The Education Gadfly Weekly: Why bad teachers rarely get fired

The research on “what matters” when it comes to a child’s academic success has been clear for decades: more than anything else that a school can control, the classroom teacher matters most.

Understandably then, for the past eight or so years, everyone from educators to policymakers to statisticians has expended much effort to define and measure effective teaching. And while they have come to a diverse set of conclusions, it strains credulity to argue that an ineffective teacher should be invulnerable to losing his job.

Unfortunately, once a veteran teacher earns tenure, state and local policy make it complicated and cumbersome to fire him, even if he has demonstrated time and again that he is a poor educator. This seems illogical, or at least counterproductive, since research also shows that achievement would rise, achievement gaps would narrow, lifetime income would increase, and economic growth would surge if we identified and then replaced the bottom 5 or 10 percent of the teacher quality distribution.

Granted, much of what’s been said about the miles of red tape and years of administrative hurdles that comprise the dismissal process of ineffective, veteran teachers is anecdote. We assumed that the rules that govern the process make dismissal difficult once a teacher is identified as ineffective, but we didn’t actually know. A new policy analysis by the Fordham Institute, Undue Process: Why Bad Teachers in Twenty-Five Diverse Districts Rarely Get Fired, goes beyond anecdote and assumption. Instead it scrutinizes relevant policies and practices in twenty-five diverse districts to find out just how feasible it is or isn’t to dismiss an ineffective veteran teacher. (We chose those twenty-five districts because they represent fairly diverse locations, sizes, and political contexts.)

Once a district identifies an educator as ineffective, how direct or circuitous is the line to dismissal? How many barriers are there along the way? And how do different districts compare?

For this work, we enlisted two members of Fordham’s research team, Victoria McDougald and David Griffith. The authors created a metric that built on the excellent work of the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) and the Education Commission of the States (ECS), which previously codified state laws and district policies (in the form of collective-bargaining agreements and employee handbooks) to answer questions such as how many observations are required for dismissal, whether or not a teacher can appeal a firing decision, and on what grounds. The authors also read and interpreted a number of laws and contracts themselves.

Their findings are revealing and disheartening, if unsurprising. Teachers who receive years’ worth of ineffective ratings are often given multiple chances for improvement and reevaluation, and a single procedural violation by the administration can start the process over again. On a ten-point scale (where ten means it is relatively easy to dismiss an ineffective veteran teacher), not a single district made it to nine or ten. Only one, Miami, earned eight points out of ten, and a mere six districts scored six or seven points—which means that on paper it’s feasible but not simple to fire a poorly performing educator. Most districts fared far worse on this metric: San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York City, and Clark County, Nevada make it especially difficult, while policies in another thirteen aren’t much better. The policy analysis showed that in districts across the United States, tenure continues to protect ineffective veteran teachers from performance-based dismissal, the shortest possible timeline for dismissing such a teacher is unreasonably protracted, and dismissal is vulnerable to challenge.

To be clear, we are not advocating for policies that leave the average teacher vulnerable. We are not proposing eliminating the protections of due process, nor are we suggesting denying the opportunity and resources for struggling teachers to improve. We’re talking about removing policy and administrative hurdles to dismissing the worst 5 percent—a nontrivial number, but not a vast throng.

So what can policymakers and educators do? One option is for states to change tenure laws and due-process procedures. That’s not impossible. Some places, such as Florida, North Carolina, and the District of Columbia have completely abolished tenure. Others—including Colorado and Indiana—have provisions such that ineffective teachers lose their tenured status. And still more—including Ohio, Missouri, and New Hampshire—have increased the number of years until a new teacher can earn tenure to five or more.

Districts also have some leeway here. Even if they must abide by state laws allowing for unassailable lifetime tenure, they can shorten dismissal timelines and make evaluations and personnel actions less vulnerable to baseless challenges. In eleven of the districts that we studied—including Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia and Milwaukee Public Schools in Wisconsin—once a teacher has been determined ineffective by district or state procedures, administrators do not have to wait an additional school year to recommend them for dismissal. Meanwhile, Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District in North Carolina and Mesa Public Schools in Arizona both prohibit challenges to evaluations on any grounds other than procedural ones.

