We start from this premise: that the vast majority of teachers are dedicated, skilled and effective. When we encounter them in the classroom and in the community, we almost always come away impressed. When we talk with students, we almost always find that teachers are important sources of inspiration and growth.
We also start with this premise: that teacher tenure is an important tool to safeguard educators in a profession where free thought and innovation must be encouraged.
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We also start with this preconception: The argument used earlier this month by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu to strike down California's tenure system seems a bit of a stretch. He posited that the tenure requirement is unconstitutional because, he maintains, the failure to dismiss incompetent teachers undermines the idea that students should have an equal educational opportunity. It seems to us that no system would meet that standard because some teachers by the simple nature of things are going to be somehow better than others or more educated than others or more experienced than others.
All of that said, we do welcome Treu's ruling as an impetus to review current tenure policies and the thinking behind them. If it prompts a thoughtful public discussion of tenure, that would be a good thing.
We do not espouse elimination of tenure, but we do think the system likely needs to be refined.
Eight years ago, the Small Newspaper Group published an award-winning investigation that exposed widespread problems with Illinois' teacher-tenure system. Of the many powerful findings in the report, we were most stunned by this one: Of more than 95,000 tenured teachers in Illinois, an average of only two a year are terminated for poor performance. Such an astounding ratio is, quite frankly, hard to believe.
Every profession has its share of poor performers, including some who eventually must be fired because they can't bring their performance up to acceptable levels. Every profession has that.
Why would the teaching profession be any different?
It is not a knock on the many good teachers to suggest that there may be a few who are incompetent or unmotivated any more than it is a knock on, say, the many good doctors to suggest that there are some who shouldn't be practicing medicine.
We begin with the premise that all of us -- concerned educators as well as concerned parents, taxpayers and citizens -- have the best interests of the students at heart. That is what is most important.
In that spirit, let's have a thoughtful review and discussion of tenure: How can we maintain the worthwhile safeguards it provides while ridding ourselves of any shields for incompetence that might exist?