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eJEP^ 

eJoumal of Education Policy 


Analysis of Superintendent Survey Responses Regarding Teacher Tenure 
Author: James V. Shuls, Ph.D. 

Affiliation: University of Missouri - St. Louis 
Fall 2014 


Abstract 

This paper presents the results of a survey of 192 public school superintendents in Missouri on the topic 
of teacher tenure. Overall, superintendents indicated the current teacher tenure laws are somewhat 
onerous, with 73 percent indicating it was "somewhat" or "very difficult" to remove a tenured teacher 
for their performance in the classroom. Superintendents noted time and paperwork are the biggest 
obstacles to removing a tenured teacher. Approximately, 92 percent of superintendents indicated they 
would be supportive of some type of teacher tenure reform. 

Introduction 

Of all the decisions an employer must make, none may be as important as staffing. This does not just 
include who they hire, but also who they fire. An effective leader should be able to identify those who 
are not performing at an acceptable level, work with that individual to help them improve, and 
terminate him or her when necessary. But what if state law does not provide such flexibility? What if the 
employer is required to give the employee 90 working days to improve before finally being able to 
dismiss the employee and replace him or her with a higher-quality employee? That type of regulation 
does not seem optimal for a business' success, but it is exactly the position in which Missouri school 
leaders find themselves because of teacher tenure laws. 

Missouri statutes are prescriptive about how school leaders must handle teacher contracts and 
dismissals, and the debate surrounding these state mandates can become very heated. On one side, 
opponents of teacher tenure say it is nearly impossible to remove a tenured teacher based on his or her 
performance in the classroom. To the contrary, supporters of teacher tenure suggest that it is easy to 
remove tenured teachers; it just has to be accomplished according to the guidelines in the state 
statutes. They suggest these guidelines are needed because they limit potential abuses of power from 
principals, superintendents, or school board members who seek to capriciously target teachers for 
dismissal. The reality may actually be somewhere in the middle, between impossible and simply a 
matter of following the rules. This paper explores this question by surveying the individuals who should 
know the most about the topic - public school superintendents. 

Literature Review 

As President Barack Obama said in a town hall meeting in 2009, the "single most important factor in the 
classroom is the quality of the person standing at the front of the classroom." On this matter, the 
president is absolutely correct. He expanded on this point in his 2012 State of the Union address: "We 
know a good teacher can increase the lifetime income of a classroom by over $250,000. A great teacher 

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can offer an escape from poverty to the child who dreams beyond his circumstance." The president was 
citing a study in which researchers were able to link tax records to student achievement of more than 
2.5 million children (Chetty, Friedman, & Rockoff, 2011). The authors found significant relationships 
between a teacher's ability to improve student achievement and his or her students' outcomes later in 
life. 

Indeed, a growing body of evidence demonstrates that teachers can have an incredible impact on 
students (Aaronson, Barrow, & Sander, 2007; Goldhaber & Hansen, 2010). Hanushek and Rivkin (2006) 
note that the difference between a good teacher and a bad teacher is as much as a year's worth of 
learning. As a result, a student in a low-performing teacher's classroom will learn a full year less worth of 
material than his or her counterparts in a high-performing teacher's classroom. If a student happens to 
be so unfortunate as to have a low-performing teacher two years in a row, he or she would be an entire 
grade level behind his or her average classmate. 

Because teachers can have a tremendous impact on student learning, it makes sense that policymakers 
and school leaders would seek ways to improve teacher quality. There are a number of ways to improve 
the quality of the average teacher. One potential method is to evaluate teachers and remove the 
lowest-performing ones. By simply removing the worst teachers, the average quality increases. In fact, 
Hanushek (2011) suggests that replacing the bottom 5 percent of teachers with a teacher of just average 
quality could improve our educational system to the level of the highest-performing countries in the 
world. This bottom five percent may include both tenured and non-tenured teachers. Of course, 
replacing these teachers with a teacher of average quality implies that the labor market has a sufficient 
number of individuals seeking employment as a teacher. 

Two major obstacles make this type of policy for improving teacher quality difficult. First, administrators 
traditionally have not done a good job of evaluating teacher performance (Weisberg et al., 2009). There 
may be many reasons for this. For starters, classroom observations require training for observers and 
time. To do them well, it can be a very costly process. Moreover, school leaders receive very little 
training in this area. In a review of syllabi from school administration programs, Hess and Kelly (2005) 
found that 20 of 31 programs reviewed failed to mention termination of ineffective teachers and few 
focused on rigorous evaluation of teachers. 

