Is Colorado Serious about Fixing Our Broken Teacher Tenure System?

Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal featured a great (and timely) editorial piece titled “No (Tenured) Teacher Left Behind” — focusing readers’ attention on an issue that demands policy makers’ attention:

School reformers generally agree that the most important education resource is the teacher. But one of the biggest obstacles to putting a good instructor in every classroom is a tenure system that forces principals to hire and retain teachers based on seniority instead of performance.

California grants tenure to teachers after merely two years in the classroom. New York, like most other states, makes teachers wait a grand total of three years before giving them a job for life. In most cases tenure is granted automatically unless administrators object, which is rare.

Colorado is like New York, in that teachers have a three-year probationary period before career tenure is rewarded. Some object and say that Colorado doesn’t have teacher tenure. If you mean the word tenure as such doesn’t appear in the law books, you’re right. But there are still plenty of bureaucratic hoops to climb that make removing a tenured teacher extremely costly and difficult. Remember this chart?

Right now, one bill before the legislature by state senator Nancy Spence would improve the system. Senate Bill 50 (PDF) would extend the probationary period from three years to five years, and make tenure subject to renewal every five years based on a satisfactory professional evaluation. So if the teacher is doing a good job, there’s still nothing to worry about. But districts would not have to wait for long and/or spend tens of thousands of dollars on legal fees to remove a poorly-performing teacher.

There had been talk about another legislative effort to reform teacher tenure in Colorado, but the Governor’s office replaced it with a proposal for a new commission to study the problem and new state bureaucracies. Meanwhile, SB 50 languishes in no man’s land.

My serious-minded friends tell me not to expect any real tenure reform out of this legislature. Guess I just don’t get politics yet, not when a problem like this one could be fixed to save money and make sure students like me have better teachers. Baseball season hasn’t even started yet, and I’m already saying wait ’till next year….