Education reform around the country: tightening teacher tenure in New York

The last several years have witnessed a flurry of educational reform movements. Recently Utah residents – and this blog – have zeroed in on a federal initiative, the common core standards for math and language arts. I’ll have still more to say about that issue in coming blogs. But as readers think about how to improve Utah education within the context of the state’s resource constraints, I think it’s worth looking at what’s happening in other states.

Today’s New York Times includes an article about how New York City has tightened¬† standards for teacher tenure. (Okay, I know that Utah doesn’t have tenure. The law provides for “a reasonable expectation of continued employment.” The Department of Education lists Utah as having tenure. For a longer discussion of this issue, see

But meanwhile, back in New York:

Nearly half of New York City teachers reaching the end of their probations were denied tenure this year, the Education Department said on Friday, marking the culmination of years of efforts toward Mayor Michael R.

Only 55 percent of eligible teachers, having worked for at least three years, earned tenure in 2012, compared with 97 percent in 2007.

An additional 42 percent this year were kept on probation for another year, and 3 percent were denied tenure and fired. Of those whose probations were extended last year, fewer than half won tenure this year, a third were given yet another year to prove themselves, and 16 percent were denied tenure or resigned.

The totals reflect a reversal in the way tenure is granted not only in New York City but around the country. While tenure was once considered nearly automatic, it has now become something teachers have to earn.

The article notes some problems with the new system. Attrition among new teachers is high (a problem that has long plagued education, and may not entirely be a problem – in my experience a certain number of new teachers simply discover that it’s not the right career for them.) New teachers need mentoring and support as well as evaluation, a subject I’ve addressed repeatedly on this blog. And new teachers understandably resent the sharp scrutiny they face, when tenured teachers who qualified under the old system get, essentially, a free pass. Maybe that’s a signal that tenured teachers also need periodic, and not just cursory,¬† reevaluation.



  1. Carolyn Sharette

    Good points Mary. One thing I am troubled by and never really hear about – what about good, “tenured” teachers who get tired, or sick, or who have a personal life crisis (like a divorce or a disabled child) and as a result cannot give what is needed in the classroom? This could happen to a teacher that has taught for many years and there is no mechanism that I am aware of to ease them out of the classroom, and students suffer.

    It is unlikely they would be fired in the public school setting. There was a teacher in a local district with a back issue, and after surgery he was in pain, on meds, and couldn’t get up from his desk to teach standing up. This was accepted and he continued, which I understand is a very kind way to treat employees who, through no fault of their own have problems. However, students suffered, which should be a line we don’t cross – and yet there seemed to be no alternative.

  2. Jeffery Hosten

    I think it’s important to eliminate tenure. Teachers should be held to account for their students’ performance, and a principal should be able to fire employees that aren’t performing without mountains of paperwork.

    However, I think that eliminating tenure laws will not produce the 30-40% gains in test scores that are needed in poor urban areas. Firing all the bad teachers might produce a 2% bump, but I’m not convinced it’s much more than that. Again, I’m in favor of it, but I think that the self-styled reformers should be careful with it. There are deeper issues that need to be addressed.

    • Mary McConnell

      I agree that reformers should not oversell tenure reform. At best, tenure reform will make it easier to get rid of the very worst teachers, and maybe discourage a few from retiring on the job (a phenomenon I think we’ve all witnessed.)

      We’ll get a much bigger “bump” from more rigorous evaluations that actually help teachers identify areas that need improvement and tackle them. I truly believe that most teachers would ultimately welcome this change, especially if the evaluators were experienced fellow teachers who viewed themselves more as mentors than judges. I’ve said this before, but let me again thank the wonderful teachers who helped me through my first few years of teaching. You know who you are.

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