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Study: It's Far Too Hard to Fire Bad Teachers

Many states have revamped teacher evaluations in an effort to separate the teachers who help their students learn from those who don't, and to send the latter group on their way. Despite the money and effort spent, it's still really hard to dismiss poorly performing teachers, according to a study released Thursday.

 "Undue Process: Why Bad Teachers in 25 Diverse Districts Rarely Get Fired" comes from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank. The group studied 25 districts in 23 states.

Of the 25 districts, the results show it's possible to fire ineffective teachers in seven of them, including Miami-Dade and the District of Columbia. Another 13 districts are rated "difficult" and five districts were deemed "very difficult." The five districts with a near-impossible path to firing teachers include the largest school districts in the country: New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami-Dade, and Clark County, Nev.

None of the districts scored a perfect 10 on ease of firing ineffective teachers. The highest score, 8, was awarded to Miami-Dade. The lack of perfect scores, the authors note, suggests there are significant barriers to dismissing ineffective teachers in every district studied.

The study found three major obstacles to firing teachers:

1. Tenure: In 17 of the 25 districts, state law allows teachers to gain tenure and keep it, despite poor performance reviews.

2. Length of the dismissal process: In 12 of the districts, it takes at least two years to dismiss a teacher for poor performance. In San Francisco and Los Angeles, it takes at least five years.

3. Many opportunities afforded to teachers to challenge dismissal: In 11 districts, teachers must be observed as many as six times before they can be let go. (In New York, it's a minimum of eight times.) What's more, many districts have contracts that allow teachers to appeal a dismissal on any grounds. And in 21 districts, teachers can appeal a dismissal more than once.

The study relied on data from the National Council on Teacher Quality's teacher-contract database, which includes information on teacher contracts and state policies for more than 130 large U.S. school districts, as well as on the Education Commission of the States' 50-state comparison of teacher-tenure policies. The Fordham Institute conducted its own analysis of state and district policies to glean information not included in these databases.

What Can Be Done?

The study's authors say they are not asking for a "major housecleaning." They don't want to deny struggling teachers the resources they need to improve their practice, or deny them due process if a principal recommends dismissal. The authors say they are seeking a streamlined process to dismiss the worst teachers, the bottom 5 percent.

How can districts do this? The authors suggest looking to New York City's example. Former New York City schools Chancellor Joel Klein, they write, put in place a policy asking principals to make the case for teachers who were up for tenure before granting it. The goal was to get rid of failing teachers before tenure made it impossible. The result: The proportion of teachers immediately approved for tenure dropped from 94 percent to 56 percent.

As for states, the authors suggest they pass tenure laws that encourage districts to work with teachers' unions to create streamlined dismissal procedures. And finally, superintendents should review tenure requests more carefully rather than rubber-stamping them.  

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