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DOE to tighten tenure rules

School administrators undergo "employee termination training" to better evaluate instructors

By Mary Vorsino


School administrators statewide are getting a refresher course on Hawaii's teacher tenure policies and one of the key messages is: It is not impossible to fire a poorly performing tenured teacher.


In its application for a federal Race to the Top grant, the Department of Education pledged to overhaul Hawaii’s teacher tenure policies via these steps:
>> Institute a “performance-based” tenure system, which will use new evaluations that include not only classroom management reviews but also student test data.
>> Lengthen the amount of time probationary teachers must serve to achieve tenure, from two years to no less than three years.
>> Require that to achieve tenure, probationary teachers will have to be rated “effective” for at least three years during the first five years of teaching. Teachers who don’t achieve tenure “will be dismissed.”
>> Evaluate tenured teachers annually rather than every five years.
>> Terminate ineffective tenured teachers after they have had ample opportunity to improve. Source: Department of Education

The training comes as the Department of Education is proposing dramatic changes to Hawaii's teacher tenure system that would lengthen the amount of time teachers must serve to achieve tenure and ensure that only "effective" probationary teachers get the extra job security.

The new system is subject to union agreements, and is not expected to be fully phased in for several years.

In the meantime, the DOE has offered principals and vice principals "employee termination training," with lessons that include the due-process rights of tenured teachers and the kinds of support and professional development administrators can give ineffective teachers to help them improve.

Though the title of the training might worry some, DOE officials say they are not necessarily interested in increasing the number of tenured teachers who are fired. (No tenured teachers were terminated in the 2007-08 school year, the latest data from the U.S. Department of Education show; 127 probationary teachers were let go that year.)

Instead, said Yvonne Lau, acting administrator for the DOE performance management section, the idea is to get principals and teachers more comfortable with having difficult conversations about performance, improvement and consequences.

The emphasis of the training — and the new system — is on rewarding effective teachers, helping marginal teachers improve and pushing bad teachers who aren't getting better out of the classroom, the DOE said.

"I always tell them at the beginning, ‘I'm not the firing squad,'" said Lau, who is conducting the training courses statewide. "My goal is to help that employee, whether it's a teacher or a principal, get their performance to a satisfactory level."

She added, "What's been happening over the years is very few teachers were getting terminated. Ineffective teachers were not being performance-managed out of teaching. What we tried to do with the training was explain to principals … if the focus is on students, then it is our job to provide quality instructional feedback to the teacher.

"It's not impossible to terminate a poor-performing teacher, but we need to invest in the process and also invest in the person."

The discussion of Hawaii's tenure policies comes amid a national debate on teacher tenure, with some arguing the concept is outdated, and as the state also looks to revamp its teacher evaluation system. The department has proposed basing teachers' performance ratings, in part, on student academic growth.

Because changes to teacher tenure policies (and the new evaluation system) are being talked about in ongoing contract negotiations, officials declined to discuss details of current proposals.

But the Hawaii State Teachers Association has agreed the system needs to be improved. "Any proposal they (DOE officials) make will spell out evaluation criteria necessary to give an ‘effective' rating for teacher tenure," HSTA President Wil Okabe said.

<t-5>Pledges to overhaul the tenure system were included in Hawaii's application for the highly competitive federal Race to the Top grant. In August, Hawaii snagged $7<t-6>5 million as one of 10 winners — nine states and the District of Columbia — of a second round of Race grants.<t-5>

Race to the Top reforms are designed to boost student achievement and turn around low-performing schools, and the DOE has said none of that will be possible without improving teacher effectiveness.

In the state's Race application, Hawaii's blueprint for school improvement in the islands, the DOE said it plans to lengthen the amount of time probationary teachers must serve to get tenure from two to no less than three years and tie achieving tenure to performance.

Under the new system, probationary teachers will have to be rated "effective" for at least three years during the first five years of teaching to get tenure, the application said. Teachers who don't achieve tenure "will be dismissed."

The DOE could not immediately provide year-by-year information on the percentage of probationary teachers who achieved tenure, but said that from March 2010 to March 2011, more than 85 percent of probationary teachers who were eligible received tenure.

In its Race application, the state also said it would evaluate tenured teachers — not just probationary teachers — annually. Tenured teachers are now evaluated every five years, unless they show deficiencies.

Schools Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi said the proposed changes are designed to ensure that when teachers achieve tenure "we will know they are ready to succeed."

"Tenure is meant to be really a statement of the level of expertise and skills that a teacher has," she said. "They have the skills to be successful."

At least 19 states have some kind of tenure for teachers designed to protect them from arbitrary termination, and other states have "continuing contract" policies. Teacher tenure in Hawaii, which predates statehood, essentially requires the DOE to follow a set of due-process rules when initiating high-stakes teacher reviews.

Though tenure is not a job guarantee, it does slow the process by which a principal can fire a teacher for poor performance.

"It takes about two years of intense paperwork and documentation, and, honestly, it's a very trying process," said Mike Harano, principal of Washington Intermediate School.

Harano, though, said that his biggest problem with the tenure and evaluation system is not monitoring a teacher's progress, but having to act as both the evaluator and the person offering support. "It's difficult when you have to play both roles. My job as a principal is to help teachers get better."

He suggested that outside evaluators be charged with rating teachers.

Washington Intermediate teacher Pauline Wagnon said there are misperceptions in the community about what tenure is — and isn't. "It doesn't mean they can't get rid of you. It just means they have to have their ducks in a row."

The proposed changes to the teacher evaluation system, DOE officials said, go hand-in-hand with the changes to tenure because a better performance measure is needed if teachers are to be rated adequately and assisted if they need to make improvements.

Last school year, 99 percent of evaluated teachers were rated "satisfactory," and 1 percent were rated "marginal" or "unsatisfactory."

That breakdown is similar to what other states see. Nationally, less than 1 percent of public school teachers are given unsatisfactory ratings, a recent report found.

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