physical punishment.

On the other hand, teachers go through an UNBELIEVABLE vetting process during their probabationary period (typically their first 2-3 years of teaching)when they can be fired WITHOUT CAUSE at any time, and they are at the mercy of their principal, who will frequently come into their classrooms unannounced to review their performance. Once a teacher has been tenured, I can personally vouch for the majority of my colleagues as to their dedication and personal work ethics. Anyone who thinks that someone becomes a teacher just to get "their summers off", is sadly misinformed. Teachers generally use their summers to unwind from the school year, that's true - but most of us also use that time to take classes (which WE pay for) to extend our professional knowledge and plan for the upcoming school year. A number of us also teach summer school to make ends meet in the summer when we're not paid.

That said, I personally agree that there should be some modifications made to the current system of tenure. First of all, I think a teacher's tenure should be "re-evaluated" every 3-5 years to ensure that their teaching skills are current and effective. If they do not pass this evaluation, they should be given one year of remedial coaching and professional development - if there is no improvement, they should be released from their district. As a teaching professional who constantly strives to deepen my knowledge base and professional skills, I feel that greater pressure should be placed on ALL teachers to do the same (i.e. - complete a certain # of units of professional development each school year).

Hopefully, we can all work together to fix a broken system - although in an era of deep cuts to education budgets, this is not likely to happen soon.

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Posted by Ex-Huff Parent
a resident of Waverly Park
on Jun 27, 2009 at 11:49 am

Tenure is one of the factors ruining public education. Not to mention the corrupt wussies in administration and on the board.
And why to teachers "need" job protection when the rest of the country prospers without it?

However it's not fixable because the voters keep electing teacher-worshipping board members and legislators. We get what we vote for. Otherwise we could have no tenure, charter schools and vouchers to give us some options in educating our kids.

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Posted by LASD MV Parent
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Jun 27, 2009 at 1:56 pm

The problem starts at the top and that's where it should be fixed first.

School Boards and Superintendents throughout the County are showing a very poor example; almost none of the 34+ superintendents have a performance component in their pay !!

The Santa Clara County Grand Jury just released the following report

(Hint: It’s Not the Students)

Web Link

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Posted by Carolyn
a resident of Shoreline West
on Jun 27, 2009 at 7:54 pm

Debbie, California is an at will employment state and ANYONE (who is not in a union, natch) can be fired for no reason. And not just for the first 2 or 3 years of their job. Of course everyone else is also at the mercy of their boss, who will evaluate their performance unannounced. Anyone who works goes through similar experiences.

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Posted by M
a resident of Waverly Park
on Jun 27, 2009 at 10:34 pm

remember, America works less when we say Union Yes!

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Posted by Bill
a resident of Castro City
on Jun 28, 2009 at 8:36 am

Everyone should take a look at the link regarding exorbitant salaries posted above my LASD MV Parent. It ruined my morning.

Let's not forget either that these salaries factor permenantly into the retirement plan of these superintendents. If you want to know why the State of California is going bankrupt, there you have it. Everyone should recall the case of the last superintendent in MV who hike her salary up in the last year and factored in her benefits to spike her salary and two other administrators months before their retirement. We will be paying the bill for years. WAKE UP CALIFORNIA. THIS IS WRONG.

Money should be 98% devoted to supporting the classroom teacher, not a bureacracy that increasingly delivers a failing education system.

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Posted by Lee
a resident of Blossom Valley
on Jun 28, 2009 at 12:20 pm

The paper should publish the findings of the Grand Jury!

Follow the money. This board should appoint an auditor, outside of education cirlces to clean up this district.

Too much waste at a time we can no longer afford it.

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Posted by dh
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Jun 28, 2009 at 5:16 pm

The Grand Jury report is a fascinating read. The MV superintendent receives health benefits which were not divulged (why not?), presumably free of charge as part of his package. In return, he is charged with negotiating with the teachers's union and is constantly demanding that teachers put forward more money for their health benefits. MV spends more per student on the supe, $44.17 than Palo Alto at $23.52. What a fleecing.

Why is the superintendent reimbursed $6000 for car expenses each year for travel between 8 schools, when the supr of San Jose Unified receives the same for travel between 53 school in a city for larger than MV?

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Posted by parent
a resident of Shoreline West
on Jun 29, 2009 at 1:19 pm

I've been saying it over and over and I'll say it HAVE TO GO TO THE BOARD MEETINGS!



MV Voice, please do a big front page story on this grand jury report.

