Bill would toughen requirements for teachers to earn tenure

Tenure for Colorado teachers would be in jeopardy if a new bill in the state Legislature passes.

Senate Bill 50 would extend the time a teacher new to a school district is on probation — or susceptible to firing without input from an independent arbitrator — from three years to five. After that fifth year, a district could issue a five-year, renewable contract for the teacher. Contract renewal for each additional five years would be based on an evaluation report conducted at the end of the fifth year of the previous contract.

Nonprobationary, or “tenured,” teachers already receive an evaluation every five years, but the evaluation is not used for dismissal or retention purposes. Tenured teachers currently earn the status indefinitely and can only lose their jobs if an arbitrator separate from the school district agrees the firing is justified.

Teachers cherish the “peace of mind” offered by tenure, said Jim Smyth, president of the Mesa Valley Education Association, which represents teachers in the Grand Valley. Smyth was a teacher for 17 years before working for the education association. He said he can understand why some people would see tenure as “antiquated,” but he remembers the stress of waiting for a contract renewal every year as a probationary teacher.

“Not knowing every summer if I had a job or not ... that can really cause some sleepless nights,” Smyth said.

Scott Finholm, who has earned tenure before in his 14-year teaching career, is in his second year of teaching history at Grand Mesa Middle School. He would be one of the people affected by Senate Bill 50. If passed, anyone who has not been teaching in a school district for three or more years by Aug. 11 would be subject to the new rules.

Finholm said he would like to be off the probation list sooner than August 2013. He added tenure can lead to more “academic freedom” for teachers. But he can see the advantages in a five-year contract system for school districts.

“I would, of course, prefer to have a more permanent status, but if people are not cutting it, there should be a way for the district to take care of it,” Finholm said.

First-year teacher Tom Griffith said staring down another nine semesters instead of five before getting a longer contract at East Middle School isn’t that daunting. Veteran teachers may be less enthused about the bill, he said, but the bill will not impact teachers who already have tenure.

“The good thing about being a first-year (teacher) is it’s new to me, so I’m not going to know any different,” Griffith said.

The less-permanent contracts may lead to better teachers, second-year science teacher Jared Burek said. Burek, who teaches at Bookcliff Middle School, said he remembers some older teachers being “on coast mode” when he was a student.

Burek said he hopes a two-year extension of the probation stage would mean more mentoring between newer and more-seasoned teachers.

“Hopefully that means that for an extra two years they’re going to be keeping a closer eye on me and helping me become a good teacher,” he said.

Republican Sen. Nancy Spence of Centennial introduced Senate Bill 50 on Jan. 13, the first day of the 2010 legislative session. A call to Spence was not returned this week. The bill is being reviewed by the Joint Education Committee and has not been voted on by the House or Senate.

The bill fits with plans outlined in the state’s Race to the Top application, which was submitted to the U.S. Department of Education earlier this week. The program will reward states that meet education goals. Colorado is requesting $377 million in federal stimulus dollars.

Colorado’s Race to the Top application promised reform in order to qualify for the money. Reforms would include “removing ineffective tenured and nontenured teachers and principals after they have had ample opportunities to improve, and ensuring that such decisions are made using rigorous standards and streamlined, transparent and fair procedures,” according to the application.

Additional points in the application include reviewing standardized testing in order to improve questions, and offering teachers and principals monetary incentives for above-average performance or taking on extra duties, among other goals.


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