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Removing weak links from K12 classrooms

New laws and policies empower administrators to dismiss ineffective teachers
is Van Roekel speaks at a recent conference, sponsored by the Education Writers Association and held at the University of Chicago, about teacher evaluations. Next to him, from his left are:
National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel speaks at a recent conference, sponsored by the Education Writers Association and held at the University of Chicago, about teacher evaluations. Next to him, from his left are: Sandi Jacobs of the National Council on Teacher Quality, Sarah Lenhoff, director of policy and research of the Education Trust-Midwest and Stephanie Banchero of The Wall Street Journal.

Changing state laws and the rise of evaluations have given administrators more flexibility in removing tenured teachers, a task that had long been nearly impossible. More states are tying student achievement to teacher evaluations and renegotiating contracts.

Recent laws in states like Wisconsin and Florida have ended collective bargaining and tenure, weakening the power of unions to keep ineffective teachers in schools. And the rise of digital curriculum and online testing makes it easier than ever before to identify teachers whose students consistently perform poorly.

All of these factors are empowering administrators to dismiss ineffective teachers who are setting students behind academically. “Administrators have a responsibility to make sure there is a high-quality teacher in front of every student in their school, and they can only do that by evaluating the work of the teachers,” says Cindy Brown, vice president of education policy at the Center for American Progress.

Dismissing a teacher for poor performance is usually an administrator’s last resort—no one wants to see the time and effort invested in a teacher wasted. But when improvement plans don’t yield results in the classroom, administrators must navigate a new set of district policies and contracts to remove teachers who just aren’t meant to be in the profession.

More rigorous evaluations

Terminating tenured teachers remains rare in many districts. But changes to teacher evaluation systems nationwide over the past five years mark a first step toward giving administrators more power. Evaluation reform was spurred in part by competition over federal Race to the Top funds, which require teacher evaluations to include student performance. The states and districts that have been granted No Child Left Behind waivers also had to tie teacher evaluations to student test scores.

In 2009, just four states required teacher evaluations, and no states used evaluations to make tenure or dismissal decisions, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ). Today, 27 states and the District of Columbia require annual evaluations of all teachers.

Some 25 states and the District of Columbia require teachers with poor evaluations be placed on an improvement plan. And 22 states and the District of Columbia have policies that give administrators permission to use persistent classroom ineffectiveness as grounds for dismissing a teacher, according to an October 2013 report from the NCTQ.

“In most places, there is a process for improvement before a teacher can be fired for incompetence or for a low evaluation score,” says Nancy Waymack, managing director of NCTQ’s district policy team. “It’s really important to go through the improvement process with the approach that improvement can be possible.”

Improvement plans

Improvement plans for teachers with poor evaluations vary by state and district. The process usually involves an administrator creating a plan for growth that includes goals for professional development. A high-performing teacher will often coach the weaker teacher. In many states, if the teacher does not reach improvement goals by the end of a certain amount of time, they may be dismissed.

Los Angeles USD teachers who receive a poor evaluation are required by state law to participate in a Peer Assistance and Review (PAR) improvement plan. PAR was developed in the 1980s by an Ohio union president named Dal Lawrence and is now used by a small number of districts nationwide. Administrators and union members manage the program, in which a high-performing, “consulting” teacher works with the low-performing teacher. The consulting teacher provides intensive support, including coaching the weaker teacher on effective classroom practices and crafting lesson plans. The consulting teacher also documents teacher progress.

In 2010, the Los Angeles USD school board gave administrators the power to dismiss teachers who had received unsatisfactory evaluations for two consecutive years, rather than keeping them in the classroom under a never-ending improvement process. In 2009-10, only 10 tenured teachers out of approximately 30,000 in the Los Angeles USD were fired, according to data from the NCTQ.

But in 2010-11, the year Superintendent John Deasy took over, a whopping 94 tenured teachers were dismissed due to misconduct or poor performance.

“Under John Deasy, there is a greater emphasis on raising the standards of behavior of our employees, and the expectation for teachers to deliver for our students” by offering strong academics, says David Holmquist, general counsel for Los Angeles USD.

Teachers are marked for dismissal if they do not improve after two years of the PAR program. The district’s legal office gives the teachers a statement of charges, and a meeting is held in which the teacher can defend their job, fulfilling the due process requirement. The principal then can recommend dismissal, and the superintendent must approve it before it goes to the school board for a vote. The board has thus far approved all of Deasy’s recommendations for termination, Holmquist says.

The school board sees about a dozen dismissal cases each month, Holmquist says. Teachers can challenge their dismissals, and the appeals process costs the district an average of $200,000 per case.

“The performance cases we’ve taken lately have been teachers who over several years have failed to improve,” Holmquist says. “We haven’t lost one of those cases recently because it was well-documented that the teacher was given the opportunity to improve and failed to do so.”

Deasy also made earning tenure more difficult—principals must actively award it to teachers based on evaluations that include student test scores. In the past, tenure was granted automatically to those who logged two years on the job and scored satisfactory under an older version of the district’s evaluation system that did not consider student achievement.

Holmquist says he believes Deasy’s efforts have positively impacted the district’s culture. High-performing teachers now have reinforcement that their time and effort matter, he says. “There is the expectation that kids can’t wait, and every hour of instruction is important,” Holmquist says. “Our superintendent has famously gone into classrooms and found ineffective teachers and removed them. That message is out in the field loud and clear.”

