Ending Teacher Tenure Would Have Little Impact on its Own

brookingslogoMatthew M. Chingos of The Brookings Institution has written a compelling new piece arguing that ending teacher tenure would have little impact on its own.

Tenure for public school teachers is increasingly under attack, with the Vergara v. California judge ruling in June that “both students and teachers are unfairly, unnecessarily and for no legally cognizable reason…disadvantaged by the current Permanent Employment Statute.” In 2011, Florida legislators ended tenure for new teachers beginning this year.

A primary stated goal of the California case is to “create an education system that gives every child a passionate, motivating and effective teacher.” According to one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, “This is going to be the beginning of a series of these lawsuits that could fix many of the problems in education systems nationwide. … We’re going to roll them out to other jurisdictions.” A similar lawsuit has already been filed in New York State. If these challenges to tenure laws are successful, will they lead to improvements in education?

Proponents of the California effort posit that the state’s dismissal laws create a process for removing ineffective teachers that has myriad steps, takes years of documentation, and has a price tag in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, leading to an average annual dismissal rate of 0.0008 percent. This line of argument suggests that eliminating what the California judge called “über due process” for teachers will lead to increased dismissals of incompetent teachers. That is almost surely true on the margin, but will it make a significant impact on our public education system?

Chingos brings new evidence to bear on this question by examining the early career paths of high-quality teachers and their less-effective counterparts, as measured by the progress their students make on state tests. The Brown Center’s research analyst Katharine Lindquist helped Chingos calculate value-added measures of teacher effectiveness for 2,272 fourth- and fifth-grade new teachers in North Carolina who entered the classroom between 1999-2000 and 2002-03, and tracked them for the first five years of their careers.

During this time period, teachers in North Carolina usually earned tenure after four years in the classroom. The data do not allow a determination of which of the teachers who left their initial job were let go and which left on their own. But if principals were taking advantage of their pre-tenure freedom to fire at will, we would expect to see the lower-value-added teachers leaving schools at much higher rates than their higher-value-added counterparts, and an increase in dismissals at the tenure decision point between the fourth and fifth years. The reality is that the data do not support this presupposition.

Advocates of efforts to relax firing protections are likely to be sorely disappointed in the results of such reforms if they are enacted in isolation for at least two reasons. First, sensible reforms to tenure laws will have little impact unless administrators make greater use of their newfound (and existing) flexibility, or other mechanisms are put in place to tie personnel decisions to teacher performance. Second, policies surrounding teacher dismissal may be the less important side of the teacher quality coin. The failure of the public education system to retain its best employees represents a wasted opportunity to improve student outcomes.

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