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Are teachers making the grade?

The new school year has gotten under way, and while parents are still learning the names of their children's teachers, discussions abound about which teachers are good and why others are not.

Such conversations often end up focusing on tenure. That one word can evoke very strong feelings in parents who think they know what it really means for a teacher to hold tenure in a school district. But do they?

Tenure is one of the most misunderstood provisions of New York state's education law, said Carl Korn, spokesman for the New York State United Teachers union (NYSUT). "The biggest myth out there is that it provides teachers with a job for life. That simply is not true."

Korn said teachers without tenure "can be dismissed for virtually any reason as long as it is not a violation of civil rights," but that tenure provides protection for the teachers by mandating a "formal legal proceeding in which an impartial hearing officer weighs evidence on both sides and makes a ruling" before a teacher can be dismissed.

Opponents of tenure say its provisions are excessive.

"The laws of New York state contain multiple layers of protection for people in the public sector," said David Ernst, director of communications and research with the New York State School Board Association (NYSSBA). "The whole rationale for tenure is faulty in our view."

The process of tenure, Ernst said, can be enormously expensive and time-consuming. NYSSBA attempted to reform tenure in the early '90s and was unsuccessful. The group currently supports a five-year probationary period, rather than the existing three, before a teacher can be recommended for tenure.

"You learn a lot on the job that you aren't getting when you graduate," said Ernst of teachers. "With some, it's immediately apparent that they are not suited for teaching. With others, it's not immediately apparent. You're affecting kids' lives, and there ought to be a stronger, tougher standard."

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