Finally, we must put aside the quibbling over how to evaluate teachers, or at least leave it to the psychometricians to determine. That’s not what this study was about, and it’s not in its scope to propose, defend, or contest any of the existing methods. Rather, we must focus on the end game: however ineffective teachers are identified, and after they have exhausted their opportunities to improve, let’s commit ourselves to making it easier to show them the door.

Every once in a while, American K–12 education is overwhelmed by the conviction that its basic design is obsolete and that it needs somehow to reinvent schooling. One hears statements such as “If Rip Van Winkle were to awaken today from a century-long slumber, the only institutions he’d recognize would be schools and cemeteries.” We hear of education being stuck in an “industrial model.” And we observe educators, policymakers, and philanthropists scurrying to replace the schools of their childhoods with something different for their children and grandchildren to attend. We always seem to be, in the memorable phrase of Larry Cuban and the late David Tyack, “Tinkering Toward Utopia”—although those engaged in what generally ends up resembling tinkering actually fancy themselves to be bold revolutionaries.

We went through a phase of this a century ago when educators and policymakers sought to apply Frederick Taylor’s principles of “scientific management” to our disorderly collection of locally devised schools.

We went through a further round in the 1920s and ‘30s as notions of child-centered education and “social efficiency” permeated the schools.

We went through another round in the 1960s and 70s as “open classrooms” proliferated, schools were desegregated and detracked, and sundry curricular innovations (e.g., “whole language” reading and “new” math) kicked in.

We went through another round in the early 90s with “New American Schools”—a purposeful effort by Bush 41, Secretary Lamar Alexander, and former Xerox head David Kearns to “reinvent” the school—and a parallel effort led by Chris Whittle in the private sector (the “Edison Project”).

And we’re going through another round today, with initiatives such as “Reimagining Learning,” led by Stacey Childress and her team at the NewSchools Venture Fund; the Emerson Collective’s XQ SuperSchool project; Marc Zuckerberg’s efforts to “personalize learning”; and any number of technology-centric undertakings like Summit Public Schools, Carpe Diem charter schools, and K12-operated virtual schools.

Unlike more traditional societies, Americans have always been fascinated by “the new,” and that’s why, historically, a lot of inventing, discovering, and innovating has happened on U.S. shores. (That’s why, for example, so many Nobel Prizes have been conferred on Americans—including people who immigrated to this country because it was more hospitable and generous with research and discovery.) Every sector of our lives shows the after-effects of repeated cycles of innovation, many—but not all—of which have improved our lives. Some have been transformative. Some have simply been transitory, even frivolous.

In K–12 education, every reinvention effort gained some traction for a while and left a legacy behind. Indeed, one way to depict U.S. public schools circa 2016 is a vast archeological dig with layers of earlier civilizations visible as we excavate and with the pottery shards and tools that each used now heaped messily all over the place.

One may fairly ask whether the cumulative effect of all this innovating and reinventing has been profound and positive or superficial and confusing. How much good has it really done? To what extent are today’s schools truly different from those my parents attended ninety years back? And how much does that really matter? If they’re not palpably better—more effective, more impactful—we may have wasted a great deal of time, effort, and money while attempting to make them over.

Each cycle of reinvention fancies that it’s the “disruptive innovation” (in Clayton Christensen’s term) that will squeeze out the old model and replace it with something different, something more efficient, effective, and appealing. In the end, however, the net effect seems more like “tinkering” with the old model. The schools just aren’t all that different. Yes, they have whiteboards and tablets. They have different furniture, lighting, heating, and (sometimes) cooling. They have smaller classes and more ancillary staff. Many have added pre-K and afterschool programs. But fundamentally different? I think not.

Occurring in rough parallel have been all manner of external policy changes—standards, accountability, choice, teacher evaluation, funding shifts, categorical programs, etc.—that may have advanced, retarded, or simply ignored the innovators. Some were coordinated, such as the federal “e-rate” program intended to get schools online and thus make modern communications and IT tools functional within their walls. Mostly, though, I’m struck by how few fundamentals have been altered by a century of reinventing and innovating with the model itself. The school day and year aren’t much different in many places, in most of which the educational sequence is still divided into twelve grades. The essential “technology” of instruction is still a solo teacher in a four-walled classroom with fifteen to thirty kids. The curricular core remains quite similar to what it was when I—and my parents—went to school. And school governance, administration, and professional preparation still resemble the arrangements devised by progressive-era reformers and “cult of efficiency” managers.

