Policymaking By Anecdote

Is it good policy to reduce barriers to firing sub-par teachers?

According to Jennifer Jennings, the blogger formerly known as Eduwonkette, the answer is no.  We need to preserve teacher tenure, she argues, because she has found an example of a really great teacher, Art Siebens, who was fired when his DC school was reconstituted.  His case is “haunting for the glimpse it offers into the brave new world of unchecked principal autonomy.”

Well, Siebens wasn’t actually fired.  He wasn’t re-hired at the same school and was instead offered a job teaching a different science course at a different DC public school.  Don’t fret ye of weak hearts — continued employment for teachers is still essentially guaranteed even if not in the school and class of their choosing.

It’s puzzling why Siebens wasn’t re-hired given that he was an award winning teacher with what appears to be a strong record of excellent work.  But the fact that he wasn’t is hardly evidence against DC superintendent Michelle Rhee’s proposal to offer teachers significant pay increases if they give up tenure.  Perhaps there is more to Siebens’ story than is publicly known.  

More importantly, the case of Art Siebens is not evidence against abandoning tenure because it is a single case.  The plural of anecdote is not data.  We shouldn’t make policy by referencing anecdotes.  Instead, we should look “through the lens of social science,” as a wise person once wrote, and consider systematic evidence when formulating education policy. 

The remarkable investigative reporting by Scott Reeder has powerfully documented the problems with teacher tenure.  After filing 1,500 Illinois Freedom of Information Act requests with the state board and all 876 Illinois school districts, Reeder uncovered the following:

1) “Of an estimated 95,500 tenured educators now employed in the state [of Illinois] an average of only seven have their dismissals approved each year by a state hearing officer. Of those seven, only two on average are fired for poor job performance. The remainder is dismissed for issues of misconduct.”

2) “Of Illinois’ 876 school districts only 61, or 7 percent, have ever attempted to fire a tenured faculty member since the teacher evaluation reforms were imposed 18 years ago.”

3) “Of those 61 school districts, only 38 were successful in actually firing a teacher.”

4) “Not only is it exceedingly rare to fire a tenured teacher in Illinois, but it also is extraordinarily expensive. In fact, Illinois school districts that have hired outside lawyers in these cases have spent an average of more than $219,000 in legal fees during the last five years.”

5) “In the last 10 years, about 477,000 evaluations of Illinois tenured teachers have been performed, but only 513 received unsatisfactory evaluations… In other words, only 1 out 930 evaluations result in a tenured teacher receiving an ‘unsatisfactory’ rating.” Conducting those evaluations consumed 2.5 million administrative hours.

OK, so it is next to impossible to fire tenured teachers.  And we also know from systematic evidence that the quality of the teacher is the single most important factor within school control to influence student academic improvement. (See for example the research referenced here.)

Unless we believed that all but .007% of tenured teachers are doing a solid job, the current system is clearly keeping incompetent teachers in the classroom.  Any meaningful reform strategy has to involve getting rid of dud teachers and attracting better teachers as replacements.  Rhee’s proposal to increase pay in exchange for greater flexibility in terminating sub-par teachers seems like a promising idea to do just that.  The higher pay might attract better new people into teaching and the flexibility on termination could remove bad teachers from the classroom. 

Of course, the blogger formerly known as Eduwonkette makes a fair point when she asks, “Why are you confident that principals will always – or even often – pick the ‘best teachers?'”  For a system with reduced tenure protections to work, principals would also have to be properly motivated to distinguish between effective and ineffective teachers.  But this could be done either through meaningful merit evaluation and rewards for principals or through market accountability in choice programs.  If continued employment or pay raises for principals depended upon identifying effective and ineffective teachers, they are unlikely to let talented teachers like Art Siebens go and are likely to get rid of duds.

