Education, From The Capitol To The Classroom

Why Principals Don't Fire Bad Teachers, Even When Given The Option

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Randi Weingarten, president of American Federation of Teachers, speaks during the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver.

The popular perception is that teachers unions have a stranglehold on public education, tying school leaders’ hands, preventing them from firing the bad teachers who can’t hack it in a classroom.

That’s the perception, anyway. The reality may not be so simple.

Shanker Blog has the story of a recently-released study saying unions don’t have as much power to block a principal from firing a teacher as most people think. What’s more, even when principals are explicitly given permission to fire bad teachers, they don’t take advantage of it.

As Shanker‘s Matt Di Carlo summarizes, “Principals don’t let go of a lot of teachers because they don’t want to, not because they can’t.”

In the study, economist and education policy professor Brian Jacob examines a 2004 change in the Chicago Public Schools’ teacher contract that “dramatically reduced the costs of firing a probationary teacher in the district.” (Teachers that haven’t been on the job more than five consecutive years are considered “probationary.”)

Effectively, the contractual tweak allowed principals to fire a probationary teacher “with a simple click of a button” and minimal documentation. But in 30-40 percent of Chicago schools during the time after the rule change, principals decided not to click that button.

Why? Jacob writes:

Existing teacher contracts in many large, urban school districts actually provide considerably more flexibility than is commonly believed and yet administrators rarely take advantage of such flexibility. The apparent reluctance of many Chicago principals to use the additional flexibility granted under the new contract may indicate that issues such as teacher supply and/or social norms governing employment relations are more important factors than policymakers have realized.

Translation: Firing teachers, even if they can’t cut it anymore, isn’t worth the hassle — especially if the fired teacher’s replacement isn’t easy to find.

The Fordham Institute‘s Chris Tessone echoes this message:

The professional culture in most public schools still sees firing as an extreme response to bad performance, instead preferring endless remediation. The supply of decent job candidates is probably not up to demand in CPS, either, meaning the labor market is a barrier to implementing better policies around teacher performance.

Shanker‘s Matt Di Carlo points out the study only looks at probationary, not tenured teachers whose contracts certainly offer more robust protections. But he writes reducing problems in the teaching force down to inflexible teachers unions isn’t fair:

We should be careful not to reduce the complexity of employment policies and labor markets to a simple narrative in which personnel policies are the only impediment to improvements in teaching quality…

There is little support for the idea that principals are just dying to fire at will — or that, once dismissed, teachers can easily be replaced by “better” alternatives — despite sometimes being taken for granted in our education debates. Although they are far from conclusive, and pertain only to probationary teachers, the descriptive results discussed above tentatively suggest that the supply of appropriate replacements may not always be quite as robust as is often assumed – and/or that there may be some other reasons for low dismissal rates that are not entirely a function of the difficulty of doing so.

What do you think of this? Are principals right to be a bit gun-shy — is there merit to being a little more trigger-happy?



  • Larry

    I sit on a school board in Indiana, and can tell you firsthand that Mr. Di Carlo is generalizing much like he ironically is claiming others do. I have personally sat through four hearings in the past year, where teachers clearly should and would have been fired by their principals, but it was barred from happening by the union. So, to state that isn’t causing any type of stranglehold on removing ineffective teachers, is misleading. I would hope NPR might go to a couple of other sources in the future rather than relying on one study and one person’s interpretation of that study. The fact is, there are plenty of real-life examples of the difficulty schools and districts experience in terminating teachers, that can cost a district a significant amount of money when you take into consideration the legal fees, continued payment of the teacher’s salary, etc. And, that is without getting into how much damage those teachers could be doing to student learning in the classes or courses they were leading. I do concur there are principals who simply do not and will not fire teachers, which is why most districts have human resource professionals responsible for managing that process. I also agree it is occasionally not exactly easy to find a well-qualified person to jump in and take the terminated teacher’s place, but once again most districts manage to fill the void; and under the circumstances it regrettably may be better for the students to have a substitute than the teacher being fired.

    • StateImpact Indiana

      Hi Larry, thanks for your comment.

      This story doesn’t have one source, it has three. We cite the study itself. We also cited two credible blogs that generally espouse vastly different ideological positions.

      What’s interesting — and worth further exploration — is how those two sides interpret this study to their own ends. The generally free-market-oriented Fordham Institute uses this as a call to arms for principals, saying they need to muster some intestinal fortitude and make some tough, uncomfortable decisions with bad teachers. The Shanker Institute — named for an early teachers union president — uses the study to discredit attacks on teacher unions as the whole problem. They were, if you read the original posts we cite, very different takes on the issue. I will defend how I cited sources here.

