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Fact-Check: Just How Many Tenured Teachers Are Fired Each Year Anyway? (Hint: Not Many)

By Matt Barnum | September 8, 2015

The Fact-Check is The Seventy Four’s ongoing series that examines the ways in which journalists, politicians and leaders misuse or misinterpret education data and research. See our complete Fact-Check archive.
Tenure,” American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten has written, “is not a job for life. It’s ensuring fairness and due process before someone can be fired, plain and simple.”
National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen Garcia insists it’s a lie when someone says “it’s nearly impossible to fire a bad teacher.”
Echoing these arguments is Century Foundation senior fellow Rick Kahlenberg who recently wrote in an article for the “American Educator” — a magazine published by the AFT — that  “2.1 percent of American public school teachers, including tenured teachers, were fired for cause.” This is based on data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), which conducts surveys of school districts across the country.
Kahlenberg concludes that perhaps teacher dismissals in a few high-profile districts could be streamlined, but that overall the data suggest Garcia and Weingarten are right, and that a reasonable number of tenured teachers are fired every year.
This data — that the average district fires about three tenured teachers per year for poor performance — has long been cited to argue against pushing for more teacher dismissals.
But are these numbers accurate?
More recent statistics, also from NCES, suggest that in districts across the country, it is rare for a tenured teacher to be formally dismissed due to poor performance. In fact, the two data sets find wildly divergent numbers of tenured teachers fired for cause.

 
According to 2007–08 data, roughly one in 40 tenured teachers is fired for poor performance. But the more recent data suggests that it’s more like one in 500 tenured teachers.1
What can explain such a massive disparity in the rate of dismissal for tenured teachers?
I put the question to NCES staff member Chelsea Owen and she explained that the survey questions had undergone revision between years. How the question was asked in 2007–08 seemed to produce irregularities, she said in an email.
Specifically some “respondents reported numbers of dismissed tenured and non-tenured teachers which summed (added up) to more than the number of teachers in the district.” There were data checks for this Owen said, but the question was revised for the 2011–12 data to get results that could be better checked for irregularities.
Owen added, “While both the 2007-08 and 2011-12 surveys collect the counts of tenured and non-tenured teachers who were dismissed due to poor performance, it is likely that a change in estimates observed over time may be (at least partially) due to the changes in how the question was asked.“

What this means is that any reference to the 2007–08 data is outdated and potentially inaccurate. The more recent data suggests that it is relatively rare for a tenured teacher to be formally dismissed for poor performance.  And this number might be even lower if it weren’t for districts such as Washington, D.C., which has fired teachers deemed low-performing and thus has a high rate of teacher dismissals in the most recent data. (About one in twenty Washington, D.C. teachers were dismissed for poor performance in the 2010–11 school year.)

To be clear, these numbers do not answer the fundamental question of whether more teachers should be dismissed. They also don’t include ineffective teachers who leave the profession of their own volition or who are counseled out by administrators without going through the formal dismissal process. And they do not include tenured teachers dismissed for reasons unrelated to performance.

Finally, such stats can’t show whether or not the processes for dismissing tenured teachers across the country are overly cumbersome.

Some economists have suggested, using data simulations, that dismissing about 5 percent of the teaching force — approximately 180,00 teachers — would improve student achievement. But others have argued that this would be impractical and even counterproductive.

These debates will surely continue. But in the meantime, we should make sure to have them with accurate and up-to-date data, which find that most districts in the country dismiss very few tenured teacher for poor performance.


Footnotes:
1. These are rough estimates since neither years of data show the precise total number of tenured versus non-tenured teachers. I got these numbers by finding the number of teachers who have tenure nationally ( according to 2011–2012 NCES data), which is about 55 percent. That means that in 2011–12, the average district had about 103 tenured teachers, of whom .2 were dismissed for poor performance. In 2007–08, if the proportion of tenured teachers is same, that means 116 teachers per district had tenure, of whom 3 were dismissed for poor performance on average. (back to story)
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