Chicago principals don’t take advantage of greater authority to fire teachers

iStock_000010045687XSmallMany principals who work in districts that have collective bargaining agreements with teacher unions often wish they had more flexibility and authority to dismiss ineffective teachers.

But a new study in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis questions how much principals would actually take advantage of this flexibility if they had it.

Principals in Chicago Public Schools (CPS) have made only limited use of their authority to dismiss probationary or non-tenured teachers in the wake of a 2004 agreement with the teachers’ union that made it very simple not to renew a teacher’s appointment, the study reports.

In February of each school year, CPS principals now can simply log on to the district website, go to the list of probationary teachers for his or her school and check one of two boxes next to a teacher’s name: Renew or nonrenew.

The study examined dismissals made after the policy change in a sample of 16,246 elementary probationary teachers and 7,764 probationary high school teachers who worked in 588 schools from 2004-2007 (CPS teachers are probationary until they earn tenure after 5 years).

Prior to the adoption of the policy virtually no teachers were dismissed for cause in the CPS, according to the researcher . After the policy took effect, 8.8% to 12.5% of probationary teachers were dismissed. While this seems significant, researcher Brian Jacob of the University of Michigan and the National Bureau of Economic Research points out that roughly 10-15% of 1st-year probationary teachers typically left CPS and an additional 4% moved to a different CPS school before the change in policy.

These teachers left the CPS either voluntarily or due to subtle encouragement on the part of principals, says the researcher. After the policy took effect roughly 18% of teachers left and 10% went to another school. What is more striking, he says, is that 28% to 46.2% of schools, many of them low-performing schools, did not dismiss any teachers after the change in policy.

Still, the researcher finds positive signs that dismissal decisions are based on evidence of teachers’ effectiveness in the classroom. Teachers who were dismissed were more likely to have had frequent absences, to have received worse evaluations and to have significantly lower value-added with regard to student achievement compared with peers who were not dismissed, the researcher says.

“These results provide suggestive evidence that reforms along the lines of the Chicago policy might improve student achievement…,” Jacob writes. “At the same time, this analysis reveals that many principals—including those in some of the worst-performing schools in the district—did not dismiss any teachers despite how easy it was under the new policy.

“This result is consistent with the fact that existing teacher contracts in many large, urban school districts actually provide considerably more flexibility than is commonly believed and yet administrators rarely take advantage of such flexibility.”

Principals’ reluctance to dismiss teachers even when they have the power to do so may indicate that teacher supply or social norms in employment relations are more important factors than policymakers realize, the study concludes. Concerns about objectivity Some patterns in CPS dismissals raise concerns that dismissals are not always done for objective reasons.

Older teachers were more likely to be dismissed, especially when they worked for younger principals. Teachers older than 50 were 10% more likely to face dismissal and black teachers were 2.1% less likely to be dismissed than their colleagues.

Principals were more likely to dismiss male teachers, the researcher wrote, even after controlling for other demographic factors such as prior absences, formal evaluations and teacher value added.  The most common reasons cited by principals for the dismissal of a teacher were classroom environment ( 52.6% to 66.% of cases), instruction, (45.2% to 55.9% of cases) and professional responsibility (i.e. attendance, tardiness, professional judgment in 37.4 to 65.6% of cases).Teachers absent more than 10 times between Sept and March were 11.3 to 12.9% more likely to be dismissed than colleagues who were never absent.

“Do Principals Fire the Worst Teachers?” by Brian Jacob, Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, December 2011, vol. 33, No. 4, pp. 403-434.

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