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Posted by Observer
a resident of another community
on Jun 29, 2009 at 5:53 pm

yeah, no kidding, we have to start going to the board meetings. Last time I went, however, they pulled the old trick of stalling off public comments for what seems forever, and then just stared at the public with blank stares on their faces. I'm not sure what the point of it all was.

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Posted by Ned
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Jul 1, 2009 at 5:26 pm

The report is definitely worth a look. If anything it shows how the public school system is ripe with mismanagement and abuses.

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Posted by MR
a resident of another community
on Jul 8, 2009 at 3:24 pm

First of all, please realize that tenure provides a significant incentive for good teachers to stay in bad schools. Teachers are exchanging a measure of job security for lower pay than similarly educated people get in the private sector. As far as summers off, many teachers depend on summer jobs to make ends meet. In addition, much time is spent planning and organizing class materials for the coming year.

Unlike the private sector, where managers would face serious questioning if they fired top performers for personal reasons, school administrators routinely fire non-tenured teachers on a whim. There is no obvious bottom line being affected by firing a top "producer" in a school, so no questions are asked. In a business, arbitrarily firing a highly successful employee would cause repercussions for his or her manager.

Teachers' tenure is an easy target that serves to take our eyes of the main problem- third-rate administration. Of more import to the well being of schools are the superintendent, principals, and the board. I'm so sick of seeing failed superintendents getting large, six figure payoffs as a 'reward' for stepping down. Administrators aren't summarily fired for poor performance; there seems to be no "at will" employment for them.

At one point I had to decide whether to remain in teaching, I'd taught for 6 years, or get out and get paid 50% more salary--with growth potential! I got out. Within two years I was earning twice what my former colleagues were. I missed working with students and having a sense that I was contributing to society, but I loved being away from all the insanity that runs our schools.

Where does the money go? The report is right--it doesn't go to teachers and students.

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Posted by Fed Up
a resident of Monta Loma
on Jul 9, 2009 at 8:27 pm

In response to parent's suggestion to go to board meetings.

Yeah, right, you go to the board meetings and make a public comment and they all stare at you like your crazy. They can't comment on this, they can't comment on that. Some barely sound literate at times. We got what we voted for; at least for the ones who weren't appointed.

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Posted by Huff Parent
a resident of another community
on Jul 9, 2009 at 8:40 pm

It the administators who must take the blame for this one.

This was such a long time in the making.

Let's not pretend to think that this is all about an unfit teacher.

The Voice handled this all very poorly.

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Posted by m
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Jul 10, 2009 at 6:49 am

I'm a teacher and in my experience tenure does give a place in schools for people who would otherwise be fired. However, new hires are almost ALWAYS the same in terms of work ethic in their 5th year (with tenure) as in their 2nd. People are either hard workers or they aren't. Tenure doesn't change that. It is a false myth that as soon as teachers get tenure they go on a permanent coffee break. Most are there because they have a strong driving force to help kids and love doing it.
It is a lack of close evaluation in the granting of tenure that causes crappy teachers to get it. If you have a pulse and haven't pissed anyone off, you generally get it. Teachers do get fired capriciously, but how is that different than other places of employment? Teaching is not a respected profession (read we don't get trained or paid like real professionals) therefore schools have to take what they can get.
Its not like there are high quality teachers knocking down the doors. It is often a choice of terrible teacher #1 or mediocre teacher #2. If the job market were more competitive tenure would make more sense as a non-monetary incentive for a tough job to the top ones hired. But now, teachers get tenure because admin don't have the time or options to pick "best" people for the job.

Teaching is becoming an increasingly crucial and difficult job. We should reform our system by making the teaching profession a respected thing to achieve. As someone who went to Stanford, I can say I am often asked "why are you wasting your talents in teaching?" -- if my salary matched that of a lawyer or engineer, or if getting a teaching job was highly competitive, wouldn't more bright people want to do this challenging and important job?

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Posted by concerned parents
a resident of Blossom Valley
on Jul 16, 2009 at 11:08 pm

So, It's difficult to get rid of wrongdoing teachers with tenure.
How difficult to get rid of the tenure law? What's the procedure
to remove this tenure law? Good teachers don't need it; why letting the bad teachers to take the advantage of it?

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Posted by Oh Please
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Jul 21, 2009 at 8:13 pm

Some one else said it some where else, but it demands repeating here. It's not just the teachers that benefit from tenure. Even the administrators and principals are protected by it--it's their last refuge. The whole system is backward.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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