Adam Ozimek in Forbes with some trenchant comments
Goldstein argues that the reason so few teachers are fired is in part because so few teachers want to work in the poorest schools to begin with. However, the study found that the prevalence of dismissals and low-student scores were correlated at the school level. In 2005, 65% of low-performing schools dismissed a teacher compared to 45% of high-performing schools. This means worse performing schools were more likely to dismiss teachers, which partly contradicts Goldstein's story.
In addition, I disagree with Goldstein's characterization of these as low dismissal numbers. First, while she is right 40% of schools in the data don't dismiss any teachers, that number refers to a single year. Over a longer period of time that number would surely be higher. Second, this still means 60% of schools dismissed teachers. The study also reports that each year around 10% of probationary teachers were dismissed. For comparison, economist Eric Hanushek argues that if 5-8% of the worst teachers were replaced with average teachers it would have an impact of around $100 trillion. Third, the policy change in the study only allowed newer hires still in a probationary period to be fired. A policy that applied to all teachers would have a greater impact.
Another complaint about getting rid of tenure is that administrators will fire teachers for bad reasons. Consider, for example, these comments from the anti-reform activist, Diane Ravitch:
"In the absence of tenure, teachers may be fired for any reason. Teachers may be fired if the principal doesn't like them or if they are experienced and become too expensive. Teachers may be fired for being outspoken."
One piece of evidence against this comes from the study Goldstein cites, which found that the teachers who were dismissed were: 1) more likely to have frequent absences, 2) received worse evaulations in the past, 3) have lower value added scores, and 4) have less qualifications. While this policy only applied to newer teachers and thus can't deal with things like experience or expensive teachers, it is evidence that administrators do consider teacher effectiveness.
…I want to close with some arguments on the other side of this issue. While those criticizing the California judges decisions to strike down tenure are generally pretty far off, there are a lot points of caution that need to be considered here. First is that removing teacher tenure is no panacea. Of course this is simply because there are no panaceas in education reform, a point which reform critics will use to falsely imply we shouldn't do anything so long as socioeconomic status is the primary determinant of student outcomes. A better and more nuanced position is, as Michael Petrilli argues, that "[t]enure is just one part of a dysfunctional approach to human resource management in U.S. schools that needs a complete overhaul."
And while I have criticized some of Dana Goldstein's piece, I think her point about the importance of other problems in poor schools is extremely important:
It is about making the schools that serve poor children more attractive places for the smartest, most ambitious people to spend their careers.
Figuring out how to redistribute teacher talent and other resources to poor schools from better schools is something that I think is important, necessary, and worth spending money on. I have at least one idea here, but it is in general an area that needs more consideration.
Another important policy related to the tenure issue is increasing the number of charter schools. When administrators are capricious and ineffective, as surely there are some times, it's important that teachers have alternative employment opportunities nearby. After all, the economic justification for teachers unions in the first place is to counter the monopsony power of the local school district. But in many places, especially dense urban areas, this can be done by increasing the number of teacher employers as well. If a public school fires a great teacher for a bad reason, having a smart charter school nearby to hire them will be good for teachers and students alike.
In short, getting rid of tenure is a good step. But there are a lot more steps to take.