How hard is it to fire a teacher, really?

Eugene White stunned education professionals this spring when he told Indiana schools chief Tony Bennett that 60 percent of teachers at five Indianapolis high schools were ineffective and should be dismissed.

But White, the superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools, doesn’t blame the teachers—or their union contracts—for the mess. Instead, he blames IPS administrators.

“The teachers’ unions do get blamed for bad teachers,” he said. “But the real, real, real fact of the matter is that bad teachers exist because administrators fail to properly supervise them.”

Eugene White White

White’s views point up a long-simmering debate about the perceived difficulty of firing teachers for poor performance. Teachers agree with White, saying the required process is rigorous but doable. At the other end of the spectrum, education reformers like Bennett say it’s nearly impossible and needs to be changed.

Some third-party studies find truth in both claims and say that cultural and political factors actually protect bad teachers more than laws and contracts.

The debate is anything but academic. With education reform sweeping the country—and with pro-reform Republicans poised to take control of the Indiana Legislature—the debate could lead to new laws about teacher tenure and job protections.

“Most of the times, their hands get tied by either the contract language or the statute language,” Bennett said of school administrators, whose ranks he was part of until he became Indiana’s superintendent of public instruction two years ago. “We have to take a look at the process used, and the complexity of the process, to really remove poor principals and poor teachers.”

Bennett won’t say whether teacher tenure is on his legislative agenda for 2011. But at the very least, he wants to change state law to allow teachers and principals to be evaluated—and rewarded or removed accordingly—based on students’ year-to-year growth on standardized tests.

“Once we have a consistent and fair way to evaluate educators, we should use those evaluations to reward, remediate and even remove teachers as appropriate,” Bennett said Aug. 23 in his “State of Education” speech. “For this reason, our legislative agenda will be aimed at recognizing and rewarding Indiana’s great teachers and school leaders.”

Bennett wants to use student scores to evaluate principals, as well. But his persistent focus on improving teacher quality—the central focus for just about every education reformer—makes many teachers feel like Bennett’s attacks on the tenure rules are aimed squarely at them.

“It feels like he’s on a witch hunt, and he sees all the teachers wearing pointy hats,” said Lou Schwitzer, a sixth grade teacher at IPS School No. 67.

Tenure debate

Teachers’ unions insist they have no tenure. But that’s only semantically true.

Tenure has been recognized in Indiana since 1927 beginning with the state Teacher Tenure Act, which created a “permanent” status level for teachers.

Permanent status comes after five years of experience, semi-permanent after two.

To fire a permanent or semi-permanent teacher for poor performance or incompetence, state statute requires schools to follow several steps:

1. Notify the teacher 30 to 40 days before the school board votes to dismiss.

2. Provide a written list of reasons for dismissal.

3. Offer to the teacher a right to a hearing within five days of the teacher’s request. At the hearing, the teacher can produce testimony, evidence and witnesses.

4. The superintendent must recommend whether or not to fire the teacher.

5. The board must approve the dismissal by a majority vote.

On top of those statutes, union contracts have requirements to ensure that teachers are dismissed only for “just cause.”

As an example, the contract at Washington Township Schools in Indianapolis includes an 11-page procedure for school administrators to follow in documenting teachers’ performance.

First, an administrator must work with the teacher on a performance-improvement plan. The administrator must identify specific performance expectations not being met, establish a “reasonable” time line for improvement, and determine the indicators that will show improvement.

Then, if the process yields no results, a teacher is placed on probation, called conditional status. Then an administrator must develop a more detailed plan for improvement, monitor the teacher more closely, and provide needed resources and support.

The administrator, also called the evaluator, must document that he or she has:

1. “forewarned the teacher that failure to correct deficiencies could lead to non-renewal of the contract.”

2. “made recommendations for corrective action and improvement.”

3. “provided assistance to the teacher to help in correcting deficiencies.”

4. “made classroom visitations or other observations and held follow-up conferences.”

Nate Schnellenberger, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, said the laws and contract provisions protect teachers from administrators who would fire teachers over personal dislike or some other subjective reason.