Understandably, it is difficult to objectively evaluate teachers. Some suggest that value-added measures 
of teacher effectiveness may alleviate this problem (Glazerman et al., 2010, Ritter & Shuls, 2012). 
However, this method has been criticized as producing biased estimates of teacher effectiveness 
(Rothstein, 2009). Even if the difficult task of evaluating teachers is ignored, there is another major 
obstacle to removing ineffective teachers - teacher tenure laws. 

In recent years, many states have revisited their teacher tenure laws. According to Thomsen (2014), "16 
states require the results of teacher performance evaluation be used in making decision about granting 
tenure or non-probationary status." Seven states have laws that convert teachers who have been rated 
as ineffective back to probationary status. Missouri has yet to join other states in enacting tenure 
reform. Indeed, a ballot measure that would have mandated the use of teacher performance in 
personnel decisions and eliminated teacher tenure via a constitutional amendment was soundly 
defeated at the ballot box in November 2014. 


Survey of Missouri Superintendents 

In addition to the fair dismissal laws that protect all employees from discrimination, there are specific 
state laws that provide teachers even more protection. These regulations mandate a process to remove 

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a teacher from the classroom based on his or her performance. Once a teacher becomes tenured after 
five years, it is not only difficult to remove him or her within a year, but also from one year to the next. 
This, of course, is because his or her contract is not an annual contract like a probationary teacher; it is a 
permanent contract. This, however, is not a problem if the laws protect good teachers and do not 
hamper efforts to remove low-performing ones. 

To assess the impact of current tenure laws, an electronic survey regarding teacher tenure was sent via 
email to 522 public school superintendents. A total of 192 completed surveys were received, for an 
overall response rate of 36.6 percent. As with any survey, there is the potential for possible selection 
effects. That is, the superintendents who chose to participate in the survey may be markedly different 
from those who did not choose to participate. It is not possible to estimate the unobservable reasons 
superintendents chose to participate. However, it is possible to examine the observable characteristics 
of the school districts. 

In terms of observable characteristics, the districts of superintendents who chose to participate in the 
survey are very similar to those of non-participants (Table 1). Using data from the Missouri Department 
of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), the two groups of districts were compared on seven 
measures. In all seven areas, the two groups were not significantly different from one another. Thus, on 
observable characteristics, the superintendents in this survey represent districts that are very similar to 
the districts of non-participating superintendents. 

Table 1 

Demographic Information of Districts with Participating and Non-Participating Superintendents 


District Characteristic 

Participating 

Non-Participating 

Full-Time Equivalent Teachers 

128 

122 

Students Per Classroom Teacher 

15.3 

15.3 

Full-Time Equivalent Administrators 

8.4 

8.4 

Avg. Regular Term Teacher Salary 

$37,781 

$37,632 

Avg. Years of Teacher Experience 

12.3 

12.4 

Percent of Teachers with Master's Degree 

48.3% 

47.3% 

Average Enrollment 

1,636 

1,661 


Difficulty of removing a tenured teacher 

As previously noted, much has been made about the difficulty of removing a tenured teacher. The most 
ardent supporter of tenure will suggest that it is not difficult to remove a tenured teacher, while the 
most passionate opponent of tenure might say it is impossible. In this survey superintendents were 
asked, "How difficult is it to remove a low-performing, tenured teacher based on their performance?" 
Four possible responses were provided: "Not at all difficult," "Not very difficult," "Somewhat difficult," 
and "Very difficult." Just 4 percent of superintendents indicated that removing a tenured teacher for his 
or her performance in the classroom was "not at all difficult," 23 percent indicated that it is "not very 
difficult," 50 percent chose "somewhat difficult," and 23 percent "very difficult." These figures are very 
similar for superintendents who are new to their position and those who have been serving in that 
capacity for many years. 

Figure 1 

How difficult is it to remove a low-performing, tenured teacher based on his or her performance? 


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■ Not at all difficult ■ Not very difficult ■Somewhat difficult ■Very difficult 


According to the superintendents' responses, removing a tenured teacher is not impossible, but it 
certainly is not easy. To better understand which requirements or restrictions provide the greatest 
barrier to removing a teacher, superintendents were asked, "What are the biggest obstacles to 
removing a tenured teacher?" Open responses were accepted and organized into five categories. Sixty- 
eight percent of superintendents reported that time is the biggest obstacle to removing a teacher, 
followed closely by paperwork (64 percent). It makes sense that these two would be reported at similar 
levels because they are highly correlated. Administrators are required to meticulously document the 
performance of tenured teachers who they wish to remove. Conducting observations and completing 
the paperwork can take a significant amount of time. 

