End K-12 public school teacher tenure (UPDATE)

UPDATE: Quinn signs education reform law.

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn is expected to sign today what's called "sweeping" education reform, a step in the right direction in several regards: Longer school days and a provision allowing school to place competence over length of service in the firing and recall of teachers.

Competent teachers will be able to secure tenure in three years after qualifying by meeting tougher qualifications. But here's a question:

Why any tenure at all?

Quinn1.jpg

Gov. Pat Quinn

Federal judges are granted lifetime tenure to free them from political pressures when deciding cases. College professors receive tenure to protect their intellectual freedom. Elementary and high school teachers eventually won tenure to supposedly protect them from over-bearing parents who wanted to control the curriculum and actions that challenge their professionalism.

Teacher tenure, however, became little more than brazen job protections for the incompetent, lazy and self-satisfied. College professors have to show a record of academic and scholarly achievement over the years to win a coveted tenure spot. It's called a "tenure track" because this train doesn't stop at the first station it comes to. 

When the Chicago Daily News, where I worked, folded in 1978 decisions about which editors and reporters would be retained by transferring them to the  sister paper, the Chicago Sun-Times, weren't based on length of service. Young reporters who could do a better job then old-timers were kept. Members of the Chicago Newspaper Guild, which represents local reporters and editors, have certain job protections, but nothing close to tenure. 

What the education system should think about is akin to what Oregon did in 1997: It abolished tenure and replaced it with 2-year renewable contracts and a rehabilitation program for underachieving instructors. Obviously, in a system as large as Chicago's, where politics always is threatening to horn in on hiring, promotion and firing decisions, teachers need some form of protection. But granting life-time protections against firing for incompetence is entirely another matter.

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    Chicago Tribune contributing op-ed columnist and author of forthcoming historical novel, "Madness: The War of 1812." Reporter, editor and columnist for Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Daily News. Freelance writer and editor.

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