"How can we give tenure at two years when it's simply too early to make that judgment (of whether someone is a good teacher)?" Hennessy asked. "Why do we encode this in law? We don't do that for any other profession."
Hennessy spoke in a panel discussion Tuesday convened by the Stanford Pre-Education Society, a club of undergraduates interested in pursuing education careers. Society president and moderator Julia Quintero, a history and human biology major who aspires to be a teacher, introduced the session, saying that "careers in education are often overlooked by students at elite institutions like Stanford. We're here to change that."
She asked panelists to address what the U.S. can do to "attract the brightest students to careers in education, especially teaching."
"We as a society need to change to make (teaching) a high-status profession," Hennessy said. He noted that "many people who go into teaching careers (in the U.S.) come from the lower third of their college class" while "in the rest of the world they come from the top third" — and in high-performing Finland, teachers earn as much as doctors.
"We need to put more value on (teaching)," he said. "In the United States, let's face it, the salary you earn says something about how important your profession is."
Panelist Michael Kirst, a retired Stanford professor and current chairman of California's State Board of Education, called the state's tenure law "a historical artifact" of an era when the Legislature enacted job protections because teachers were not permitted to unionize.
"When collective bargaining came (in 1975) we didn't repeal those (tenure and job-security) laws, we just piled the collective bargaining on top of the existing laws and have been unable politically — either by votes of the Legislature or by the people — to change this around," Kirst said, agreeing that two years is "too early" to determine tenure.
But an initiative by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to extend the probationary period before tenure from two years to five years (Proposition 74 in 2005) was soundly defeated, he noted.
More than 60 percent of California's 310,000 public-school teachers now come from the California State University system — schools like San Jose State University that originally were founded as teachers' colleges, Kirst said. Another 20 percent to 25 percent come from "a set of for-profit, non-selective institutions," he said.
"Selective institutions like Santa Clara University, UC and Stanford are 10 percent to 15 percent of our supply," Kirst said.
State education leaders are looking at reforms that would place greater emphasis on having teaching students demonstrate their skills rather than just spend time in the classroom, he said.
Hennessy said many teacher-education programs across the country spend less money per-student than they spend on almost any other major in the university.
"We're sending a message right there about the importance of this profession," he said.
Program costs are low, he said, because most students sit in the college classroom, and "That's exactly the wrong thing to do."
He said an exception is the 12-month Stanford Teacher Education Program (STEP), which interweaves instruction with hands-on teaching experience and leads to a master's degree and preliminary California teaching credential.
A recent survey of STEP graduates from 2002 to 2011 indicated that 75 percent of them are still working in K-12 classrooms — far better than the oft-cited 50 percent to 60 percent overall retention rate of teachers after five years, STEP Director Rachel Lotan said.
Claude Steele, Stanford Graduate School of Education dean, cited his school's outreach efforts that expose undergraduates to careers in education, including a theme house focused on education and society and an education minor.
"We hope that helps make (education) a kind of normative, even a cool thing to do," Steele said.
Though Steele said his feelings about Teach for America — a national nonprofit that places young college graduates in some of the nation's most challenging, low-income classrooms for two years — are "very mixed" and "complex," he said the sought-after program has motivated people to pursue education careers.
Kirst said California desperately needs Spanish-speaking teachers and those prepared to handle a growing wave of students with autism.
When he first served on the State Board of Education in 1982, special education was 11 percent of operating expenditures and now it's 22 percent, he said.
Of the 6.2 million children in California, 53 percent are Latino and 1.6 million of them "cannot function in English in the classroom."
Hopeful news for aspiring teachers lies in the new Common Core State Standards now being implemented in California and most other states, Kirst said.
"It's a much higher and deeper curriculum and one that teachers want to teach to," Kirst said, citing a survey that found that 73 percent of teachers nationwide are enthusiastic about Common Core.
"It will end the sole reliance we now have in California on the fill-in-the-bubble exam and closed-end questions ... which has led to scripted textbooks and scripted lessons for teachers."
Hennessy and Steele said teachers have unfairly been made scapegoats as national resources have been diverted from the young to the old.
"We're spending more and more on health care entitlement programs. We've driven down the poverty level of old people ... but we've driven up the poverty level of young people. ... We've got to redress this imbalance, and if we don't, we won't be the country we aspire to be," Hennessy said.
All four panelists decried funding inequities in California public education.
"A beginning teacher's salary is $38,000 in Oakland; in San Francisco it's $48,000, and in Mountain View-Los Altos it's $60,000," Lotan said. "That's wrong; that's immoral. ... That should not be."
Hennessy said teachers working with struggling, low-income students should be paid more than other teachers, not less.
"How did we ever get into this crazy situation where taxes support school districts so there's an attachment between the neighborhood you live in and the quality of your school?
"It's a crazy system, and maybe we should blow it up and start over again," he said.