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Flawed study cites only tenure, ignores other reasons for teacher exodus

 (February 22, 2017) A new study that cites Louisiana’s strict teacher tenure law as the reason for an uptick in teacher retirements and resignations downplays other reasons why educators may have become disenchanted with the profession, according to Louisiana Federation of Teachers President Larry Carter.

“The 2012 law that gutted teacher tenure rights is certainly a factor in these decisions,” Carter said, “but the study ignored numerous other issues that have made teaching less attractive in recent years.”

The report from the Education Research Alliance of New Orleans, which is housed at Tulane University, concluded that “tenure reform is responsible for the exit of 1,500 to 1,700 teachers in the first two years after the removal of tenure protections, a loss of 3.0 to 3.5 percent of Louisiana’s teacher workforce.”

Tenure is simply a way to guarantee that experienced, qualified teachers cannot be fired without due cause. Until 2012, those causes included willful neglect of duty, incompetence and immorality. Accused teachers had a right to a hearing, and could not be fired unless the charges were proven.

Teachers earned tenure by getting a college degree, becoming certified in education, passing a difficult examination and having successful evaluations for at least three years.

Act 1 of 2012 made it virtually impossible for any new teacher to ever earn tenure. They must be deemed “highly effective” – a very high bar – for five out of six years. Those who do not earn tenure are essentially “at will” employees who can be fired for almost any reason.

Tenured teachers were grandfathered by the 2012 act, but automatically lose tenure if they are ever evaluated as unsatisfactory for whatever reason.

But while Act 1 effectively removed tenure protections for new teachers and severely limited them for veterans, the act included so many other provisions that the LFT filed suit, claiming that the law violated prohibitions against multiple objects in one bill.

“You can’t positively state that loss of tenure protections alone is responsible for teachers’ decisions to leave the profession,” Carter said. “Overemphasis on standardized tests and linking teacher pay and evaluations to test scores led to the blaming and shaming of teachers for problems beyond their control,” Carter said. “Many teachers believe that the Jindal-era reforms sucked the joy of teaching and learning out of the profession.”

An apparent preference for charter schools and vouchers for private and religious schools has also dampened the enthusiasm that many teachers formerly felt for the profession.

In addition, funding for public education has not kept pace with inflation, leading to even more pressures on schools and teachers. Our teacher pay, once near the national average, is now among the lowest in the nation.

The ERA study says that after the 2012 law was passed, teacher retirements and resignations rose by 3.7 percentage points.

Many teachers leaving the profession were either close to retirement age or taught in schools rated “F” by the state.

“Loss of tenure may have played a part, but the study does not prove that,” Carter said.

In fact, the report admits that “this first analysis alone cannot guarantee that the effects we find are the direct result of the teacher tenure reform.”

Education is a high-pressure profession to begin with, Carter said, and the additional burdens imposed by Act 1 convinced some who were eligible for retirement to leave. Other veterans have been coerced to leave because they are the highest paid employees in the systems, and struggling school boards are looking for ways to save money.

For teachers in the state’s most challenged schools, Carter said, meeting state-mandated performance goals is a near impossibility.

“A teacher can be very successful in improving a child’s academic achievement, but still be rated as unsatisfactory because of unrealistic state goals,” he said. “That teacher may lose tenure, but is most disheartened by the fact that success by state standards is nearly unachievable.”

Veteran teacher Jim Randels, who currently serves as president of the United Teachers of New Orleans, greeted the ERA study with skepticism.

“Even if the statement about loss of tenure were accurate,” he said, “it’s too simplistic an isolation of a single variable in a complex human and social situation.”

When teachers decide to leave the profession, he said, tenure might not be their main concern.

“The most common complaint I have heard from veteran teachers is that the state education leadership drastically changed in the years after Katrina, leaving a department that did little to support teachers and showed no real understanding of teaching and learning,” Randels said.

Curiously, the ERA study ignored one source of information that could have helped understand why teachers are leaving the profession at higher rates than before 2012.

A state law championed by LFT in 2008 requires each Louisiana school system to conduct exit interviews when teachers retire or resign “to ascertain their reasons for leaving and to gather information that could prove useful in developing strategies to improve teacher retention rates.”

A study entitled “The Effect of Teacher Tenure on Job Security and Turnover” surely could have considered data from those interviews before concluding that tenure alone accounts for the teacher exodus.