A new study from the Fordham Institute elucidates the central challenge of reforming public schools: Bad teachers are extremely hard to fire. This has been a widely recognized problem for some time, but this study demonstrates how thick regulations create unfeasible “due process” requirements that in practice serve as a shield allowing terrible teachers to stick around.
The group’s research showed that tenure in particular “protects ineffective veteran teachers from performance-based dismissal.” Given that tenure is conferred automatically on teachers after only a few years in most states, its benefits fall on many undeserving teachers.
Administrators face serious obstacles in the firing process. They are usually required to do more observations than are necessary, and even after rating a teacher “ineffective,” they often must place them in remediation before removing them. Students suffer when they are stuck with poor teachers, yet everything tends to be stacked against enforcing serious teaching standards.
As the authors discuss in the study’s introduction, President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative was intended to help solve this problem by providing grants to schools that adopted new teacher-evaluation policies, but “the return on that investment to date has been underwhelming.” The amount of teachers rated ineffective has increased only slightly since Race to the Top was implemented. In a majority of the districts studied, the process for removing an ineffective teacher takes over a year, with many taking two or more. Los Angeles and San Francisco have a process that takes a minimum of five years.
It is hard to imagine a human endeavor succeeding where ineffective participants must be paid and retained for five years. Tenured teachers can challenge negative evaluations “on virtually any grounds” in many districts, making the termination process “unreasonably protracted,” write the authors.
They argue that existing public schools are not beyond saving. They suggest that reformers “commit to taking the tenure process seriously, rather than rubber stamping every eligible teacher for approval” and explain how this has been done in some New York City schools, where teachers immediately granted tenure fell from 94 percent to 56 percent. Such reforms are welcome, but they usually run into roadblocks from unions and stubborn regulators.
In the face of data showing how difficult it is to make modest improvements to existing schools, it is easy to understand why reformers usually choose a different course. Charters, private-school vouchers, tax-credit scholarships, and other school-choice measures put freedom into families’ hands when excessively regulated district schools won’t.
Change often depends on getting past regulations to produce results. If the simple act of firing a failing teacher can take five years, why would anyone seeking to effect change sign up to lead a traditional school?