From where I sit, the biggest changes in U.S. K–12 education have been those forced by policy shifts outside the schoolhouse: the right of millions of families to choose their school rather than being told where to go; the emergence of statewide standards and accountability regimes; and the appearance of more non-district public schools—charters mainly—even as the traditional private sector has shrunk. Yet the majority of those new schools, once you walk inside, are awfully similar to the schools to which they are alternatives.

Will the NewSchools Venture fund catalyze a different outcome, a truly and fundamentally different sort of learning environment for children? Will the Gates or Walton Foundations? The Emerson super-school? Chan Zuckerberg’s efforts at personalization? They’ll surely introduce more technology, and more classrooms will be “blended” and perhaps also “flipped.” They will strive to customize and individualize the learning experience and to help more students “own” their own learning experiences. All such efforts will, however, collide with the hoary structures, habits, and patterns that have led us to organize schools the way we have for so many decades. Real personalizing of education, for example, would disrupt just about everything: from school architecture to teacher preparation, from state academic standards and grade-level class assignments to the scheduling of the period, the day, the week, and the year. I think it makes sense to move in this direction, but I can’t see it happening at more than a snail’s pace. In the end, I suspect, it will end up looking awfully much like more tinkering. Utopia will remain the goal.

I’m all for it, for all the experimenting, innovating, and reinventing that anyone has the imagination and money to undertake. But let’s do it in an experimental mode, evaluate the bejesus out of it, and not put all our eggs in any one utopian basket. Let’s recognize that some of the most appealing (to me, at least) and high-performing new schools in the land are innovating in a “back to the future” sense, places like Great Hearts Academy with its focus on character and classics, the Latin-centric schools that have arisen in Washington and Brooklyn, the Reno- (and now Internet-) based Davidson Academy for highly gifted youngsters, and career-tech programs that integrate the classroom with the world of modern work. Much of what’s good about today’s policy regimen of common standards but independently-operated schools of choice is the enhanced capability of school innovators to strike out in potentially promising directions that may work well for different kids. I don’t want my grandchildren to go to schools that resemble the ones I attended, but neither do I want any given innovator, zillionaire funder, or snake-oil vendor to think he or she knows what’s best for them. Let’s encourage plenty of education flowers to bloom and welcome school diversity, loosely united by common standards and metrics. But let us not bow before the trendy, the fashionable, the politically correct, or the assumption that different is always better.

Happy holidays.

In the heart of the South Bronx, the neighborhoods served by the Boys Prep and Girls Prep public charter schools I lead, roam two ever-present twenty-seven-foot Winnebago trucks offering much needed services to the local community. Emblazoned with the words "Who's Your Daddy?" in graffiti-like lettering, these baby-blue vehicles offer convenient, mobile DNA testing to help residents answer basic questions like “Who is my father?” and “Is this my baby?” Its services have been featured on a VH1 reality show, and the company’s expanding fleet has made sojourns to D.C., Boston, and Chicago. The RV’s popularity is a symptom of the growing destabilization of American families—a harmful trend that threatens the homes and educations of our highest-need students, and that fellow school leaders must confront head-on.

It is a deeply held belief within the education reform community that a child born or raised in a low-income neighborhood should not be destined for a life of poverty as an adult. Poverty alone can't stop a great public school—one that has a strong principal, teachers with high expectations, and a rigorous, knowledge-rich curriculum—from producing exceptional student outcomes.

But what happens when poverty is intertwined with widespread fatherlessness and family disintegration? Perhaps it is time to confess, somewhat reluctantly, that even the most high-performing schools are necessary but insufficient to overcome the challenges children face when they live in low-income communities in which family instability is the norm. Poverty has always existed, but the institution of family has historically provided the buffer necessary for a poor child to move into the middle class or beyond.

