Published Online: January 27, 2010
Published in Print: February 3, 2010, as Study Probes Educator Absences
Updated: March 24, 2012

Teacher-Dismissal Powers Found to Affect Absences

When Chicago principals were allowed to dismiss teachers, attendance improved.

Chicago teachers who didn’t have tenure took fewer days off after principals were given more flexibility to dismiss probationary teachers, a new study has found.

The policy reduced teacher absences on an annual basis by about 10 percent and cut the number of teachers with 15 or more annual absences by 20 percent, according to the report by Brian A. Jacob, a professor of education policy and economics at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor. It has been published as a working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research, for which he serves as a research associate.

“We think teacher absence is somewhat correlated with student achievement,” said Mr. Jacob, who is the director of the university’s Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy. “Some of it is hard to measure.”

In Chicago, principals were given the ability to dismiss the probationary teachers—those with five years of experience or less—without completing elaborate documentation or attending a dismissal hearing, under a 2004 collective bargaining agreement between the 409,000-student school district and the Chicago Teachers Union.

Attendance Rates

After a new collective bargaining agreement in 2004 gave Chicago principals the authority to dismiss nontenured teachers, the number of absences for both tenured and nontenured teachers declined.

In return for the flexibility, the district expanded the pool of teachers who were placed on a tenure track. The policy change went into effect for the 2004-05 school year.

The study examines the effects of the policy from that year through the 2006-07 school year, and compares teacher-absence rates from before and after the policy was implemented for probationary vs. tenured teachers. Mr. Jacob used payroll records to review the teacher-absence data, and the academic years 2001-02 through 2003-04 were used as the pre-policy period for comparison purposes.

'Overlooked' Issue

In the two years before the policy change, the study found, the average teacher was absent about eight times a year, a figure that declined starting in 2005, especially among nontenured teachers. By 2007, that number for probationary teachers was just above six times a year.

Tim Daly, the president of the New York City-based New Teacher Project, said Mr. Jacob’s study is noteworthy.

“Teacher attendance is an overlooked aspect of performance that we know has a direct impact on students,” he said. “We know that it matters if kids have a teacher that shows up. I think he’s bringing that into focus.”

‘Social Norms’

Even with the flexibility, 30 percent to 40 percent of principals in any given year examined in the study did not dismiss a single teacher. That was the case even among schools in the lowest quartile of student achievement.

“I think this is a caution. It isn’t simply the nature of the contract,” Mr. Jacob said. “There’s a lot about the social norms of the schools and the availability of high-quality replacement teachers that limits how much principals would use the flexibility even when given it.”

More than half the dismissed teachers, in fact, were later hired by another school in the district. In 2005, for example, 50.6 percent of first-year teachers dismissed in the spring were rehired by a Chicago school for the fall, the study found. In some instances, that was because principals used the nonrenewal process to dismiss teachers who would otherwise have lost jobs because of budget cuts, allowing the teachers to begin looking for another position earlier.

Since the study was conducted, the district’s policy on absences has changed. Now, principals are required to do more-formal evaluations of the probationary teachers, Mr. Jacob noted.

“It’s not clear if that is a good or bad thing,” he said. “It is re-erecting some of the procedural requirements to dismiss a teacher that were eliminated initially.”

Rosemaria Genova, a spokeswoman for the Chicago Teachers Union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, said the shift reflects the feedback novice teachers say they need.

“For teachers who are new and are making decisions on whether to stay in the teaching profession, it is the most critical time when they need evaluation, feedback, and mentoring,” she said. “If principals can eliminate staff without due process, who is to say cronyism won’t take over the whole system?”

In a related paper, Mr. Jacob takes a look at the characteristics of the teachers who were dismissed by principals. It finds that absences and previous negative evaluations were key factors.

In addition, principals were more likely to get rid of teachers whose students had shown less value-added achievement compared with those of other teachers, and who had fewer academic credentials and accomplishments before becoming a teacher. Teachers who were dismissed and rehired were also much more likely to be dismissed again compared with first-year teachers.

“These results provide suggestive evidence that reforms along the lines of the Chicago policy might improve student achievement,” Mr. Jacob wrote.

In a November reportRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader, the New Teacher Project found that a majority of the more than 7,000 Chicago teachers it surveyed believed that factors other than seniority should be taken into account when making layoffs. Teacher absence was among the top four factors listed by teachers.

Mr. Daly said other districts would be wise to take a harder look at attendance policies.

“If you make clear attendance matters, teachers will put forth more effort,” he said. “We probably should be considering having attendance woven into more policies. If absences have no consequences, they will continue.”

Vol. 29, Issue 20, Pages 8-9

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