United Teachers Los Angeles and the California Teachers Association unions have criticized Deasy over some of the cases where teachers have been fired for misconduct, but the school board has supported all of Deasy’s recommendations for dismissal, Holmquist adds.

Administrators nationwide need to familiarize themselves with their district’s dismissal process, so as not to make a procedural mistake that would cost them the case, Holmquist says. The general advice is to “not be afraid” to dismiss a teacher, he adds. “If you’ve given employees the chances they need and they fail to improve, you have a duty to act.”

Granting tenure

Los Angeles USD isn’t the only district that has enacted stricter tenure policies. In New York City schools, principals must now support tenure recommendations with evidence of a teacher’s effectiveness in instruction, student learning, and contributions to the school community, according to the NCTQ. This assessment is based on classroom observations, student work, state assessments, attendance, and parent and student feedback.

In the 2012-13 school year, only 53 percent of New York City teachers had their tenure decisions approved, compared to 97 percent in 2006-07. And a small group of states have changed laws around tenure, making it easier for administrators to remove experienced but ineffective teachers. In Miami-Dade Public Schools in 2010-11, only 10 teachers out of more than 20,000 were dismissed for performance, according to a 2012 NCTQ report. But in 2011, Florida joined Idaho and Washington, D.C., in abolishing teacher tenure policies and streamlining the dismissal process.

Teachers in Florida are now under annual contracts, and the main criterion for renewal is student performance. Underperforming teachers are given one year to improve before being dismissed. Teachers hired after July, 2014 who are deemed underperforming after considering student performance can be dismissed at the end of the school year.

In Miami-Dade Public Schools today, about one-third of one-year contracts are not renewed, according to district spokesperson John Schuster. Most states require at least three to five years of teaching before teachers are granted tenure. During that time, administrators can choose to not renew the teachers’ contracts at the end of the year if they receive a poor evaluation—an easier process than after they are granted tenure.

Ending collective bargaining

Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia now ban collective bargaining, giving administrators more power to dismiss ineffective teachers without fear of union backlash. In Wisconsin, the passage of Act 10 in 2011 ended collective bargaining statewide for everything other than base wages.

Wisconsin unions can still contest a termination or discipline, and file workplace safety complaints. In the past, under collective bargaining, a teacher facing a termination would meet with the district administrator and then the school board. If the teacher appealed a termination, the case would go through a dispute resolution process called arbitration, with lawyers representing each side. Act 10 removed the arbitration option, giving the board the final say over a dismissal.

Prior to Act 10, the termination process with arbitration often took up to two years and cost more than $100,000 per case, says Michael Richie, district administrator of Northland Pines School District in Eagle River, Wis. Now, if a tenured teacher is determined low-performing, principals write a detailed improvement plan for them. The principal then meets weekly with the teacher to discuss goals, expectations and benchmarks, and observes the teacher in the classroom.

Teachers are given a year to improve, at which point the principal will decide whether or not to begin the termination process. Many teachers make the needed changes, and remain in the classroom with their new skills, Richie says.

No Northland Pines teachers have been terminated since the passage of Act 10, Richie says. But a new performance-based pay scale implemented after the act led a few employees to retire or look for a different job, Richie says. “It will be an incentive for teachers to work harder, since there is no more seniority and no arbitration option,” Richie says.

Increasing accountability digitally

Increasing use of digital curriculum is another element helping administrators to document ineffective teaching and build cases for dismissal, says Superintendent Casey Wardynski, of Huntsville City Schools in Alabama. In fall 2012, Huntsville became the first district in the nation to implement a 1-to-1 initiative across all grade levels, pre-K through grade 12, giving administrators access to classwide student data.

“As education goes through a digital revolution and higher expectations come into view with the Common Core, we begin focusing on effective teaching, and not who has what degree,” he says.

Teachers in the district must now agree to be placed at any school—part of Wardynski’s plan to diversify the teacher population after 10 of his schools were placed under a desegregation order in June 2013. Fifty-four percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch in the district that covers 250 square miles and includes rural and urban schools. This, combined with a new online curriculum, led about 10 percent of tenured teachers to leave the district on their own, Wardynski says.

District leaders can make a case for a teacher’s dismissal based on student test scores, parental input and student input. Wardynski estimates that each semester, about 80 teachers out of 1,500 need improvement. He expects to terminate about 20 teachers this year who are not improving. Wardynski says this number will decrease over time as hiring and recruiting is now done at the school system level rather than at individual schools, and he can vet every candidate and decide which school to place them in. “In the past, terminations were always about misbehavior,” Wardynski says.

Teachers can appeal a termination under state law. In this case, a hearing officer reviews the record of the termination hearing, and can ask each side’s lawyers additional questions. The officer makes a decision, giving deference to the board. The case can then be appealed to a circuit court.

When each case goes to the hearing, they cost the district up to $10,000. When they reach the state appeals court, they cost around $50,000 each. Wardynski advises principals to work with other administrators throughout the termination process to ensure there is not a personality conflict or other resolvable problem. “We get as many sources of input as we can to make sure we’re not harming an effective teacher or losing an employee we could develop,” he says, “or putting up with an ineffective teacher because it’s too much work to terminate them."

Alison DeNisco is staff writer.