By Kenric Ward | Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau
FREDERICKSBURG — Teachers unions say Virginia has a rigorous performance-evaluation regimen, but statistics indicate that contracts for instructors are virtually automatic, even in low-achieving school districts.
A Watchdog.org survey found that only a minuscule percentage of instructors last year failed to earn “continuing contracts” — Virginia’s version of tenure — after a three-year probationary period.
Earlier data from the National Center for Education Statistics and the National Council for Teacher Quality showed just 1.32 percent of the Old Dominion’s teachers were let go due to poor performance in 2007-2008 — one of the lowest percentages in the 50 states.
Gov. Bob McDonnell pushed hard last session for legislation to toughen teacher assessments by linking them to student achievement. His plan was narrowly defeated in the Senate, and the governor is poised to try again in January when lawmakers reconvene in Richmond.
“We have had a number of forums and conferences to hear from legislators and stakeholders about their ideas for K-12 education. The governor is very focused on teacher professionalism and ensuring all students have the opportunity for a quality education regardless of ZIP code,” said McDonnell spokesman Jeff Caldwell.
Steve Greenburg, president of the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers, said politicians should be careful what they ask for.
“If you expect too much with not enough time, people don’t do their jobs as well. Overwhelming principals (with more involved teacher evaluations) will mean they aren’t done properly,” Greenburg predicted.
The union leader said teachers are “watched very carefully” in their first three years.
Without giving statistics, he said “a lot of teachers” are “non-reappointed.”
But a Watchdog.org sampling of local districts shows otherwise.
At Portsmouth city schools, all 68 instructors eligible for continuing contracts received them last year.
In Mecklenburg County, 308 of 325 teachers were granted contracts. Only one instructor seeking a continuing contract did not earn one — and that was due to “licensure deficiencies.” The other 15 retired, resigned or were laid off, officials said.
In Fairfax, the state’s largest school system, 58 teachers received “conditional appointments,” but two of those were “dismissed for cause,” said spokesman John Torre. He did not report how many total teachers were eligible for continuing contracts.
Rural Pulaski County awarded three teachers continuing contracts while denying three others. Those denials, however, were not based on classroom performance, but failure to complete required course requirements, district officials said.
Norfolk City School District — home to three campuses on the state’s “warning” or “conditional” list due to academic deficiencies — said it would charge $32 an hour to research the contract data, and that the process would take five working days.
Educators say the overwhelming percentage of teachers receiving continuing contracts is a reflection of good human-resources work when hiring new instructors.
But skeptics argue that the nearly automatic bestowal of contracts after three years on the job ties the hands of administrators by effectively granting lifetime employment to teachers.
States with high tenure rates similar to Virginia’s have begun to tighten their evaluations. Florida, for example, abolished K-12 tenure last year. Except for veteran teachers who were grandfathered in, all Sunshine State instructors now work on year-to-year contracts with no guarantee of reappointment.
Virginia’s strong tradition of local control of schools has made such changes difficult to enact legislatively. It also had led to varying standards, with little overall accountability or transparency. The state Department of Education, for example, does not track what percentage of teachers earn continuing contracts.
Greenburg said Fairfax ties 40 percent of its teacher evaluation program to the “assessment of students.” Yet that assessment does not have to involve actual student testing. Other districts are free to use a lower percentage — and many do.
“There’s a huge and long tradition of devolving decision-making to the local level. That leads to a lack of transparency,” said Chris Braunlich, a member of the state Board of Education.
Traditionally, Braunlich said teacher evaluations were not based on whether students were successful.
“It was strictly a licensure issue,” he said.
But Braunlich said times have changed, and he suggested that Virginia needs to change with them.
“We have the capacity to track student performance,” he said, and education reformers say that tool should be used with teachers as well.
Manhattan Institute researcher Marcus Winters said he believes his recently developed “value-added” assessment system — which links student performance and teacher rewards — would work in Virginia’s classrooms.
So far, New York, New Jersey, Tennessee, Colorado and Washington, D.C., are using variations of the model to deny tenure to instructors receiving below-satisfactory performance ratings in two consecutive years.
Meantime, critics of Virginia’s current contractual program see a troubling disconnect. They point to this year’s math scores, which fell as much as 40 points in some districts, while districts routinely award tenure status.
Though 100 underperforming schools around the Old Dominion have been placed on a state “warning” list and are in jeopardy of losing their accreditation, teachers across the state are granted continuing contracts at a better than 95 percent rate.
The National Council on Teacher Quality takes a dim view of such liberal licensing practices in the face of obvious academic deficiencies. NCTQ’s latest report gave Virginia an F in “identifying effective teachers.”
With districts divulging few, if any, academic reasons for the rare cases in which they do not grant a continuing contract, reformers are pushing for measurable instructional benchmarks.
“In most school systems, the required ‘due process’ is so burdensome — and has so small a chance of success — that in practice, poor performance is rarely a firing offense. This is why poor classroom performance is so rarely cited as a reason for dismissal,” Winters said.
McDonnell’s 2012 bill would have extended teachers’ probationary period to five years and replaced continuing contracts with three-year contracts. At the end of every three years, an administrator could let a teacher go without cause.
The Virginia Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, helped to beat back that bill in the Senate. One VEA official told the Washington Post that McDonnell’s plan would expose instructors to arbitrary dismissal based on personality conflicts or other petty reasons.
But the governor isn’t backing down. Looking ahead to January, he called the setback “a delay, not a defeat.”
Contact Ward at [email protected] or (571) 319-9824.