“Do they have to jump through some hoops? Yes. But that’s to protect against arbitrary administrators,” Schnellenberger said. “It’s a copout for a building administrator to say, ‘Oh it’s too hard or it’s too cumbersome.’”

Dismissal process

In their first two years, teachers can be dismissed relatively easily. And it’s in that early phase that school administrators say the real work must be done.

“A lot of administrators give people the benefit of the doubt and hang on to them,” said IPS’ White. “What we’re trying to do is, any time there is a concern with a teacher, if it’s a first- or second-year teacher, we don’t want that teacher coming back.”

Steve Baker, a principal at Bluffton High School near Fort Wayne, likes to start even earlier: during the hiring process. “Ten hours at the beginning of it can save 100 hours later,” he said.

But Baker acknowledged that the teacher evaluation process can be time-consuming. He oversees 30 teachers at his small high school and tries to make five observations of each teacher every year. With only 180 days in a school year, that means Baker has to do at least one classroom observation—which must be announced in advance—nearly every day.

“It can be done, but you have to work at it,” he said. “I can have a student walk into my office at 7:30 in the morning, and if there’s a situation, my whole day is consumed with that. Then I can’t get into classrooms and evaluate.”

In 12 years as a principal, Baker said, he has started the dismissal process with only two teachers. Both left before it was completed.

Teachers themselves are divided on the process for dismissing teachers.

Lou Schwitzer, the IPS teacher, supports the current procedures.

“The process that’s currently in place is designed to keep people from having a knee-jerk teacher dismissal,” he said. “If an administrator really feels that a teacher needs to go, they can move through that administrative procedure pretty quickly.”

But Mary Nolan, a language arts teacher at Shortridge Middle/High School Magnet for Law, Public Policy and Social Justice, said the system has its problems.

“I feel like that’s not the best system, and that the union sort of stands in the way of moving teachers out,” she said. “On the other hand, like in the charter school system [where teachers are not unionized], if a teacher crosses the administrator in the wrong way, she can be fired. That’s not a good system, either. There needs to be some middle ground.”

Many feel that Bennett’s system of injecting quantifiable measures into teacher evaluations—based on student test scores—would be the middle way Nolan is looking for. But she doesn’t see it that way.

“Anything that sets up a system where teachers are working against each other, or where they’re competing against each other, or where they’re not supporting each other, is a bad system,” she said. “Because teachers need each other.”

Timid administrators

Indeed, educators’ bent toward consensus and collaboration might be the biggest hurdle for reformers like Bennett, according to Rick Hess, an education policy analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C.

Hess conducted a study of the teachers’ union contracts in the 50 largest school districts in the country—none of which were in Indiana. What he found, however, echoed sentiments of Indiana education leaders: There’s more wiggle room in those contracts than is commonly believed.

What keeps administrators from exploiting that wiggle room is a combination of culture, politics and the training administrators go through.

“Partly, it’s the kind of people that come into education. People who are coming into it come with a gentle disposition,” Hess said.

But, Hess is quick to point out, there’s not as much room for maneuver as teachers’ unions like to make out. His point is that there’s enough room for aggressive administrators to accomplish what they want.

As one example, he points out Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of public schools in Washington, D.C., who aggressively fired poor-performing teachers. To no surprise, Hess noted, firings almost always proves unpopular with parents and voters.

“There’s very little upside for a school or district leader to step up,” Hess said. “School boards don’t like superintendents who cause a ruckus. More aggressively removing teachers cannot be done calmly or peacefully with stakeholders.”

A more collaborative example might be the one White and the teachers’ union at IPS worked out. Over three to four years, they created a new process for teacher evaluation that White says can reduce the time it takes to dismiss a permanent teacher from 1-1/2 years to as little as one semester.

IPS rolled out the new teacher evaluation system this school year after pilot-testing it last year. White hopes it helps thin out ineffective teachers. But it will take time, he said, to turn around IPS’ poor evaluation practices of the past.

“Over the next two to three years, we hope to make substantial changes at the secondary level,” White said. “But when you talk about 15, 20, 25 or 30 years of good evaluations and then we turn around say, ‘No you’re not good, you’re incompetent,’ we have to prove that.”•

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