School & District Management

Teachers Miss Less Work When Principals Can Fire Them

By Debra Viadero — January 26, 2010 2 min read
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Researchers don’t agree on much in education, but there is one point on which many experts agree, and it is this: 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, shares with us some of what happened as a result of that change. One of the biggest effects, he has found so far, is that 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. That number fell by about a day, though, in the three years after principals got the latitude to “non-renew” probationary teachers’ contracts. The prevalence of teachers with 15 or more absences a year fell by 20 percent, the study also found.

This change occurred even though principals were somewhat restrained in exercising their new authority. While an average of 10-13 percent of probationary teachers across the district were dismissed under the new policy each year, 30 to 40 schools did not let go of any fledgling teachers. (Over half of the dismissed teachers, it should be noted, were rehired the next year by another school in the district.)

Did the fear of dismissal spur the new teachers to work harder? Jacob seems to think so.

What everyone wants to know, of course, is whether the new policy has an impact on student achievement. And here, Jacob can offer only “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.

Posted this month on the Website of the National Bureau of Economic Research, the initial paper has lots more details on the characteristics of the schools and teachers that were most affected by the policy. My colleague, Dakarai Aarons, will also have a more-detailed story on tomorrow on both this paper and a second one that Jacobs has just completed.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.