But we should all accept that any system of hiring and firing teachers will have its injustices.  The status quo tenure system has the injustice of protecting bad teachers in their jobs.  And if cuts have to be made it is newer teachers who have to be let go, even if they are better teachers than their senior colleagues.  A system like Rhee proposes will occasionally mistakenly let go of a good teacher.  But with well-designed incentives for the principals this should be the exception and not the rule.

Besides, we have to ask ourselves:  how many kids do you want to condemn to an ineffective teacher to avoid the possibility of unjustly terminating a good teacher?  If we care more about the kids than the adults in schools, then the injustice to the students should matter much more to us than the possible injustice to a few teachers.

11 Responses to Policymaking By Anecdote

  1. Effective schools employ effective administrators who are effective at rooting out and dismissing ineffective teachers. There are numerous schools that fit this description in the United States. Yet, instead of addressing an unwillingness, or even incompetence, in terms of management, the conclusion is that “tenure” prevents schools from getting rid of bad teachers.

    This common misconception about management comes from a clear misconception about tenure. Tenure means, quite simply, a teacher cannot be dismissed without cause. That seems pretty reasonable. In the business world, the same is true, and I have far too many friends in business, from restaurants and small businesses to Fortune 500 companies, who lament how difficult it is to get rid of incompetent people. It’s not about tenure there, but management.

    However, in most businesses, the probationary period for workers is 30/60/90 days. In education it is years. Schools in Colorado and Illinois have three years to determine the competence of teachers. It was four in Illinois when I taught there. If a school cannot determine a quality teacher who won’t “go bad” in four years, there is some serious incompetence in the administration of that school.

    Tenure is no threat to education, and it simply provides fairness and integrity to the job of teaching. The real threat to education is incompetent administration.

  2. Greg Forster says:

    The problem is that schools can’t fire a teacher “for cause” except by going through an incredibly cumbersome and unreliable system that effectively deters them from even trying in all but the most extreme cases. For example, in this post I reproduced a chart showing the steps you have to go through to fire a teacher in California. Not only is it amazingly long and requires administrators to invest tons of effort that they may not feel they can spare – and shouldn’t have to – but there are also numerous chokepoints that allow union-dominated local school boards to block the process.

    The stats referenced by Jay in this post tell the story – do you really think that only 0.007% of all teachers need to be fired? With the system failing the way it is?

  3. It is not accurate to say that “the same is true” in business; that employees have tenure. The vast majority of private sector employees are employees at will, which means that they can be let go without the employer having to show cause. Employers may not discriminate on the basis of race, sex, religion, etc… in terminating employees, but other than those restrictions there is nothing that stands in the way of people being let go in the private sector if it is an employee at will arrangement. Only private sector workers with an employment contract that specifies the requirements for termination are not employees at will.

    In addition, saying that it is “pretty reasonable” that one has to show cause underestimates the burden of demonstrating cause. If I were to say that anyone who wanted to stop reading this blog only had to show cause to stop reading, that would be anything but reasonable. Despite this blog’s obsession with pop culture, endless inside jokes, and rapant sophistry you would have a hard time “proving” that it was not worthwhile. : )

  4. Greg Forster says:

    And is it a coincidence that the parts of the private sector that are still heavily unionized (which is what we’re really talking about here) are the ones most likely to be in steep long-term decline? No wonder the unions are desperate to take away workers’ right to a secret ballot on forming a union – workers can see with their own eyes what happens to industries that unionize, and they’re not interested in destroying their jobs.

  5. Alsadius says:

    You made a typo – 1 in 930 is 0.107%, not 0.007% – the latter would be around 1 in 14000. Other than that, though, good post.

  6. Margo/Mom says:

    Jay–thanks for the great post. But I would like to redirect the discussion towards a middle ground. It is not only fire incompetents vs life-time guaranteed employment. Modern management theory centers around communication and supervision aimed at growth and improvement. I won’t argue that this is necessarily done well–and Michael’s point that businesses often live with incompetence rather than cure or get rid of it is well taken. By the same token, people sometimes lose jobs for little to no reason (business related or otherwise), and no protection. I would suggest that evaluation aimed at improvement is something of a rarety, either through ignorance, or simple reticence at telling people when they are not doing as well as might be preferred.

