The More Civil Discussion Over Teachers' Tenure

Gov. Bill Haslam's proposed legislation seeks to toughen tenure rules

Besides collective bargaining, the teacher-centric issue generating the most noise in Nashville this year is tenure. But it is, at least so far, a more civil conversation.

Gov. Bill Haslam has proposed legislation that would extend the probationary period before tenure is granted from three to five years, and would also rescind tenure for teachers who have two straight years of poor performance.

Jessica Holman, president of the Knox County Education Association, says tenure is widely misunderstood by the general public, by legislators, and even by school administrators. For one thing, to gain tenure in the first place, teachers need three years of good evaluations, not just three years of showing up for work. And for another, contrary to popular belief, tenured teachers can be disciplined and fired. But both sides of that equation rely on supervisors doing a good job with teacher evaluations. If a poorly performing teacher is being retained or, even worse, handed off from one school to another, Holman says, that's the fault of supervisors who are either afraid to confront them or just don't want the hassle. "There's been a misuse of the evaluation tool," Holman says.

Still, the Tennessee Education Association has been cautious in its approach to Haslam's bill. (Just as Haslam has been cautious in speaking out on the collective bargaining issue.) "We have told the governor that we're open to talking about tenure," says Jerry Winters, the TEA's director of government relations. Though, he cautions, "We could never go back to where teachers have no due process."

State Sen. Jamie Woodson says tenure reform should be seen as a "professional development" issue for teachers, not a punitive one—providing ways to distinguish between more and less effective teachers, and bring additional support to those who need it.

"You've got to be able to differentiate teachers in a meaningful way and effective way," she says.