      In the cases you presided over (if you’re able to say), were the teachers in question probationary or tenured? I would imagine they were tenured if they had hearings. Di Carlo points out the study’s main weakness was that it looked only at a change in provisions of probationary teacher. Can you describe the character or nature of their complaints?

      ~ Kyle

  • no more paycheck employees!

    Majority of teachers, guidance counselors , teacher’s aids, volunteer’s,Principals etc should NEVER have contact with a child let alone teach and mentor them others are just there for the paycheck and benefits. From preschool all the way to high school(minus when i was given a second chance at another hs filled with motivated caring teachers) some of the worst piece of “S#@#” excuses for human beings I have met, were employed at a school. I understand for those that did not experience what i did at their schooling or are motivated caring people employed at an excellent school will find this hard to believe but there are schools that you don’t want to send your children too because they will only learn fear, trauma and hurt. From preschool to high school before the second chance high school only two teachers cared and were motivated at what they did, wanting to do it not feeling like they had too, an art teacher and a volunteer from the community (she was not paid either) the volunteer teacher was not qualified for what she was teaching but because our teacher skipped out on strike(not bothering to inform the school he did) they took her…but she tried and motivated us to search for knowledge and even instruct the class, she empowered us and didn’t look down on us . the last school i attended i wish i had gone there all my life. Students were motivated because they had motivated caring teachers I was only there for gym but many teachers reached out to me to get me up to par or above par with everyone else for free at the other schools i had to pay for crap teachers that instructed me to read out of a book just sitting there and grading my tests. at that high school they didn’t care about money , they cared about the students. I suppose that is what the school system does, they put the best at the best schools and the rest at the crumbling schools. Unions are disgusting they allow pedophiles protection to still get a paycheck while they twiddle there thumbs somewhere else away from the school. (read a story where a teacher convicted of raping a student was still getting paid, yet not instructing at the school and he had to report and stay at the admin offices and sit at a computer from start of school till end of school….bull crap) there are other teachers convicted of physical violence against a student and still on the pay roll others still on the payroll who were poor at teaching but because of a union get protection. You can see in what i type i had a poor education, but maybe if enough of those who are victims of poor education spoke up something would be done about it. the standard test every year and poor grades are not doing anything (schools are being caught for upping the score every year) . the stuff people write on the internet and the poor excuse of a society is not doing anything….fire these lowlifes/sub par people and keep the motivated people, the people that care what they are doing. and care about our future…..stop hiring the crap because they have a diploma that means squat now with so many cheating to get ahead only motivated by the pay they could get ,

    • Cesar

      Unions are in place to protect teachers from overstepping authority similar to what the constitution is to the people. When you go ahead and think unions are bad remember this, if it weren’t for unions people would still be paid $5/hr, no benefits, and would be treated poorly. In my state and county when a teacher is in investigation regarding sexual assault, physical violence, and other horrifying things, the teacher sits at home without pay because they are suspended unlike many in other professions. (i.e. Policemen)

      Teacher are view as a position where we are perfect and can’t commit a crime which is true but consider this how many professionals get DUIs and tickets and can get away with it most, teacher can not. I truly believe that what you mentioned regarding is not genuine. Also in regards to the statement “stop hiring the crap because they have a diploma that means squat now with so many cheating to get ahead only motivated by the pay they could get,” I don’t believe someone will cheat to earned a low paying job. Most teachers go into the profession because they either like their subject or children.

      And lastly blaming someone else for the failures you had is not okay. You as the student should have seek out other opportunities in the community. Students fine it easy to blame teachers, but ultimately the responsibility for the learning is the student’s and parents. I have seen many student were the teacher genuinely tries, tries, and tries, but the student and parent don’t put the same effort.

  • Kim L

    Aside from the firing of bad teachers what about the lack of discipline when it comes to teachers acting inappropriately. For example, telling a student, “Don’t f**k with me!,” and never receiving any disciplinary consequences. As a parent and former teacher I found myself confronted with similar situations on a weekly, sometimes, daily basis. I feel that the teachers must be responsible for upholding the rules and regulations found in the school hand book in order for our children to model these expected behaviors and that teachers should be disciplined when they cross boundaries that could be psychologically damaging. I have shared these experiences and reflections in a book, Snitch: True Stories of Destructive Classrooms and Bad Teachers.

  • parent

    We need a clear way to report teachers where every complaint is reviewed most people who act unprofessional will do it when they can get away with it again. This is a good profession when the teachers are fit for the job all the young females who have a degree are not fit to watch over kids

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