If local school districts want to get serious about revamping teacher tenure policies, they may want to look at how tenure is granted at the university level.

That idea came from Paula Cordeiro, dean of the University of San Diego’s School of Leadership and Education, at our Politifest panel on jobs, schools and housing.

Her reason was simple: Universities, like school districts, offer teachers tenure, which is a kind of permanent status for teachers.

The major difference is that it takes professors at USD seven years to be considered for tenure. It takes K-12 teachers in California only two years.

Tenure was thrust into the national spotlight earlier this year, when a group of California students challenged teacher protections in Vergara v. California, arguing they protect bad teachers who disproportionately wind up in low-income schools.

Here’s how tenure works in San Diego Unified: New teachers have to make it through a two-year probationary period, during which they can be dismissed for pretty much any reason.

After the trial period, they’re eligible for tenure. That decision might be made based on classroom observations, or other things that are done as part of the standard teacher evaluations.

California requires one of the shortest probationary periods for teachers in the country. Most states wait until teachers have been around three or more years until they’re offered permanent status.

Cordeiro said teacher tenure is a valuable policy that should be protected. But she also said that for K-12 teachers, it’s a hurried decision that’s made in less than two years – before teachers have a chance to prove what they can do.

So what can school districts learn from universities, beyond just increasing the amount of time it takes to earn permanent status?

For one, Cordeiro said that school districts should be looking at a wide variety of factors when considering a teacher for tenure:

“In my school, anyway, the School of Leadership and Education, we have 14 different things that we look at. So we’re looking at teaching in many ways, not only the evaluations that students do, but also we’re looking at the syllabus itself.

People go in and visit your classrooms, that kind of stuff.  Then it’s your service to the community. Teachers do enormous service within their schools and in their communities. (School districts) don’t even factor that in, and that service plays a major role in what they bring into the classroom when they try to form partnerships. So, I could go on and on, but we have a lot to learn from good promotion tenure system in higher ed.”

These same markers could be used to evaluate teacher performance, said Cordeiro.

But in San Diego, the teachers union has historically resisted any changes to the evaluation system.

Here’s what happened in April, when San Diego Unified put forward its initial contract proposal:

The part that may have the biggest impact, however, might also be biggest sticking point: rebooting its system for evaluating teachers.

“That was the biggest disappointment for me,” said Freeman. “Any time you want to implement a system that’s top-down, that’s the quickest way to make something fail.”

Freeman said he was surprised by the sudden focus on teacher evaluations, and that the district has never indicated the current system was problematic.

But Lisa Berlanga, executive director of parent advocacy group UpforEd, said that changes are a long time coming. “I don’t think it’s changed in more than 20 years,” she said. “We’re very pleased to see this.”

In that case, the teachers union objected to the idea that student and parent feedback would be included as part of teacher evaluations.

The blowback would have been uglier had the district proposed to use student test scores as a part of teacher evaluations, as has been done elsewhere. The union said doing so is unfair, because factors like poverty impact learning but are out of teachers’ hands.

But Cordeiro laid out a whole catalog of things we might consider when we’re rating teachers – from visiting their classrooms, to looking at syllabi to weighing their volunteer work in the community. None of which, by the way, involve test scores.

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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