Teacher tenure tenuous — Legislature considering variety of education-related measures

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

Tenure for teachers will be a longer time coming, and potentially harder to keep, if measures making their way through the Legislature this session come to pass.

House Bill 162 would change the evaluation period for nontenured teachers in Alaska from three years to five. The measure is supported by the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District because it would give districts more flexibility, financially and in terms of evaluation, said Dr. Steve Atwater, KPBSD superintendent.

If state and local funding doesn’t come through as hoped, and/or if unexpected costs crop up, the district can be in a position of having to cut its budget in the spring. Cutting staff is the area of largest impact, since that’s what the vast majority of the district’s budget is spent on. Having a larger pool of teachers from which to cut — those without tenure — makes that trimming easier, Atwater said.

“With the fiscal uncertainty that we face we never know how much money we’re getting, so if we have a greater pool of untenured teachers to work with — you’ve got to eliminate 55 teachers tomorrow — then you can make better decisions in terms of what happens. You hate to think of it in those terms, but right now we’re two-thirds tenured and one-third not tenured, so if we had a greater pool to work with we would, I think, meet the needs of our children better,” Atwater said.

Having two extra years in which to evaluate teachers also is helpful, Atwater said, especially in cases where a teacher’s placement has varied. Because of the year-to-year cycle of state education funding, sometimes the district will pink slip a teacher, due to conservative budgeting, then is able to hire him or her back if the district’s funding and budgetary outlook improves. But those teachers don’t always end up teaching the same thing or even in the same school.

“Some end up working at three different buildings in three years,” Atwater said. “At the end of that third year they’ve been evaluated three different ways, often coming in later in the year. To have it go to five years gives us a better chance to look at all teachers in a good way.”

Atwater said that the lengthened evaluation period could be beneficial to teachers, giving a teacher who hasn’t quite cleared the bar in three years an extra two to improve.

“If you are on the cusp after three years, in the past they may not have gotten tenure. So the other side of that coin is you’re showing improvement, you’re close, this allows that teacher to keep going so we don’t have to play our hand after three years,” Atwater said.

Teachers, however, don’t see it as beneficial, said LaDawn Druce, president of the Kenai Peninsula Education Association. It’s two extra years of continued uncertainty about their future, she said.

“I would not invest in my community, and that’s what we want our teachers to do is invest in our communities, and I would not feel comfortable doing that until I got hired back that sixth year. That’s a long time,” she said.

Wes Andrews, counselor at Skyview High School, spoke to Reps. Mike Chenault and Kurt Olson in a legislative town hall meeting in Soldotna on March 23, of his concern that extending tenure to five years could hurt Alaska’s ability to recruit teachers. In most states, he said, tenure comes in three years.

“It’s hard for me to say that this would help Alaska attract good teachers, since 70 percent of our teachers do come from other states. Saying, ‘OK, we’re going to have a longer tenure track process than almost any other state’ doesn’t seem like it would be a good attractant for us,” he said.

“I’m afraid, combined with the fact that we do not offer the retirement program in Alaska like we used to, people outside the state would not view Alaska as friendly toward educators. That would be a real deterrent,” Druce said.

Atwater said that the district does not have difficulty attracting applicants. Last summer a position at Redoubt Elementary had more than 100 applicants, and a principal opening this winter drew 56 applicants, Atwater said.

“People really want to come to us. We’re in an advantageous position that way. I don’t think, given who we are in Alaska, that’s going to be a concern for us,” he said.

Even if recruitment isn’t hurt by an extended tenure evaluation period, teacher retention might be, Druce said. Especially since retirement-system benefits are portable, and since most new hires come from out of state. New hires are less likely to put down roots in a community, such as buying a house or starting a family, until they are secure about their future employment. The longer they’re in limbo, the more tempted they might be to head back south, she said.

“There’s a lot of money that goes into training teachers, and it leaves, and I just don’t think that’s good for our communities,” she said.

But whether tenure is coming shouldn’t be a giant question mark, said Liz Downing, member of the KPBSD Board of Education. The district’s evaluation process is designed to provide evaluation and feedback along the way so new teachers can progress through the inevitable learning curve with support, direction and confidence.

“With the new evaluation system, I think the teachers as well as the administrators are going to know where a teacher is at much more in depth than in the past, so that you know at year two whether your job is secure or not,” Downing said.

If that’s the case, Druce wants to know why the evaluation period should be extended. Let the current system work.

“As professionals we all want the most effective teachers to be in the schools, because an ineffective teacher in my school makes my job, as an effective teacher, that much harder. Lengthening the term for tenure does not solve for that. Yes, it gives you two more years to evaluate a new-to-profession teacher, but if you were doing your job in the first three years you’re going to know at the end of that third year,” she said.

