Policymaking By Anecdote

October 7, 2008

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.

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