Figure 2 

What are the biggest obstacles to removing a tenured teacher? 


100 % 

90% 

80% 

70% 

60% 

50% 

40% 

30% 

20 % 

10 % 

0 % 

Paperwork Time Money Political Other 

Capital 



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In addition to taking an inordinate amount of time to complete the necessary documentation, removing 
a tenured teacher takes political capital. This includes navigating the process with the teachers' union, 
but can be much more than that. As one respondent noted, navigating the "community politics" can be 
the most daunting aspect of removing a tenured teacher. It is important to remember, principals and 
superintendents answer to elected boards. If they fire a teacher, they run the risk of upsetting school 
board members or others in the community who may run for the board. This could put their jobs in 
jeopardy. Thus, administrators must assess the impact removing a tenured teacher will have on their 
future employment or even the climate of the school building. Moreover, the burden of proof is on the 
administrator. That is, they must be able to demonstrate that the teacher is not performing up to par. In 
the absence of value-added student achievement, this often limits the evidence to subjective teacher 
performance reviews, which require much documentation on the part of the administration. All of these 
are important considerations. 

The cost of removing a tenured teacher 

Removing a tenured teacher can also be very costly, especially when school districts must retain a 
lawyer. In Illinois and New York, it reportedly costs more than $200,000 to remove a tenured teacher 
(Reeder, 2005; The Associated Press, 2008). According to interviews conducted by the author, the cost 
of firing a tenured teacher is less in Missouri, but can still be quite substantial. Roger Kurtz, executive 
director of the Missouri Association of School Administrators, says the cost really depends on the 
specifics of the case. If a principal has done a good job of documenting all the facts of the case or if the 
teacher does not appeal, the cost is much lower. 

Tom Mickes, whose firm Mickes, Goldman, O'Toole represents more than 300 school districts in the 
state, estimates that a hearing before the school board will cost a school district between $10,000 and 
$15,000 in lawyer fees. If the case is taken to the circuit court, school districts can expect to pay another 
$5,000 to $7,000. If the teacher seeks an appeal, it could cost the school district another $15,000. 

Over one-fifth of superintendents cited money as a considerable obstacle to removing a tenured 
teacher. In a subsequent question, superintendents were asked approximately how much it costs to 
remove a tenured teacher. Respondents noted these costs could range from almost nothing in cases 
where the documentation has been carefully collected and the case is open-and-shut. In more drawn- 
out cases, where the teacher appeals, the cost can be considerably higher. Some superintendents 
reported the cost could be as much as $100,000. Although, many indicated they were unsure of the 
exact cost because they did not have first-hand experience. 

Some superintendents were unsure if they should include the principal's time in the cost estimates. On 
one hand, the time involved for a principal is substantial and requires them to take time away from 
other tasks. One superintendent commented, "[Tjhere are many, many hours involved in the process." 
Other superintendents, however, noted that this is part of the principal's job. They are expected to 
evaluate teachers, provide detailed reviews, and remove ineffective ones. Therefore, including their 
time in an estimate of the costs involved may be inappropriate. 

The number of terminated tenured teachers 

Superintendents were asked to indicate how many tenured teachers they had removed for performance 
in the past year. Most superintendents, 75 percent, had not removed a single tenured teacher. Three 
superintendents indicated they had removed five tenured teachers. In all, it was reported that 80 
tenured teachers had been removed in the previous school year. There were a total of 24,076 full-time 
equivalent teachers in the districts represented by the participating superintendents. That means 
approximately 3/10ths of 1 percent of teachers were removed. 


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Although the number of tenured teachers terminated is small, these numbers do not tell the entire 
story. Effective administrators do not allow low-performing teachers to actually reach the point of 
tenure. As one superintendent stated, "We don't let poor teachers get to five years." It is not possible to 
obtain exact estimates on the number of teachers who might get their contract non-renewed in the first 
five years or who quit prematurely because they are ineffective. Counting non-renewed teachers in 
estimates would certainly increase the percentage of teachers removed for ineffectiveness. Regardless, 
there are undoubtedly some ineffective teachers reaching the point of tenure or some effective 
teachers whose performance declines once they have obtained tenure. 

