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A public policy blog from AEI
Last month, new research from Miami University’s Andrew Saultz found additional evidence that teachers are not usually dismissed for poor performance, but rather for not going through the mechanics of being a good employee. After analyzing 136 teacher dismissal cases in three large Atlanta-area districts — districts with tens of thousands of teachers — from 2011 to 2017, Saultz found that just four percent mentioned actual teaching practice as a primary reason for dismissal. Essentially, a very small fraction of teachers are dismissed in the first place, and of those who are, a small fraction are dismissed for poor teaching performance. Instead, Saultz found that teachers are more often terminated or non-renewed for issues of professionalism or illegal activity.
In Atlanta Public Schools, for example, just three of 92 cases directly mentioned teaching practice or evaluations. Meanwhile, more than three times as many teachers were dismissed for not having secured or maintained necessary training. Other cases mention teachers “fail[ing] to report to work during pre-planning days,” “us[ing] undue physical force with students (hitting, pinching, grabbing) with the intention of producing discomfort,” and “submi[tting] of questionable receipts and requests for reimbursement.” Even in cases that did mention teaching, ineffective teaching and poor evaluation ratings were mentioned after comments about outdated webpages, attendance at meetings, and untidy classrooms.
Of course, the idea that teachers are not fired for poor performance is not new. Back in 2009, The New Teacher Project’s “The Widget Effect” found that teachers were rated “Unsatisfactory” less than one percent of the time. In the wake of this, several states — including Georgia — adopted teacher-evaluation reforms aimed at obtaining a more accurate measurement of teacher effectiveness. However, recent research by Matt Kraft and Allison Gilmour found that despite these efforts, teachers still receive “Unsatisfactory” ratings less than one percent of the time.
To say that almost 100 percent of employees are effective at their jobs seems like wishful thinking — for any profession. In fact, teachers themselves freely acknowledge that many of their colleagues shouldn’t be teaching. As Public Agenda has pointed out, “Only 19% say there are no teachers in their building who ‘fail to do a good job and are simply going through the motions.’” We were both teachers, and would have been part of the 81 percent who could identify teachers like this. If teachers know that most schools retain teachers who fail to do a good job, how can these districts have so few dismissed for being ineffective?
Knowing that teachers are the most important school-level factor when it comes to student achievement, making sure good teachers are in classrooms — and bad teachers are not — is an especially important part of school leaders’ jobs. Saultz’s research reminds us that despite increased policy steps toward meaningful teacher evaluation, school systems still aren’t particularly effective at this. We can hope that they are actively counseling ineffective teachers out of the profession — using softer means than dismissal to remove them — but that hope is based in faith because there’s no data to reflect this.
Of course, removing teachers who don’t show up to work, physically abuse students, or don’t maintain required certification is important — but it’s not sufficient. Policymakers have to give school leaders the tools, and leaders need to use them, to identify and remove the teachers we know are out there failing to effectively perform the fundamental task they were hired to do.
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