More Easily Firing Bad Teachers Helps Everyone
Eric Hanushek is an economist and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. He is co-author of "Endangering Prosperity: A Global View of the American School." He testified for the plaintiffs in the Vergarra case.
JUNE 11, 2014
Teacher tenure discussions often suggest that what is in the best interest of teachers is also in the best interest of students. But the groundbreaking decision in the Vergara case makes it clear that early, and effectively irreversible, decisions about teacher tenure have real costs for students and ultimately all of society.
Ineffective faculty are a drag on colleagues and hold back the development of students. Ending strict job protection lets them be removed.
Teacher tenure, and the related onerous and costly requirements for dismissing an ineffective teacher, have evolved into a system that almost completely insulates teachers from review, evaluation, or personnel decisions that would threaten their lifetime employment. Research shows that this results in serious harm both to individual students and to society, because a small number of grossly ineffective teachers are retained in our schools.
The California court, noting that education is a fundamental right of California youth, struck down the law that requires administrators to make essentially lifetime decisions after a teacher has been in the classroom for just 16 months and has yet to complete an induction program. Similarly rejected were statutes that make requirements for removing a tenured teacher so onerous and costly that it is seldom attempted.
Legislatures will likely respond to the court decision by lessening (but not eliminating completely) the burden of dismissing an ineffective teacher. The teachers unions will undoubtedly claim that is an attack on teachers. It is not. It is simply an attempt to restore some balance in the system.
A small percentage of teachers inflicts disproportionate harm on children. Each year a grossly ineffective teacher continues in the classroom reduces the future earnings of the class by thousands of dollars by dramatically lowering the college chances and employment opportunities of students.
There is also a national impact. The future economic well being of the United States is entirely dependent on the skills of our population. Replacing the poorest performing 5 to 8 percent of teachers with an average teacher would, by my calculations, yield improved productivity and growth that amounts to trillions of dollars.
The teachers unions have an opportunity to participate in crafting a more balanced system that promotes world-class schools. By not collaborating, they face the very real possibility that courts and state legislatures will continue to disregard their voices in attempting to improve schooling opportunities. The stakes in getting it right are extraordinarily high.
Due Process Prevents Capricious Firings
Diane Ravitch, a historian of education, is the author of several books, including "The Great School Wars," a history of the New York City public schools.
UPDATED JUNE 12, 2014, 8:19 AM
A century ago, teaching was one of the few white-collar jobs open to women. Classes were large, salaries were low, and working conditions were poor. Supervisors and school boards, male-dominated, made many rules governing teachers' lives. In some cities, for example, school boards fired teachers if they married, or if they were allowed to marry, they were fired if they became pregnant.
In the early days of the formation of teachers' unions, teachers cared most about two issues: tenure and pensions. Teachers wanted some guarantee that they would not retire to a life of poverty. And they wanted assurance that they could not be fired for arbitrary and capricious reasons. They wanted to be sure that they could not be fired by a school board that wanted to hire a colleague's daughter or sister, or fired by a principal who didn't like their looks or their religion.
The Vergara decision in California strikes at one of the issues that matters most to teachers today. Unlike tenure in higher education, public school tenure is not a guarantee of a lifetime job. In elementary and secondary education, tenure is a guarantee that a teacher can be fired only for just cause, with due process.
In states with tenure, teachers must work satisfactorily for a period of time before they are eligible for tenure. In California, it was 18 months -- or two school years. In most other states, it is three or four years. Only then may the principal decide whether to grant tenure. A teacher with tenure is entitled to a hearing before he or she may be fired, and evidence of misconduct must be presented before an independent hearing officer.
Tenure protects academic freedom. In the absence of tenure, teachers may be fired for any reason. Teachers may be fired if the principal doesn't like them or if they are experienced and become too expensive. Teachers may be fired for being outspoken.
There is no evidence that tenure causes low test scores. There is no evidence that children get higher achievement if their teachers have no tenure. The best predictor of low test scores is poverty. Every standardized test -- whether the SAT, the ACT, state tests, national tests, or international tests – shows the effects of family income on test scores.
Schools in poor communities typically experience high teacher turnover because of lack of resources, large classes, and the challenge of teaching the neediest children while being held accountable for their test scores.
The loss of tenure will make it even more difficult to staff schools in the poorest neighborhoods. Abolishing tenure solves no problems for students and creates massive demoralization among teachers, who understand that their job depends now on compliance to administrators, at whose whim they serve.
We expect teachers to teach children to think critically, but how can they do this if they are not allowed to think critically and to teach without fear?
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