James V. Shuls

As first appearing in Southeast Missourian, September 23, 2013:

In New York City, it is incredibly difficult to remove a tenured teacher. There are, however, many differences between teacher tenure laws and policies in New York City and those in Missouri. In New York, teachers are granted tenure after their third year of teaching. In Missouri, it is five years. New York City has a cumbersome collective bargaining agreement; collective bargaining is a relatively new concept for Missouri teachers. Still, teacher tenure remains an important and contentious issue in Missouri.

Missouri statute says teachers earn an "indefinite contract." However, state laws also allow school administrators to remove teachers for reasons of misconduct or incompetence. The question really is, how difficult is it to remove a tenured teacher for his or her performance in the classroom? And should it be easier?

On one side, teachers' unions say state laws simply grant due process. On the other, some claim removing a tenured teacher is a herculean task. In a recent policy study with Kacie Barnes, I explored this question. We wanted to find out from the group that should know best -- superintendents -- how difficult it is to remove a tenured teacher.

We surveyed 192 Missouri public school superintendents about the topic. According to superintendents, it is not impossible to remove a tenured teacher, but it is certainly not easy, either. Nearly 75 percent indicated it was either "somewhat" or "very difficult" to remove a tenured teacher. This difficulty primarily comes from the time and paperwork necessary to navigate the bureaucratic process.

Administrators also must consider important political dynamics and the cost involved. Because the circumstances can vary greatly, estimates of the cost involved to remove a tenured teacher can vary widely, from very little to hundreds of thousands of dollars. For these reasons, among others, very few tenured teachers are removed for their performance -- three-tenths of 1 percent, by our estimates.

Should we reform teacher tenure? According to superintendents, yes. Ninety-two percent of superintendents in our survey indicated they would be supportive of some type of teacher tenure reform. One superintendent unequivocally stated, "Teacher tenure is the greatest restraint to student performance!"

A possible solution many superintendents in our study mentioned is multiyear contracts. Ultimately, it seems more superintendents would like the ability to develop local policies that best meet the needs of their teacher labor force.

We may not have rubber rooms, but Missouri superintendents recognize that teacher tenure is an issue that should be addressed.

James V. Shuls, Ph.D., is the education policy analyst at the Show-Me Institute, which promotes market solutions for Missouri public policy. You can find the full policy study, "The Power to Lead: Analysis of Superintendent Survey Responses Regarding Teacher Tenure," online at showmeinstitute.org.

About the Author

James Shuls
James Shuls
Distinguished Fellow of Education Policy

James V. Shuls is an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and Distinguished Fellow in Education Policy at the Show-Me Institute.