School bus

Protecting Bad Teachers


According to the pro-education reform documentary Waiting for ‘Superman,’ one out of every 57 doctors loses his or her license to practice medicine.

One out of every 97 lawyers loses their license to practice law.

In many major cities, only one out of 1000 teachers is fired for performance-related reasons. Why? Tenure.

Tenure is the practice of guaranteeing a teacher their job. Originally, this was a due process guarantee, something intended to work as a check against administrators capriciously firing teachers and replacing them with friends or family members. It was also designed to protect teachers who took political stands the community might disagree with. Tenure as we understand it today was first seen at the university level, where professors would work for years and publish many pieces of inspired academic work before being awarded what amounted to a job for life.

At the elementary and high school level, tenure has evolved from the original understanding of “due process” to the university-style “job for life.” In most states, teachers are awarded tenure after only a few years, at which time they become almost impossible to fire. The main function of these laws is to help bad teachers keep their jobs.

Consider New York City. The New York Daily News reports that “over the past three years [2007-2010], just 88 out of some 80,000 city schoolteachers have lost their jobs for poor performance.”

Things are no better in New York as a whole. The Albany Times Union looked at what was going on outside New York City and discovered some shocking data: Of 132,000 teachers, only 32 were fired for any reason between 2006 and 2011.

Or look at Chicago. In a school district that has by any measure failed its students — only 28.5 percent of 11th graders met or exceeded expectations on that state’s standardized tests — Newsweek reported that only 0.1 percent of teachers were dismissed for performance-related reasons between 2005 and 2008. When barely one in four students nearing graduation can read and do math, how is it possible that only one in one thousand teachers is worthy of dismissal?

In 2003, one Los Angeles union representative said: “If I’m representing them, it’s impossible to get them out. It’s impossible. Unless they commit a lewd act.” Unfortunately for the students who have to learn from these educators, virtually every teacher who works for the Los Angeles Unified School District receives tenure: In 2009, The Los Angeles Times reported that fewer than two percent of teachers are denied tenure during the two year probationary period after being hired. And once they have tenure, there’s no getting rid of them. Between 1995 and 2005, only 112 Los Angeles tenured teachers faced termination — eleven per year — out of 43,000. And that’s in a school district where the graduation rate in 2003 was just 51 percent.

One New Jersey union representative was even blunter about the work his organization does to keep bad teachers in the classroom, saying: “I’ve gone in and defended teachers who shouldn’t even be pumping gas.”

In ten years, only about 47 out of 100,000 teachers were actually terminated from New Jersey’s schools. Original research conducted by the Center for Union Facts (CUF) confirms that almost no one ever gets fired in Newark, New Jersey’s largest school district, no matter how bad. Over four recent years, CUF discovered, Newark’s school district successfully fired about one out of every 3,000 tenured teachers annually. Graduation statistics indicate that the district needs much stronger medicine: Between the 2001-2002 and the 2004-2005 school years, Newark’s graduation rate (not counting the diplomas “earned” through New Jersey’s laughable remedial exam) was a mere 30.6 percent.

The evidence that tenure laws keep bad teachers in schools is overwhelming. In New York State, outside of New York City, only about 17 tenured teachers are terminated annually. New York City’s Chancellor has revealed that in that city, only ten out of 55,000 tenured teachers were terminated in the 2006-2007 school year. In any given year in Florida, scholar Richard Kahlenberg wrote, the involuntary dismissal rate for teachers was an abysmally low 0.05 percent, “compared with 7.9 percent in the Florida workforce as a whole.” In Dallas, even when unofficial pressures to resign are factored in, only 0.78 percent of tenured teachers are terminated. Out of Tucson, Arizona’s 2,300 tenured teachers, only seven have been fired for classroom behavior in the past five years. Des Moines, Iowa a school district with almost 3,000 teachers, has fired just two for poor performance in five years.

Teachers Agree: Bad Apples Stay

A study conducted by Public Agenda in 2003 polled 1,345 schoolteachers on a variety of education issues, including the role that tenure played in their schools. When asked “does tenure mean that a teacher has worked hard and proved themselves to be very good at what they do?” 58 percent of the teachers polled answered that no, tenure “does not necessarily” mean that. In a related question, 78 percent said a few (or more) teachers in their schools “fail to do a good job and are simply going through the motions.”

When Terry Moe, the author of Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America’s Public Schools, asked teachers what they thought of tenure, they admitted that the Byzantine process of firing bad apples was too time-consuming: 55 percent of teachers, and 47 percent of union members, answered yes when asked “Do you think tenure and teacher organizations make it too difficult to weed out mediocre and incompetent teachers?”

The Union Tax on Firing Bad Teachers

So why don’t districts try to terminate more of their poor performers? The sad answer is that their chance of prevailing is vanishingly small. Teachers unions have ensured that even with a victory, the process is prohibitively expensive and time-consuming. In the 2006-2007 school year, for example, New York City fired only 10 of its 55,000 tenured teachers. The cost to eliminate those employees averages out to $163,142, according to Education Week. According to the Albany Times Union, the average process for firing a teacher in New York state outside of New York City proper lasts 502 days and costs more than $216,000. In Illinois, Scott Reeder of the Small Newspaper Group found it costs an average of $219,504 in legal fees alone to get a termination case past all the union-supported hurdles. Columbus, Ohio’s own teachers union president admitted to the Associated Press that firing a tenured teacher can cost as much as $50,000. A spokesman for Idaho school administrators told local press that districts have been known to spend “$100,000 or $200,000” in litigation costs just to get rid of a bad teacher.

It’s difficult even to entice the unions to give up tenure for more money. In Washington, D.C., school chancellor Michelle Rhee proposed a voluntary two-tier track for teachers. On one tier teachers could simply do nothing: Maintain regular raises and keep their tenure. On the other track, teachers could give up tenure and be paid according to how well they and their students performed with the potential to earn as much as $140,000 per year. The union wouldn’t even let that proposal come up for a vote, however, stubbornly blocking efforts to ratify a new contract for more than three years. When it finally did come up for ratification by the rank-and-file, the two-tier plan wasn’t even an option.

The Bottom Line

Most teachers absolutely deserve to keep their jobs and some have begun to speak out about the absurdity of teacher tenure, but it’s impossible to pretend that the number of firings actually reflects the number of bad teachers protected by tenure. As long as union leaders possess the legal ability to drag out termination proceedings for months or even years — during which time districts must continue paying teachers, substitute teachers to replace them, and lawyers to arbitrate the proceedings — the situation for students will not improve.

Even Al Shanker, the legendary former president of the American Federation of Teachers, admitted, “a lot of people who have been hired as teachers are basically not competent.”