Teacher Tenure Laws Need to Evolve

I have stated consistently and unequivocally when writing this weekly column the last four years that we must end teacher tenure laws as we know them. Ending California’s current tenure laws will be for the sake of the students and the health of the teaching profession as a whole. As a former teacher union leader 30 years ago, I was an advocate for tenure rights after my third successful year of teaching. My views have evolved.

As a principal for nearly 20 years, I realized the state tenure laws were broken and needed major revision. Principals serve at the discretion of the Board year to year and have no tenure rights. A principal who wants to act boldly and document the teachers who have pedagogical weaknesses after receiving tenure is at risk of not receiving the necessary support for a teacher dismissal. 

In too many cases, principals and school districts take the easy way out and give 99 percent of tenured teachers a satisfactory evaluation every other year rather than rock the boat. However, things are changing quickly, in large measure by the federal requirements for states to be eligible to compete for the U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top dollars.

Tenure must be earned on the basis of performance, which is compared with quantitative and qualitative measures, not just on the basis of a principal’s view of satisfactory performance—often coming from only a few evaluative visits to the teacher’s classroom. Another disparaging aspect of tenure in California is the decision must be made by the 1.5-year mark due to statutory timelines and March 15 notification dates in the second year of service.

Tenure in its purest form is a mechanism created to protect teachers from indiscriminate or politically biased firing, a good thing prima facie. However, the practice creates a system whereby it is very difficult, yet not impossible, to fire tenured teachers who have poor results. The legal challenges could be outrageously costly, which isn’t what the public would want with limited state funding.

I agree with those who say we must provide high quality coaching and professional development to those tenured teachers who need it. Yet there comes a time, if the coaching and development has not worked after a planned intervention, that it is best to proceed with teacher dismissal so that students’ achievement results come first.

The rapid change in public policy and public opinion relative to teacher tenure laws is relatively surprising. It is instructive to look at the results of Mayor Bloomberg’s agenda about tenure and teacher quality in New York City. In a report issued last week by the NYC education department, only 55 percent of teachers finishing their third year of teaching received tenure in 2012 compared to 97 percent in 2007. That sea change in five years is remarkable. Last month in New Jersey, Governor Christie signed legislation making it easier to fire a teacher for poor performance. In Idaho last year, the legislature did away with teacher tenure entirely.

I continue to be a strong proponent of the necessity to have teacher unions. Where I diverge with the public employee teacher unions is when they demonstrate a belief that things can stay just as they have been for 40 years in this ever-changing world.

Tenure must be placed on the table in the California state legislature with CTA participating in the reform efforts to further student achievement, not union membership goals. If that does not happen in the next 1-2 years, I predict a major revolt from the public at the ballot box. I would much prefer the change occurs through collaborative conversations with all stakeholders.

Joseph Di Salvo is a member of the Santa Clara County Office of Education’s Board of Trustees. He is a San Jose native. His columns reflect his personal opinion.


  1. As a Parent I want , and expect the best education for my kids. So how do you go about getting people to go into teaching when that profession is severley underpaid(in my opinion). I do agree that teachers should continue to get better and not settle.

  2. Now that a bi-partisan State investigation verified complaints about inflated pension costs, do you regret your Measure V, W and B votes? Clearly, public negotiations would be cheaper and less divisive.  Yet, now City leadership cannot be trusted to bargain in good faith…

    Now that crime is dramatically rising, do you stand by your assertion that performance reviews should command pay increases?  Will aggressive cops that get many complaints, yet great performance reviews still get the best pay?  Sounds disastrous.

    Now that pension fund returns are consistently outperforming Wall Street, do you still stand with Constant and Reed in claiming the fault lies with employees rather than the economy?  Why did the pension funds return an over 7% average for 20 years and why wasn’t it news when it beat the stock market?

    And the most telling question… why is it kids rarely aspire to be politicians (other than President)?  Because children are at good at heart and never inherently want to lie… You and your Reed majority need a moral compass, sir.

    • Full disclosure now, almost everybody who lives in and has a stake in San Jose supports Measures V, W and B. Now don’t give your name, anonymously, but do you work for the city and live outside the borders? If you do your point of view doesn’t count.

  3. You are correct about tenure.  However if tenure is eliminated pay should be increased.  If teachers were paid $125,000 + salaries and you could fire them without cause, what level of talent would you attract? Teaching should be a high paid occupation. Schools also should allow teachers the power in the classroom over students that they had in 1950’s.  Students should not run a classroom and in the U.S. it seems they do.

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