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Posted at 12:29 PM ET, 01/26/2010

Firing teachers

By Valerie Strauss

My guest blogger today is Debra Viadero, who reports on education research for Education Week and writes a daily blog called Inside School Research.

By Debra Viadero

Researchers don't agree on much in education, but there is one point on which many experts agree: Having an effective teacher may be the single most important school ingredient to a child's learning success.

That's why there is always much gnashing of teeth in education policy circles over labor contracts in many large urban districts that make it very hard for school administrators to get rid of incompetent teachers.

In 2004, though, the Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Teachers Union signed a collective-bargaining agreement that gave principals the power to dismiss probationary, or nontenured, teachers for any reason without having to go through the lengthy documentation and hearing procedures that typically bog down such processes.

Now in a pair of new papers, University of Michigan researcher Brian A. Jacob, tells us what happened after the new policy took hold: Teachers missed fewer days of school.

Chicago teachers are allowed 10-12 sick or personal days a year and Jacob calculates that, in the two years before the policy change kicked in, teachers took off an average of eight days a year. That number fell by about a day, though, in the three years after principals got the authority to choose not to renew the contracts of probationary teachers. The prevalence of teachers with 15 or more absences a year fell by 20 percent, the study also found.

Did the fear of dismissal spur the new teachers to work harder? Jacob thinks so.

The really important question, though, is whether the new policy had an impact on student achievement. And here, Jacob offers "tentative evidence" (his words) that it did. Students' scores on standardized tests rose in the post-policy years for low-achieving elementary schools with a large share of probationary teachers but not so much in the high schools, where change is always more difficult to effect.

Why weren’t the effects on student learning any stronger?

The study hints at one possible reason: Half the teachers who were dismissed under the new policy were hired the following year by another school in the same district.

Both papers are due to be posted this month on the website of the National Bureau of Economic Research. My colleague, Dakarai Aarons, will also have a more-detailed story on Jacob’s findings tomorrow on


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By Valerie Strauss  | January 26, 2010; 12:29 PM ET
Tags:  school reform  
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The study hints at one possible reason: Half the teachers who were dismissed under the new policy were hired the following year by another school in the same district.

All the dramatics aside, this is the real problem with reforming schools. Even in this recession teaching is a hard option, low pay for the educational requirements, lots of factors that the teacher has no control over being factored into "performance", and lots of abuse from parents, the media, and school administration, often for doing the right thing. At the end of day we hire a lot of teachers who never should be hired because we need bodies in the classroom. And then we hire them again because we have no choice. That is the real world. Make teaching a profession that can draw enough qualified and competent applicants and most of these problems of "reform" will fix them selves. A simple solution that does not need high priced consultants, media superstars, or endless reinventions of the wheel.

Posted by: mamoore1 | January 26, 2010 1:34 PM | Report abuse

So, by cracking the whip on those "lazy" teachers (who, prior to the policy change, weren't even taking all the sick time they were allowed), the district MAYBE got them to miss ONE day fewer (on which they probably laid low because they were sick, and spread germs to the kids), and you expect that student achievement would rise because of that? This seems like an awful side effect of the policy (that teachers come in when sick), not a benefit.

Posted by: kc0896 | January 26, 2010 3:44 PM | Report abuse

"Half the teachers who were dismissed under the new policy were hired the following year by another school in the same district."

Of course, that's crucial. It reminds me of the the NPR rerun interview of Wendy Koop who explained how hard it was to find teachers. But then she dismissed Human Relations depts who just want to "fill spots" because "they don't care."

To attract more teaching talent we need to create respectful learning cultures. We need to restore the professional autonomy of teachers. and we need peer review to collaboratively remove ineffective teachers. It doesn't take much to identify bad teachers, certainly not tens of millions of dollars in growth models. We just need to compromise out a legal process of due process and termination.

Posted by: johnt4853 | January 26, 2010 9:14 PM | Report abuse

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