Just as the termination figures do not capture the number of ineffective teachers who are weeded out 
before receiving tenure, they also do not fully account for the number of teachers who are removed for 
their performance. The termination process can be long and drawn out. This can be taxing, not just for 
administrators but also for the teacher. Thus, many principals simply counsel low-performing teachers 
into leaving. Several superintendents referred to this as being "coached out." According to the 
superintendent responses, it seems more teachers leave on their own accord prior to being terminated. 
One superintendent stated, "In my 38 years in administration, I'd say that the majority of tenured 
teachers facing termination proceedings choose to resign." This was a sentiment that other 
superintendents repeated; to be exact, 23 commented that tenured teachers typically resign rather than 
face termination. Here are two of their comments: 

• "Our effort did not actually result in termination, they seldom do. The teachers have 
always chose to resign first. The result is the same." 

• "We counsel our poor teachers to resign rather than go through a termination process." 

Teachers have a significant incentive to resign prior to being terminated. Even if they are able to 
improve or somehow avoid the termination, there is a stigma that comes from this process. This stigma 
may create an unsatisfactory working environment for the teacher. Additionally, applications for 
teaching positions usually ask if the applicant has ever been terminated or had a contract not renewed. 

If a teacher does not resign and ends up being terminated, this significantly harms his or her potential 
for future employment. If the teacher resigns, however, he or she will not have this label. This may be 
part of the conversation that superintendents have during the "coaching out" period, although none 
mentioned it in their comments. 

Support for tenure reform among superintendents 

The final survey question asked whether superintendents would be supportive of efforts to reform 
teacher tenure. Only eight percent of the superintendents in the survey indicated they absolutely would 
not support teacher tenure reform while nearly 63 percent indicated they may support tenure reform 
depending on the specifics of the reform. A total of 32 percent indicated they would support tenure 
reform, either privately or publicly. 


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Figure 3 

Would you personally support reforming tenure laws to make it easier to remove low-performing 
teachers from the classroom? 



No, absolutely not Maybe, 

depending on the 
specifics 


Yes, but not Yes, I would 

publicly publicly support 

reforming teacher 
tenure 


Two recurring themes appeared among the comments on this question. While many indicated that 
teacher tenure laws are restrictive, some indicated that the laws are not the greatest cause of all the 
problems. Many superintendents recognized that it is possible to remove a low-performing teacher or to 
counsel them out of the classroom. They note that it is the principal's job to identify low-performing 
teachers, to help them improve, and to ultimately remove them if they fail to do so. In other words, if a 
low-performing teacher remains in the classroom, it is the result of feckless leadership, not an overly 
burdensome tenure law. However, not all superintendents agreed to the sentiment that tenure is not an 
issue. A few noted that teacher tenure provides protection for "incompetent teachers to the detriment 
of children." One superintendent went as far as saying, "Teacher tenure is the greatest restraint to 
student performance!" 

The other recurring theme among the comments to this question was on the topic of job protection. 

Even among those who said they would support tenure reform, many stated that teachers need some 
job protection. They pointed out that district schools are much different than the private marketplace 
because district schools are democratically controlled. This means elected school boards are in control. 
Polka and Litchka (2008) highlight many examples of school board members who seem to unfairly target 
a school leader for dismissal. There is potential for the same phenomenon to happen to teachers. One 
superintendent noted that teachers need protection from these types of board members "who have 
axes to grind." Certainly, board politics can be a tricky game. 

Superintendents offered several suggestions for how teachers might be given some job protection while 
also making it easier to remove low-performing teachers. An oft-cited recommendation was to offer 
veteran teachers multi-year contracts. This would provide some protection from being targeted for an 


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off year. Ultimately, it seems most superintendents would be supportive of a system that provides 
protection for high-performing teachers while making it much easier to remove ineffective teachers. 

Conclusion 

Although Missouri's teacher tenure laws may not be as restrictive as some other states, there is some 
desire from public school superintendents for reform. Indeed, 73 percent of superintendents stated that 
it is somewhat or very difficult to remove a tenured teacher. They note that the process of removing a 
teacher based on his or her performance in the classroom takes much effort and could cost a significant 
amount of money. For these reasons, among others, approximately 92 percent of the superintendents 
stated they would be supportive of some type of tenure reform. 

Despite the restrictions, many superintendents have figured out how to work within the system. They 
have remarked that a good school leader does not allow an ineffective teacher to obtain tenure. They 
have also noted that they often "counsel out" low-performing teachers in lieu of seeking a formal 
dismissal. Still, public school superintendents in Missouri overwhelmingly believe it should be easier to 
remove low-performing teachers. What type of reform they would coalesce around, however, is not 
clear. 

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