In 1960, fewer than 5 percent of all births in the US were out of wedlock; today it’s more than 40 percent. And for many communities, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. For example, in 2015, the Citizen's Committee for Children ranked New York City’s fifty-nine community districts across multiple dimensions of child well-being—economic security, health, housing, education, and issues specific to youths, family, and community. Consider these data:

  • At 59.3 percent, the child poverty rate in the Bronx’s Hunts Point—the city’s highest-risk community district—is more than nine times the 6.5 percent child poverty rate in Battery Park/TriBeCa—the lowest-risk community.
  • 75.5 percent of children in Hunts Point are in single-parent families, while in the Upper East Side, only five miles away, the rate is a mere 14.1 percent.
  • In the Mott Haven district of the Bronx, the teenage birth rate is nearly forty births per one thousand teenage girls. In Battery Park/TriBeCa, the rate is zero.

Nationwide, America is feeling the effects of the Great Crossover. For women as a whole, the median age at first birth (25.7) now falls before the median age at first marriage (26.5).

This explosion of out-of-wedlock births produces or reinforces pathologies that challenge even the most well-intended and well-funded social programs. Not surprisingly, associated educational outcomes are dismal. Even Waiting for Superman charter schools that can leap poverty and race in a single bound can't stop the speeding bullet of family disintegration.

Yet the importance of family instability in academic success is not a radical or new concept. In 1966, the U.S. Office of Education commissioned the landmark Equality of Educational Opportunity survey to study the “lack of availability of equal educational opportunities” for minority children throughout the United States. Better known as the Coleman Report, the 700-page study drew upon data from more than 645,000 students and teachers in 4,000 public schools across the country. One of its most controversial findings was that family background, not schools, explained most of the achievement gap between America’s white and black students.

As the report stated:

One implication stands out above all: That schools bring little influence to bear on a child’s achievement that is independent of his background and general social context; and that this very lack of an independent effect means that the inequalities imposed on children by their home, neighborhood, and peer environment are carried along to become the inequalities with which they confront adult life at the end of school.

Remarkably, the Coleman findings have stood the test of time for over five decades. A group of academics organized at Harvard even tried to disprove the report, but their collective re-analyses reaffirmed Coleman’s fundamental thesis: “Schools appeared to exert relatively little pull—explaining only 10 to 20 percent of the variability in student outcomes—while family background, peers, and students’ own academic self-concept explained a much larger amount.”

It must be said that a stable, two-parent home does not guarantee success. Nor does being raised in a low-income, single-parent household make failure a certainty. But overwhelming data and common sense suggest that family stability matters significantly in virtually every facet of a child’s future life. Consider President Obama’s 2013 speech on violence after yet another fatal shooting of a teenager in Chicago: “There’s no more important ingredient for success, nothing that would be more important for us reducing violence than strong, stable families—which means we should do more to promote marriage and encourage fatherhood.”

So why aren’t education reformers following the President’s lead and promoting strong families as the foundation for academic success? One concern is public backlash. President Obama took a lot of heat for mentioning marriage and fatherhood in that speech. Detractors accused him of blaming “age old stereotypes about black families” for gun violence, and criticized him for not focusing exclusively on structural inequalities like the lack of jobs, decrepit public housing, and failing schools that plague the black underclass.

I empathize with fellow education leaders who are hesitant to speak to these issues, fearing similar backlash from teachers and families, who might accuse us of judging the very people we are seeking to serve. Yet we can no longer ignore the data. Great schools have a role to play to confront the importance of family stability.

Take for example the three “norms” of American life that the Brookings Institute dubs the Success Sequence: (1) graduating from high school; (2) belonging to a family with at least one full-time worker; and (3) having children while married and after age twenty-one. Many readers have likely followed this sequence in their own lives. There is good reason to preach what we practice. Ninety-eight percent of Americans who follow the Success Sequence live above the poverty line, and 70 percent enjoy at least middle-class incomes, defined as 300 percent or more above that cutoff. For Americans who don’t follow the sequence, the picture is reversed.

Yet somehow this idea is still met with suspicion. Critics argue that the Success Sequence is so obviously self-evident that it is pointless to broadly promote it; contend it’s too offensive to single parents who didn't follow it; label it moralizing or victim-blaming; or worry it would shift the discussion too much to personal responsibility and detract from the urgent need to rightfully address institutional racism, improve public schools, or create more jobs in the inner city.

As a leader of a network of public charter schools dedicated to the idea that every parent—regardless of race, income level, or zip code—should have the power to choose a great public school for their child, I am proud of the work our sector has accomplished to make that choice more of a reality. In New York City alone, public charter schools now serve more than 100,000 scholars, with some schools dramatically shrinking the achievement gap in the highest-need neighborhoods.

