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Teacher tenure has been in the news a lot in recent months, from a new lawsuit over tenure policies in Minnesota to recent rulings in court cases in California and North Carolina. While tenure policy is primarily set at the state level, ultimately the decision to award tenure to each individual teacher is made at the district level. It's an important decision, not only because of its impact on general dismissal and due process rights. It can also be a factor in determining if a teacher can participate in mutual consent hiring or is less likely to be laid off.
This month's Trendline takes a look at the length of probationary periods across districts in the Teacher Contract Database and how much flexibility districts have in the decision to award tenure.
The probationary period represents the amount of time a teacher must teach before she or he is granted tenure. The majority of the 135 districts in our database, 54 percent, award teachers tenure after three years of teaching, roughly the same percentage as when we covered tenure in 2014.
There are some notable outlier states—and therefore districts in those states—when it comes to tenure policy. Mississippi is the only state to award tenure after only one year in the classroom, making Desoto County and Jacksonthe two districts in our database with the shortest probationary period for teachers. In contrast, new teachers in the Ohio districts in our database (Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, and Toledo) must wait seven years. An Ohio state law, last amended in 2011, requires that teachers hold a teaching license for at least seven years and teach in the same district for at least three of the most recent five-year period to be granted tenure.
In most cases, teachers who teach the required number of years are either offered tenure and a new contract or they are dismissed. Some districts, however, give teachers who have outstanding performance a chance to receive tenure more quickly. There are 10 districts in four states (Elgin and Chicago in Illinois; Caddo Parish, East Baton Rouge Parish, Jefferson Parish, and New Orleans in Louisiana; Oklahoma City and Tulsa in Oklahoma; Seattle and Spokane in Washington) where teachers who have outstanding performance on evaluations in their first years of teaching can be awarded tenure in fewer years than teachers in those districts with only average performance. In the graph above, these districts are categorized by the shortest number of years in which a teacher can receive tenure.
There are 21 districts, mostly in Florida, where tenure is not a consideration. In the 14 Florida districts, three North Carolina districts, and one Kansas district in our database, teachers are only offered annual contracts and cannot be granted tenure. That does not mean that these districts don't find other ways to distinguish between early-career and more senior teachers. Hillsborough County and Orange County in Florida both implement probationary periods for new teachers during which they do not have the same set of rights as a non-probationary teacher. In North Carolina, teachers can be awarded two- or four-year contracts from the district if they have shown effectiveness on their evaluations.
In the District of Columbia, Bismarck (ND), and Fargo (ND), there is no tenure policy articulated at either the state or district level. Unlike the districts in Florida, North Carolina, and Kansas, it is not clear what type of contracts and dismissal protections teachers are offered. It is clear, however, that in the District of Columbia continued employment is dependent upon performance: teachers who receive an 'ineffective' rating or two 'minimally effective' ratings are subject to dismissal.
Flexibility over the timing of the tenure decisions
Roughly one-third of districts in the database are located in states that allow a teacher's probationary period to be extended because it is judged that the teacher is not yet qualified for tenure. In contrast with the 10 districts that grant tenure earlier to highly effective teachers that meet specific criteria, the extension of the probationary period is generally left up to the discretion of the district.
Of the districts that can extend the probationary period, the vast majority may do so for one or two years. The shortest delay is six months for school districts in Missouri (Kansas City, Springfield, and St. Louis). The longest delay is two years.
In the four Louisiana districts in the database (Caddo Parish, East Baton Rouge Parish, Jefferson Parish, and New Orleans), teachers must meet specific criteria in order to be granted tenure. Specifically, teachers must be rated highly effective on their evaluation for five out of the previous six years to gain tenure. In addition, tenured teachers can lose their tenure if they receive an ineffective rating in any year.
The other two districts that may extend the probationary period until a teacher meets certain criteria are Seattle and Spokane, both in Washington. If a teacher receives the lowest evaluation rating in his third year of probation, he continues to be on probation until he receives a higher rating or his contract is not renewed.
 For example, in Oklahoma, a teacher can earn tenure after three years if she receives a rating of "superior" on the evaluation for at least two of three years and never receives a rating below 'effective.' Teachers who don't meet these criteria must wait four years for tenure. As a result, Oklahoma City and Tulsa are counted in the graph above as having a probationary period of three years.