The relationship between teacher dismissals and teacher quality

In response to No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, states including Georgia restructured teacher evaluation criteria to include both rigorous principal-conducted evaluations and student test scores. Andrew Saultz conducted an exploratory study in Georgia for the American Enterprise Institute to identify patterns in teacher dismissals and their relationship, if any, to teacher quality.

Saultz gathered 136 teacher dismissal cases from three of the six largest Georgia school districts: Fulton, DeKalb, and Atlanta. These records contained the recommendations of the tribunal reviewing each case, the state board of education’s final decisions, or both, stating the main cause for termination, as well as other offenses and an optional explanation. These causes came from a predetermined list outlined in Georgia’s Fair Dismissal Act. Saultz analyzed the results to understand patterns in Georgia’s teacher dismissals, looking specifically for mentions of teaching and/or teacher quality; so he broke down the results by main cause of termination and whether that cause is linked to teaching and/or teacher quality.

“Willful neglect of duties” was the most frequently cited cause for terminations, with 38 percent of cases labeled as such. It includes transgressions like “failure to complete lesson plans” and “failure to report to work.” The second most frequently cited fireable offense was “incompetence,” which appeared as the primary cause for 29 percent of cases, and usually relates to failures in performing job-specific duties, such as inadequate student records, low performance on student assessments, and failure to improve instruction.

Yet the study found that only six of the 136 cases for dismissal, or 4.4 percent, mentioned teacher effectiveness, teacher quality, instruction, or student learning. For terminations due to “willful neglect of duties,” for example, in only one of the fifty-one cases did records say anything about a teacher’s teaching. For incompetence, it was just five of thirty-eight. No other firings—be they for insubordination, failure to maintain proper training or certification, staff reductions, or something else—mentioned teaching in any capacity. And of the six cases that did, none said anything about teachers’ failure to implement strategies their districts recommended to improve instruction—which might indicate that even these instances had little to do with instructional quality, or that districts did little to try to correct deficiencies.

The study is limited by sample size. Only three school districts were included, each of a similar size and each in Georgia. The clear patterns it establishes might therefore not apply to smaller and more rural districts in Georgia, or school systems in other states.

Yet districts may be to blame for the bigger limitation: the lack of information recorded in dismissal cases. The collected case files were usually generic, constrained to Georgia’s eight formal causes. And a couple proceedings omitted a dismissal reason entirely.

If one of the purposes of teacher evaluations is to identify teachers’ instructional deficiencies and correct them—and it should be—these results suggest Georgia is failing mightily to fulfill that purpose. We ought to investigate whether other states are, too.

SOURCE: Andrew Saultz, “What Does One Do to Get Fired Around Here? An Analysis of Teacher Dismissals in Georgia,” American Enterprise Institute (June 2018).