However, even with this progress, a majority of New York's students still fail to read or do math on grade level. The education reform movement has made amazing strides, but the daunting gap between our aspirations and our current outcomes means that we need to broaden our sights beyond a purely academic focus.

Therefore, in addition to enhancing teaching and learning, we must also teach our scholars the importance of family formation by integrating these ideas into the high-quality, knowledge-based educational program that we already know benefits all children. Many schools, like Public Prep, are grappling with how best to address these issues. Maybe the term “Success Sequence” should be re-branded as the “Opportunity Pathway” to cement the idea that there are no guarantees in life. Instead, there are choices with rewards or consequences that create or inhibit opportunity.

Indeed, the Opportunity Pathway could be taught in a probability and statistics class, letting kids explore data indicating how a series of life decisions affect their likelihood of success in adulthood. Alternately, we could tap the rich body of American and world literature to spark discussion about the complex interplay among family, education, identity, happiness, and power. Many schools already encourage students to live by certain moral standards and core values (e.g., do the right thing even when no one is watching). This would be no different.

There is an old saying that sometimes we must shut our eyes in order to truly see. Confronting the daily challenges of poverty can obscure the underlying root causes that bring about these conditions in the first place. We educators must find the courage to teach our scholars this vital, explicit sequence of life choices that, if followed, would give two generations—our current students and their children—the best chance to live the American Dream. 

In this paper, three rock star scholars examine the combined effects of teacher turnover and the “quality distribution of teacher transitions” using data from a large urban school district in Texas. Based on their results, they draw two main conclusions. First, teachers who leave the school system are generally less effective than those who stay. Second, teacher turnover nevertheless has a negative effect on schools where students are achieving at a low level—not because these schools are losing their “best” teachers but because they are losing more experienced teachers and because teachers who stay at these schools are often assigned to different grades in the wake of their colleagues’ departure, making them less effective. In short, low-achieving—mostly poor—schools are losing experience, not teaching talent per se.

On average, teachers who leave the Texas school system are roughly 50 percent of a standard deviation less effective than their colleagues—a massive difference with clear implications for policy. As the authors put it, the study highlights “the inadequacy of unfocused teacher policies, including universal pay increases, designed to reduce overall turnover without consideration of quality.”

In contrast, the 18 percent of teachers who switch to a different school or district during or after their first year on the job are actually more effective than those who stay behind. However, this finding does not hold for switchers in general, who are slightly less effective than those who stay (though still more effective than those who leave the system entirely). Again, low-achieving schools aren’t especially likely to lose effective teachers to other schools, but they are more likely to hire teachers who are newer to the field—and thus, less effective initially—as replacements.

Overall, the study’s findings “provide support for evaluation and compensation systems such as those implemented in Washington, D.C. and Dallas, Texas, that link pay increases with performance in an effort to retain, support and attract more effective teachers,” according to the authors. In particular, giving bonuses to effective teachers who remain at low-achieving schools seems like a promising strategy, in light of the damage schools suffer from teacher turnover. What reasonable observer could disagree?

SOURCE: Eric A. Hanushek, Steven G. Rivkin, and Jeffrey C. Schiman, “Dynamic Effects of Teacher Turnover on the Quality of Instruction,” National Bureau of Economic Research (July 2016). 

Back in 2012, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) began evaluating and ranking state charter laws based on eight policies they consider “cornerstones of charter school excellence.” These policies—quite reasonable in our view—are based on the principles of access, autonomy, and accountability and require each state to:

  1. Have at least two high quality authorizers, one of which is an alternative to the local district
  2. Endorse national professional authorizer standards
  3. Evaluate authorizers regularly or as needed
  4. Sanction authorizers that do not meet professional standards or that oversee persistently failing schools
  5. Require authorizers to report annually and publicly on the academic performance of each school they oversee
  6. Require authorizers to maintain charter contracts with academic performance expectations, and encourage high-performers to replicate
  7. Maintain strong renewal standards that permit authorizers to hold schools accountable for failing to meet academic expectations
  8. Close charter schools that perform below an established threshold of academic performance

In their latest annual state policy analysis, NACSA notes a few key changes from last year. Michigan, for instance, gets props for establishing default closure for schools that perform beneath a minimum threshold. Missouri smoothed the way for high-performing charters to replicate, and now mandates annual charter school performance reports. Kudos also go out to Washington for the advocacy campaign that restored the state’s charter law, and to New York’s courts for upholding authorizers’ right to implement “a strong standard of renewal.”

