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 edweek.org.
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