    Frankly, I’m not sure what Art Siemens exemplifies because there seems to be a crucial factoid or two missing. I can only surmise that his talent at pushing kids over the AP mark was not balanced in other areas deemed to be more critical to the mission of the organization. But you’re right, as the case is now known, it does little to support either those who favor tenure or those who feel hamstrung by it.

  7. Thanks for the excellent discussion.

    To Alsadius — The .007% is 7 out of 95,500 teachers who are fired in a year in Illinois. It’s true that 1 in 930 (or .107%) receive an unsatisfactory review but only .007% are let go.

    To Margo/Mom — I agree that any organization needs to have some mix of trying to improve the employees they have, tolerating the limitations of the ones they can’t improve, and terminating the ones that aren’t acceptable. My point is that schools are way out of balance, neither doing much to identify and improve sub-par teachers or terminating them.

  8. Greg,

    I have heard about the incredibly convoluted contracts that some school districts have which, in turn, make dismissing ineffective teachers cumbersome. In fact, John Stossel made a point of posting the New York City public school’s ridiculous contract during his show “Stupid in America.”

    This, again, is the product of completely ineffective management. Who signs a contract that makes it impossible to effectively manage workers and dismiss incompetent ones? Agreeing to such a contract just makes no sense.

  9. Greg Forster says:

    We’re not just talking about “some school districts,” we’re talking about practically all of them. And it makes perfect sense – if the teachers’ unions are the primary political constituents of the very same school boards with whom they “negotiate” their contracts. How many people vote in school board elections? Answer: tons of them – mostly the countless thousands of people who make their living from the school system and their family members. If school board members want to get re-elected, they had better please the unions. But only in rare cases do school board members face a threat to re-election because they failed to stand up to the unions.

    So this isn’t a case of ineffective management. It’s a case of very effective management – if by “effective” we mean that they accomplish what they want to accomplish and please their primary constituency.

  10. Interesting points, Greg. Though, I have to say, in my sixteen years in public education in two separate states, I have encountered very different communities and school boards than you. Never, in my experience, have I known school boards that are “stooges” to the local unions. In fact, it’s always been the opposite. I guess that is the nature of our disagreement.

    Additionally, it seems there is a disconnect concerning the assumption that because more teachers aren’t being fired, that unions and tenure are at fault for perpetuating bad schools. In fact, a community member of mine recently commented that unions are ruining education and we ought to immediately replace twenty percent of the staff because they’re obviously not all good teacher. I found this perspective disturbing, as our school is considered one of the best in the country. Newsweek consistently ranks it in the top 250 and Pew says it’s in the top thirty for college preparation – we had twenty-six National Merit Scholars this year. Obviously, unions and tenure are not causing problems here.

    Mort Zuckerman of US News recently noted, “nearly 90 percent of adults today complete high school compared with 33 percent in 1947.” Additionally, nearly 30 percent of the American population today has a college degree compared with 5 percent in 1947. That seems like some rather impressive progress. It’s hardly a ruined education system. While Americans regularly cite concerns about public schools, Gallup polls show seventy-five percent of Americans are “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with their children’s school. An even greater percentage of Americans (85%) are satisfied with their own education. So why all the criticism? Well, they’re obviously talking about other people’s schools.

    That is the problem of looking at unions, tenure, and low dismissal rates and blaming them for poor performance in public schools.

  11. Ellen says:

    The http://www.reinstatedrart.com website provides a wealth of data about the Siebens situation.

    It is not about one teacher possibly being treated unfairly, it is more about the loss to students of a great teacher for no stated reason except “you don’t fit” and the likelihood of this type of thing happening more and more.

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