The bill has gone through several iterations with various amendments. One, proposed by the southern peninsula’s Rep. Paul Seaton, would revoke the current standard that tenure, once granted, holds for the length of a career. Rep. Seaton proposed having tenured teachers come back up for re-evaluation every five years in order to retain their tenured status. The district supports Seaton’s amendment.

“That’s a standard part of our professional practices is you go back for a review. Whereas teaching, at the end of your third year you’re tenured for life, you don’t have that return other than your annual evaluation. I think that’s a positive thing that will make the profession stronger and help our kids do better,” Atwater said.

Seaton’s amendment on re-evaluation did not pass, nor did his other proposed amendment, to stipulate that a decision on tenure is required after four years, but may be offered after three.

A different amendment did pass that would allow smaller rural districts, with a population of less than 5,500, to still award tenure in three years, rather than five. HB 162 has passed the House and was introduced to the Senate Education Committee on April 5.

Another bill concerning several education-related topics, Senate Bill 57, also has a provision regarding tenure. This one would extend the time frame in which districts must give tenured teachers notification of their nonretention from March 15 to May 15. Again, this gives the district flexibility, Atwater said. While it’s rare for the district to not retain a tenured teacher, having those extra two months could, on occasion, be helpful.

“I don’t see it so much as a way to get teachers out the door as just to give the district more flexibility with those teachers that we haven’t had a chance to look at more tightly. In rare circumstances, if we were in a position where we had to reduce force, it would help us with that decision,” Atwater said. “But, really, very few of our teachers are evaluated out. The vast majority are people who do just fine and carry on. It’s really small in terms of the people that aren’t brought back.”

The bill also doesn’t require that the decision be held until May 15. Tenure teacher contracts could still be brought to the school board by March 15, and it is the district’s intention to do so in the majority of cases, Atwater said.

“We would bring them forward March 15th, but it does give us some flexibility to look at things in terms of if a teacher is in trouble or is struggling, it gives us a greater window to make that call,” he said.

Druce said that there is a system for removing even tenured teachers if they aren’t performing adequately, by putting them on a plan of improvement and evaluating their progress, so why codify something that could impact all teachers?

“I’m afraid we incentivize, again, nonretention of our professionals,” she said.

SB 57 has passed the Senate and was referred to the House Finance Committee on Monday.

Other education measures

  • Senate Bill 57 also would adjust the state’s per-pupil transportation funding, stipulating that the rate be adjusted for each fiscal year 2014 through 2016 on Oct. 1, according to the Consumer Price Index for Anchorage. This would help keep that funding level consistent with inflation. The district supports this measure, Atwater said.
  • House Bill 31 would require schools districts to develop and require completion of a history of American constitutionalism curriculum. The district supports this measure, though Atwater said it wouldn’t affect KPBSD schools, since the U.S. Constitution is already taught. HB 31 has been in the House Education Committee since March 27.
  • Rep. Seaton’s House Bill 190 would require each district to have a policy which would allow students who demonstrate mastery of course content through an assessment to challenge a course for academic credit. The bill leaves the criteria for demonstrating mastery to the discretion of the school district. Essentially, if students didn’t think they needed to sit through a semester of Algebra II, for example, and could pass a test on the course’s content, they would be awarded the credit and move on to a different class. The district supports the measure, as it supports movement toward standards-based learning.

“We’re already doing that. But it forces the conversation of seat time versus proficiency,” Atwater said.

HB 190 was referred to the house Rules Committee on Monday.

  • Rep. Kurt Olson is co-sponsor of House Bill 151, which would establish a system of grading public schools and districts A through F, “for purposes of improving accountability and transparency,” the bill reads.

Druce and Atwater spoke against this one. Druce questioned what result the grading system would have. If a school scored a low grade, what would that mean? Would students be eligible to go to a different school? If so, how would that work in rural areas where the next school might be a hundred or more miles away? Nor does the bill offer additional funding or support to a struggling school to help address whatever might have contributed to the low grade.

“The time and energy and money that would be spent to data collect that bothers me, because I think that’s time and energy and money that could go directly to the classroom,” Druce said. “… I feel like we’re going to basically have the scarlet letter put on our schools, but in Alaska, given the nature of so many of our districts, what would be the point of labeling a school?”

Atwater said the measure would be redundant and demeaning.

“We feel it reverts to a reverse psychology of shaming a school into improvement and not necessary,” he said. “The use of letter grades is demeaning to a school, especially the lower letter grades.”

Report cards to the public are already produced for each school, and schools are further evaluated through the No Child Left Behind federal program, with a star rating system.

“So even though the need for accountability is important, it’s already there, and I think it’s unnecessary to do this,” Atwater said.

HB 151 has been in the House Education Committee since March 1.

The legislative session is scheduled to close April 14.


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Filed under education, Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, Legislature, schools

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