Teacher tenure has become a hot-button issue across the country. Several states have modified or are in the process of modifying the laws governing whether and how a teacher may be removed from her position.

In many of these states there is a decidedly partisan nature to these debates. Republicans have taken the lead in attempts to make it easier to remove ineffective teachers. Democrats, long the recipients of the support of the powerful teachers unions, have become defenders of the status quo.

Unfortunately for the Democrats, a growing body of evidence suggests that the status quo is no longer acceptable.

Expectations for teachers are high. Those who do not measure up should not be teaching. Research over the past 10 years has made it clear that good teachers can advance even the weakest students more than a grade level ahead in key subjects in a school year. Mediocre teachers are much less effective. Many of their students do not come close to achieving grade level work in a given school year.

The problem is that the current process in most states for removing ineffective teachers is so onerous and time-consuming that it is almost impossible to do. Witness the situation in New York City where, in desperation, former Schools Commissioner Joel Klein removed teachers deemed ineffective from classrooms but then had to continue to pay them for years as the administrative appeals process dragged on. The losers here are the students. U.S. students continue to register mediocre results in national and international comparisons. In spite of much focus on this issue, and the commitment of billions of dollars, we have not seen much in the way of results.

We routinely blame the usual suspects for the lack of better results: today’s students are too preoccupied with texting, Facebook and other digital distractions, class sizes are too big for teachers to give adequate attention to each student, parents do not provide proper encouragement and discipline to their children — and so on.

All of these concerns are valid, and yet one good teacher can vanquish most of them.

To paraphrase Bill Clinton’s “It’s the economy, stupid,” it is the teachers, stupid. How does teacher tenure fit into this?

Obviously, removing tenure would make it easier to remove ineffective teachers. Who knows how many of these there are in any school system, but at least 5 percent to 10 percent is a reasonable figure. What is less well understood is that the removal of teacher tenure would also give principals and superintendents more leverage in building effective professional development programs to make remaining teachers more effective.

In fact, in the best charter school groups, where principals can remove teachers more easily, few teachers actually are asked to leave. Most thrive and improve their practice in the results-based assessment environment that these groups have pioneered.

The teachers unions have much less to fear from modifying current tenure positions than they think. This is perhaps why the American Federation of Teachers, the smaller of the two national teachers unions, has recently suggested a willingness to modify tenure as part of a more effective approach to evaluating teachers.

Herein lies the key. The only way that removing tenure makes sense is if school systems have fair and effective approaches to evaluating teachers. Such approaches are not particularly difficult to put in place.

Well-documented approaches are routine in the private sector. In addition, assessment technology now widely used in classrooms can provide important input on how much progress individual students are making.

This information, better and more unbiased than simply high-stakes annual testing, should be a part of any evaluation process.

For too long teachers unions have blocked any attempts to develop a fair and workable process for removing ineffective teachers. By doing so, they have not simply tolerated ineffective teaching, they have also hobbled professional development effectiveness.

It is time for the unions to face facts and take the side of the students — not the lowest performing of their members.

As actions in other parts of the country have demonstrated, several states are moving to legislate rather than negotiate with unions on this issue.

Here in Maine, Gov. LePage has indicated that he will propose legislation to lengthen the length of time until new teachers reach tenured status from two years to three years.

This is less than a half-measure.

The administration should propose legislation that removes tenure and replaces it with a fair teacher evaluation system that builds on current best practice.

The winners from such an approach would be Maine students.

Ron Bancroft is an independent strategy consultant located in Portland. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]