Tenure decision still in flux

Nomin-Erdene Jagdagdorj

ublic school teachers in Missouri could be without tenure, the contractual right not to be terminated without cause, if the state congress passes a new amendment to the state constitution.

The amendment would prohibit school districts that receive funding from the state or local taxes from entering contracts with teachers exceeding three years. It would also cut off schools that allow seniority to play a role in determining the job status of any teacher.

If the petition for the measure acquires the necessary 147,000 signatures, it could reach ballots by November. According to Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan’s website, Missouri is one of 24 states that allows citizen-initiated constitutional amendments.

Under the current Columbia Public Schools system, teachers receive tenure after serving the district for five years, principal Mark Maus said. Experience in other districts also counts toward tenure.

Maus said the elimination of tenure would not cause drastic shifts in RBHS’ atmosphere. In the absence of tenure, the district may choose to evaluate teachers more frequently than a formal evaluation every five years under the current tenure system, he said.

“Tenure can provide some comfort for teachers,” Maus said. “I would never want someone to think that tenure means they don’t have to keep working hard. And that’s the real difference — that our teachers, regardless of whether they’re in their first five years or the last five years, they continue to work hard in the classroom and continue to do whatever they can to help students.”

Tenure “exists to protect academic freedom in the classroom,” social studies teacher Bill Priest said, who has been teaching at RBHS for 26 out of his 32 total years in the educational field.

He cited an experience teaching in southeastern Missouri where a superintendent refused to give teachers tenure in order to keep them “at his mercy.” Situations like these where teachers are pressured to make “politically wise” decisions rather than “academically sound” ones would be more common without tenure, he said.

But social studies teacher Austin Reed disagrees, arguing the risk of having this sort of administrator to be “miniscule” compared to the harm tenure does by protecting bad teachers.

“If you’re a good teacher, you’re going to be fine in a school with or without tenure,” Reed said. “But [tenure] just makes it more difficult, causes more headaches, to fire bad teachers. If we really want to solve education, it has to start with difficult issues, which involves firing bad teachers.”

Maus said at CPS, removing a tenured teacher is a longer process because it requires administration to work with the teacher towards improvement. If these steps failed, the administration must document the problem and the steps they took to help the teacher improve, he said.

While the steps to fire an incompetent teacher could become easier without tenure, Reed and Priest agreed RBHS teachers would approach their jobs the same way, an idea supported by 2009 research from Cornell that said tenure had little effect on teacher performance around the nation.

“This school is a rarity in education. We’ve always understood that we’re here to focus on teaching and learning,” Priest said. But “it would be a very unfortunate message to people thinking about going into education, since not everyone’s going to teach at Rock Bridge High School or in Columbia Public Schools.”
By Nomin-Erdene Jagdagdorj