Missouri Schools Need Tenure Reform and Weighted Student Formula

In a recent publication by the Show-Me Institute, based in St. Louis, Missouri, authors James Shuls and Kacie Barnes share the results of a survey completed by 192 of the state’s superintendents on their opinions of teacher tenure. As shown in the Show-Me Institute study, 73 percent of respondents said that it was somewhat to very difficult to remove a low-performing tenured teacher. Also, 60 percent of respondents said that they would support teacher tenure reform depending on the specifics and 32 percent said that they would support teacher reform either privately or publically.

The desire to have greater autonomy over hiring and firing is not singular to Missouri. Nationwide school districts have been adopting a policy tool that – in addition to empowering parents through school choice and more equitably funding students – gives those closest to students greater decision rights over how to staff schools to best serve students.

Known by many districts as weighted student formula, this policy tool in its purest form includes key ingredients that give school principals the autonomy that they need to best meet the needs of students enrolled at their school:

  • Principals have autonomy over school budgets;
  • Principals have autonomy over hiring and firing and;
  • School districts have relief from collective bargaining agreements and union contracts.

These key tenets empower school principals to hold the teachers that they employ accountable for performance in educating their students. And as studies have shown, the degree of teacher quality is essential to student achievement.

Stanford economist Eric Hanushek has documented that the difference between a good teacher and a bad teacher can be as much as a year’s worth of learning. Similarly, in his 2012 state of the union address President Obama cited a 2011 study by National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) economists, stating that students with highly effective teachers were “more likely to attend college, attend higher-ranked colleges, earn higher salaries, live in higher [socioeconomic status] neighborhoods, and save for retirement.”

Collective bargaining and tenure grants teachers job security based on an arbitrary number of years that they are employed, not by their performance. Whereas weighted student formula ideally gives principals the authority to hold teachers accountable for their performance, measured by student outcomes. In turn for that autonomy, principals are also held accountable for student performance by the school board.

However, in practice in many weighted student formula programs, school-level autonomy continues to be constrained by teacher tenure and collective bargaining rules. One of the key differences between autonomy within a school district and similar autonomy that charter school leaders enjoy is the degree to which the school principal has true autonomy to make staffing decisions at the school level.

Oakland Unified School District (CA), Baltimore City School District (MD), and Denver Public School District (CO) each have developed their own variation of weighted student formula – some with greater principal autonomy over staffing than others.

Oakland has reached many benchmarks in their adoption of weighted student formula, including increasing the share of the district’s education budget that is used flexibly by principals. However, principals are still bound by a lengthy labor agreement between the Oakland Education Association and the district.

In an American Institute for Research (AIR) study, 12 of 22 respondents in Oakland mentioned collective bargaining agreements as a constraint on autonomy. As one Oakland principal commented, “Sometimes it feels like we have all the responsibility but we actually don’t have any of the freedom… because if you can’t choose who you’re going to hire… then some of your budgetary autonomy actually goes away.”

A March 2013, study by the National Council on Teacher Quality further describes how Oakland’s labor practices constrain principal autonomy:

More than any other type of authority, principals report wanting more say over staffing in their buildings. Oakland’s current bargaining agreement with its teachers union, Oakland Education Association (OEA), limits principal authority by requiring seniority to be the first consideration. Among those internal candidates that meet the credentialing and experience bar, the contract dictates that the teacher with the most district seniority is placed in the position. This approach does not allow principals a say in the placement of teachers at their schools.

On the other hand, Denver and Baltimore have more discretion over hiring staff than most urban school districts.

In Denver, teachers do not change teaching jobs based on seniority or “bumping rights” like most school districts in California. Denver has an “open market” teacher hiring process where principals can interview multiple candidates and make decisions about which teachers will best fit with their schools.

Baltimore principals also enjoy more autonomy over staffing after the Maryland State School Board ruled that the “substantive aspects of teacher assignment are under the discretion of the superintendent,” and does not have to be negotiated through collective bargaining.

Baltimore’s hiring process works through mutual consent between a principal and a teacher – giving district principals full authority to staff their schools and makes teacher assignments seniority neutral. Also, according to a National Council on Teacher Equality (NCTQ) study the district is one of few nationwide that have eliminated forced placements of teachers. This means that Baltimore’s principals are not obligated to accept teachers who want to transfer into their schools, or whom the central office needs to place.

Policies that allow principals to have more autonomy over hiring on the front end, help mitigate some of the unintended consequences of guaranteed tenure-where at least teachers and principals are entering into a voluntary and mutually agreeable working relationship. However, to the extent that tenure laws are in place they hinder efforts to give principals more autonomy to spend school budgets on the most effective staffing relationships.

Across the nation, several school districts have already taken advantage of weighted student formula and others are exploring the policy’s potential. Missouri school district superintendents have already voiced their desire to have a greater level of autonomy over staffing decisions. By implementing weighted student formula, Missouri’s school districts can achieve greater staffing autonomy while also giving school principals greater autonomy over their school’s budget, funding students more equitably, and empowering parents to select the best school to meet their child’s individual needs. Weighted student formula and tenure reform could work hand in hand in Missouri to give school leaders more control to use public resources to better meet the needs of students.