As for rankings, the results are largely similar to the previous year’s report. The forty-four states with charter laws were evaluated based on the eight cornerstone policies, and could earn up to thirty-three points on NACSA’s rubric. The top three states—Indiana, Nevada, and Washington—tie for first place with perfect scores; Ohio and Alabama follow with thirty-two and thirty-one points, respectively.

The report notes that while some states, like Nevada, have risen in the rankings after adopting NACSA’s recommended policies in response to concerns over sector quality, other states, like Alabama, have newer charter laws and thus don’t yet have evidence of implementation outcomes. And it’s fair to point that that some states with great charter school outcomes—like New York—get only middling scores from NACSA—proof that not all that matters can be easily measured.

The lowest-ranking states—Oregon, Wyoming, Alaska, Maryland, Virginia, and Kansas in order—earn between five and zero points—with the last-place Sunflower State the only to get a glaring goose egg.

The most informative part of the report by far, though, is the individual state profiles and their detailed breakdown of each state’s status. These profiles don’t just show points earned, overall score, and ranking, but also include a description of the state’s charter landscape, a comparison between last year and this year’s scores, and specific recommendations to improve the quality of charter school oversight in that particular state. 

Overall, NACSA’s latest report is a useful analysis that both identifies problems and offers solutions. Despite their focus on improving charter law, however, the authors are careful to admit that good policy is only part of the equation—committed advocates and rigorous implementation are also vital.

SOURCE: “On the Road to Great Charter Schools: State Policy Analysis 2016,” National Association of Charter School Authorizers, (December 2016).

The Data Quality Campaign (DQC) recently released its analysis of state report cards—the annual summations of student and school achievement data that states are required to make available to the public under the Every Student Succeeds Act and, previously, No Child Left Behind—to determine if they’re easy for parents and other community members to find and understand. The authors examined report cards in all fifty states and D.C. for content, presentation, accessibility, and clarity, using more than sixty data points all together.

Unsurprisingly, they found that most were too difficult to find and interpret. Nineteen states maintain labyrinthine department of education websites that require three or more clicks to arrive at the report card after a simple Google search. Once found, they often comprise confusing displays, organization, and jargon that make the information difficult to interpret. For example, across the fifty-one jurisdictions, authors found more than five terms that referred to students of low-income families.

Over a dozen were also out-of-date. Only four state report cards contained all the student performance data that was first required fifteen years ago under No Child Left Behind, and ten states’ latest assessment scores were from the 2012–13 or 2013–14 school year.

More specifically, twenty-three state reports failed to include school quality measures other than test scores, such as attendance or graduation rates. Thirty-eight omit student growth data, either because they don’t track them or don’t report them. And not a single one provided readers with school funding data.

On the bright side, some report cards, such as Ohio's or Washington, D.C.'s, were deemed to be of high quality and ought to serve as examples for other states. They provide valuable information with simple layouts and minimal text. And others, including Minnesota’s and Wisconsin’s, even contain interactive pages that allow users to compare data points and graphs.

Overall, however, the DQC asserts that the information provided by most state report cards is insufficient and suffer from a lack of transparency. They encourage states to seize the opportunity provided by the Every Student Succeeds Act to design more accessible and useful annual report cards that provide community members with the information needed to make important decisions and improvements. As we at Fordham have argued, easily interpretable data are crucial for those working to enact reform, ensure accountability, and provide all students with the education they need to succeed.

SOURCE: “Show Me the Data: State Report Cards Must Answer Questions and Inform Action,” The Data Quality Campaign (December 2016).

On this week's podcast, special guest Nina Rees, president and chief executive officer of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, joins Mike Petrilli and Brandon Wright to discuss what the incoming Trump administration and Congress can do to help charter schools. On the Research Minute, David Griffith examines a survey of charter and traditional public school principals in Michigan that uncovers surprising day-to-day similarities between the two groups.