In the past, teachers were rarely let go over poor performance, data show
By ERICKA MELLON | HOUSTON CHRONICLE
Jan. 14, 2010
One of every 300 teachers in the Houston school district was fired for poor performance last year — a number likely to rise under a new policy to hold them more liable for student achievement.
The district's superintendent, Terry Grier, said there's no “magic number” of teachers who should be ousted in a given year, but suggested that the school district's rate seems low given some academic shortcomings.
Last school year, 36 teachers out of nearly 12,000 — about 0.3 percent — were fired for performance reasons, according to data from the Houston Independent School District.
“Quite frankly, if we were that good, why do 100,000 of our kids read below grade level?” Grier said.
The school board on Thursday gave initial approval to a policy that allows the district to dismiss teachers whose students consistently perform below expectations on standardized tests. The change represents a move to make personnel decisions based more on student learning instead of relying solely on principals' classroom observations of teachers.
Grier and school board members have emphasized that the district's goal is not to fire teachers but to help them improve. Teachers' job evaluations now will include their so-called value-added scores, a statistical measure of their effectiveness in helping students reach their potential on standardized exams.
Over the last five years, HISD has fired or declined to renew the contracts of 364 teachers, according to district data. Of those, 140 were ousted for performance reasons, a broad category that generally covers teachers not fulfilling their job duties.
HISD did not provide information on specific cases, but performance-related reasons listed in district policy include excessive absences, insubordination, a lack of student progress and poor discipline management.
The other 224 teachers dismissed since 2004 were fired mostly for criminal activity, sexual misconduct, drugs or alcohol abuse, using unreasonable force or job abandonment, or because their position was eliminated, district data show.
HISD's dismissal data does not include those who resigned or retired. District officials and union leaders agree that some poor-performing teachers will leave voluntarily, rather than wait to be fired.
Board member Harvin Moore said he expects more teachers to lose their jobs for poor performance in coming years, but said the district is not on a witch hunt.
“I expect the number to go up,” he said. “But this policy is not going to result in thousands of teachers losing their job. That is the fear being created by scare tactics. That's not what it is about. But we do have an obligation to our children to give them the very best teacher that we can.”
Recent research from the New Teacher Project, a New York-based nonprofit, shows that even teachers think some of their colleagues are ineffective. In Cincinnati, for example, more than one-third of teachers said a tenured colleague on their campus should be dismissed. And teachers in a large Midwestern district said that, on average, 7.5 percent of the tenured faculty delivered poor instruction.
Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, acknowledges that not every teacher in HISD performs up to par.
“You're talking about a district that's got 11,000-plus employees,” she said. “I'd be a damn fool to say there isn't an ineffective one in the group.”
Fallon places blame on principals who don't identify weak teachers early in their careers. For their first three or four years on the job, public school teachers in Texas are on probationary contracts, making it easier for districts to dismiss them.
In Texas, getting rid of a teacher with more experience, however, can take up to seven months and cost thousands of dollars in legal fees.
“It's a long process,” said attorney David Thompson, who represents HISD and other Texas districts. “You can see why educators who don't deal with this every day find it daunting and why it can be discouraging.”
School districts across the country rarely fire teachers for performance reasons, said Dan Goldhaber, a research professor at the University of Washington who studies teacher quality and labor.
“It's not clear whether that's because it's difficult to do it or because it's just not the practice in the profession,” he said. “There's probably a lot of blame to go around.”
Grier, who has run nine school districts over 25 years, theorized: “I think some principals accept mediocrity because they don't want to go through the battle with the teachers union or through the process of aggressively recruiting others.”