In fall 2012, Mike Myers was debating how much longer he would keep coming to work each day at C.E. Byrd High School in Shreveport, the only school he’s ever taught at.
It was his 33rd year in the classroom; it would turn out to be his last.
What clinched it for him, he said, was a raft of changes in Louisiana education law pushed through earlier that year and how they changed the teaching profession.
The centerpiece of those changes were strict new limits on which teachers could enjoy tenure and the job protections that come with it.
The change in tenure law was part of former Gov. Bobby Jindal's push to overhaul the state's poorly performing public schools.
Education reformers saw tenure, which was routinely granted to teachers after three years, as an impediment to removing ineffective teachers from school classrooms. They wanted the job protection tied to how well a teacher's students performed on standardized tests.
A tenured teacher can be dismissed only for “just cause.” Administrators wishing to fire tenured teachers have to provide ample notice and spell out in writing the causes for termination. Teachers who object can demand a tenure hearing, and, if they still don’t like the result, can take their case to district court.
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Under the old system, teachers earned tenure once they’d worked for three years. The new law, known as Act 1, awards tenure only to teachers who tally repeated high ratings under a new evaluation system called Compass that makes heavy use of student test scores. And teachers that already have tenure will lose it immediately if they’re rated as “ineffective” for just one year.
Myers said he’s far from alone in his decision to get out.
“There were quite a few teachers that this was the final straw that broke the camel’s back that made them decide to go ahead and retire,” Myers said.
There are roughly half as many tenured teachers in Louisiana now as there were before the law changed. During the 2011- 2012 school year, close to 85 percent of Louisiana’s nearly 50,000 schoolteachers had three years or more of experience, the main criterion for earning tenure.
By November 2016, according to a state survey, only 42 percent of teachers across the state had tenure. The number of non-tenured teachers quadrupled from about 7,000 to more than 28,000.
In a study released in February, the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans, which is based at Tulane University, found a sharp uptick in retirements in the first two years after the law changed and its consequences began to kick in.
“Estimates suggest that reform-induced attrition was equivalent to losing between 1,500 to 1,700 teachers in the first two years after the removal of tenure protections, or 3 to 3.5 percent of Louisiana’s teacher workforce,” the report concluded.
The new tenure system is just now starting to produce tenured teachers but early indications are they are few in number.
The 2012 law spelling out the changes specifies that teachers can earn tenure only if they are rated as “highly effective” for five out of six consecutive years. The 2016-17 school year was the fifth year under the new system. Consequently, teachers who were rated “highly effective” that year as well as the four previous years are now eligible for tenure.
The official number of Louisiana teachers who have actually earned tenure under the new system won’t be available until December, the deadline for school district to report the tenure status of their teachers, said Sydni Dunn, a spokeswoman for the Louisiana Department of Education.
But last year, according to the state survey, only 3,172 teachers in Louisiana were “on track” for tenure, or about 11 percent of those who didn’t have it already. In 21 districts, fewer than 10 teachers were on track. The highest number of on track teachers, 255, were from Bossier Parish.
The “on track” measure, though, is very broad. It includes teachers who are three to four years away from earning tenure, assuming that they remain “highly effective” year after year.
Last week, The Advocate asked a handful of large public school districts across the state how many of their teachers have so far earned tenure under the new system.
Jefferson Parish, the state’s largest school district and employer of more than 3,200 classroom teachers, reported that just eight teachers now have tenure who weren't tenured before the new system was enacted.
Calcasieu Parish, the fifth largest district, is reporting that 64 of its teachers meet the new criteria for tenure, which is almost 3 percent of that parish's teachers.
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Ascension Parish, the 10th largest district in the state, reported that no new teachers earned tenure.
Representatives of several other districts, including East Baton Rouge Parish, told The Advocate they are still in the process of determining their totals.
Myers, a longtime and active member of his local chapter of the Federation of Teachers union, said he didn’t place much value in tenure until it was changed.
“It’s not something you ever really thought about or really used, but when they took it away from you then you felt that they disrespected you and didn’t treat you as you really should be treated,” he said.
Myers job didn’t mesh well with the Compass evaluation system, which he described as “one size fits all.” He taught special education students at Byrd High, shuttling back and forth from the class to class to help these students with varying disabilities. It’s an educational approach known as “inclusion.”
The state’s initial evaluation format, however, was meant for traditional classroom teachers, not inclusion teachers like him. Myers said the school administrator at Byrd made him teach a lesson as if he were a traditional classroom teacher in order to complete the evaluation. That administrator, then informed him that based on the ginned-up observation, he was likely to be judged “ineffective.”
“When it became clear that they were going to evaluate me as a regular classroom teacher, it got really stupid,” he said.
Myers said he filed a grievance, which he eventually won, to force the high school to evaluate inclusion teachers like himself in a way that better reflected what they actually do, but the experience left a bad taste in his mouth. He decided to get out.
“I don’t want to have to worry about my job in order to do a good job,” he said.