Revamping Hawaii’s teacher tenure system is emerging as an important issue heading into contract negotiations with the Hawaii State Teachers Association this summer, as mounting pressure on public schools transforms a long-standing concern into a hot topic.
Public school principals have cited flexibility in hiring teachers as the most important tool that would empower them to run their schools, and the executive director of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, the state superintendent and the chairman of the state Board of Education all responded to that survey result by saying that they are committed to improving the current system, as long as teachers are treated fairly.
Every spring, assignments for the next school year are shuffled according to the Department of Education’s Teacher Assignment and Transfer Program, the rules of which are dictated by the teachers’ contract.
Average number of teachers per public school district and dismissal rates, according to tenure status:
Average number of teachers per district:
Average number of teachers per district who were dismissed or did not have their contracts renewed:
Dismissal according to tenure status:
Teachers with tenure:
United States: 3
Teachers without tenure:
United States: 1.4
Source: National Center for Education Statistics, School and Staffing Survey, 2007-2008
Teachers achieve tenure after four semesters and one day, and with that job security comes the right to "bump" probationary teachers from schools that might rather keep them.
Positions held by probationary teachers are treated as vacancies, meaning that a displaced tenured teacher can take the job, even if the probationary teacher is a better fit and has received training specific to the school or position. If multiple, equally qualified licensed, tenured teachers want the same position, it is granted by seniority.
Tenured teachers can end up on the displaced list because enrollment dropped at their old school, or because their position was eliminated as a principal revamped the school’s curriculum or department structure.
"This is not a new process, but I think the sense of frustration is growing because principals know they are going to have less time for professional development and less time to get new teachers up to speed," said Kathryn Matayoshi, superintendent of the state Department of Education. "You have principals trying to create a particular program in their school and achieve certain goals, and they have probationary teachers who’ve been there almost two years, and they’ve trained them, and then sometimes they lose them. That’s frustrating."
(As part of the deal to end Furlough Fridays, teachers gave up six planning days, converting them to instructional days starting in the 2010-2011 school year.)
Matayoshi said that she believed the tenure system would be a "significant issue" in upcoming contract talks. The department is working with the HSTA to come up with satisfactory ways to lengthen the amount of time it takes to achieve tenure, while giving teachers the support they need to succeed in the classroom.
Al Nagasako, the HSTA’s executive director and a former principal of Kapolei High School, said Zones of Innovation being developed on the Waianae Coast provide compelling inspiration for systemwide improvement.
"Holding on to teachers that are proving to be effective, making sure they’re the best fit for the community, that’s all part of the concept. It’s still in the planning stages, but I feel that it’s a wonderful opportunity. This is something that we are committed to doing," said Nagasako, explaining that two HSTA representatives have participated in a series of meetings to help develop a "completely new way of doing things" in Waianae and Nanakuli schools.
"I do agree that the principals need more flexibility, and we want to be part of a system that’s coherent and fair," he said. "An opportunity really lies right in front of us with these innovation zones."
Board of Education Chairman Garrett Toguchi agreed that the system for assigning displaced teachers could be better, but also contended that principals already have a lot of authority over hiring and firing, if they are willing to exert it.
"Part of the difficulty for principals right now is that their plate is overflowing. But they do have the authority to decide who is going to come to work at their school and who is going to stay. They evaluate and then either recommend or not recommend," said Toguchi. "I can see why principals would like to have more flexibility, but the reality also is that maybe part of the problem is that they’re having to deal with someone (on the displaced teachers list) who another principal didn’t deal with."
Farrington High School Principal Catherine Payne said the teacher-transfer process is a vestige of an outdated way of thinking that is holding back the public schools.
"You want immediate improvement in the public school system? Get rid of tenure — for everybody. The system, the way it works now, fosters a sense of job entitlement among some people. It’s not everybody, definitely not. But even if you have one or two people on the staff who act like they have a job for life and don’t have to work hard to keep it, it has a very negative effect," said Payne, explaining that while only teachers and principals gain tenure, other school employees gain similar job security known as "permanent status."
Payne said replacing tenure with progressively longer contracts based on fair performance evaluators would make employees less complacent while protecting their rights.
"I tell people this all the time. It would help. A lot. That said, I don’t have high hopes that it’s going to happen."
Talk to us, let’s work together
Improving communication among schools, the Department of Education and the Board of Education is a major goal of public school principals, a desire the superintendent and board chairman said they share.
"I think it’s very sincere to say that board members have taken their input to heart. We do value their voice," said Board of Education chairman Garrett Toguchi, responding to a survey of principals citing the need for better communication.
Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi is seeking specific recommendations from principals on how to better link the statewide department, which includes 258 schools and employs some 20,000 full-time workers and about 20,000 casual hires.
While the department faces a $35 million cut to its $1.7-billion operating budget, all that money will come from the state administrative level. In making that cut, the Legislature simultaneously added $22 million to the weighted student formula allocated directly to schools on a per-pupil basis.
"We are grateful for that," Matayoshi said. "I have communicated that before, but it bears repeating."