The high cost of firing (or not firing) teachers

Firing teachers is “so time-consuming, costly and draining for principals and administrators that many say they don’t make the effort except in the most egregious cases,” reports the Los Angeles Times, which looked at 15 years’ worth of records in Los Angeles Unified School District.

The vast majority of firings stem from blatant misconduct, including sexual abuse, other immoral or illegal behavior, insubordination or repeated violation of rules such as showing up on time.

. . . Jettisoning a teacher solely because he or she can’t teach is rare. In 80% of the dismissals that were upheld, classroom performance was not even a factor.

When teachers can’t teach well, principals must spend years trying to help them improve. An ineffective teacher may fail to instruct up to 1,300 students in the five years it often takes to removed a tenured employee, says a middle school principal.

The review panel overturns a third of firings.

The district wanted to fire a high school teacher who kept a stash of pornography, marijuana and vials with cocaine residue at school, but a commission balked, suggesting that firing was too harsh. L.A. Unified officials were also unsuccessful in firing a male middle school teacher spotted lying on top of a female colleague in the metal shop, saying the district did not prove that the two were having sex.

Fourth-grade teacher Shirley Loftis “failed to give directions to students, assigned homework that wasn’t at the appropriate grade level and provided such inadequate supervision that students pulled down their pants or harmed one another by fighting or throwing things,” the district charged. The commission agreed that Loftis had burned out, but “suggested administrators find her another job — perhaps training other teachers.”

One principal spent years trying to fire a teacher for sexual harassment. He failed. Then he switched to a charter school where teachers have no union protections. He fired three ineffective teachers in his first year.

Update:  In response to the LA Times story, LA Unified will lobby for a state law making it easier to fire tenured teachers.  Naturally, the teachers’ union will fight it.

About Joanne


  1. You’d think that good teachers would be outraged at the damage these crappy teachers do to the reputation of their profession. But, I think this has been going on for years. I remember a handful of very good teachers (thank you, Mr. Jensen), but I also remember some pretty awful teachers. My algebra I teacher used to sleep during class time. He was around 80 years old. Perhaps he had been a fine teacher is earlier years, but couldn’t remember which lessons were taught from day to day.

  2. You’d think that good teachers would be outraged at the damage these crappy teachers do to the reputation of their profession.

    They are.

  3. We certainly are.

    I’d also be hesitant to assume that the LAUSD is all school districts.

  4. An inability to effectively manage your employees is a massive failure of administration. It’s not a problem at my school, one the highest performing in the state. A teachers job is to teach, and, in my sixteen years, I know of no teachers who walked out of the classroom to protest the disciplining of an poor teacher. Put the blame where it belongs.

  5. These types of stories are absurd.

    I worked at school where a tenured teacher brought up a porn site on his computer while students were taking a test (one saw it and reported it). The teacher was effectively escorted out the next day, put on leave during an investigation, and fired. Neither the union, nor the rest of the staff, nor the teacher protested.

    I can’t believe people allow school administration to effectively ignore one of their responsibilities because it is too difficult.

  6. momof4 says:

    The administrative process/union rules are problems in many areas. In one affluent suburban county, I remember hearing that it cost $600,000 in admin. costs and legal fees to fire a teacher, and that was probably 20 years ago. In that system, which was and is mentioned as one of the best in the country, I have personal knowledge of a senile teacher and one who was both incompetent and abusive. Since the senile teacher was close to max retirement level, there was no push to remove her. Meanwhile,multiple classes learned nothing. The school/county administrators had been documenting problems with the other teacher for years, but there were political (sex and ethnicity) factors, so… The usual solution was to transfer the problem to another school in the system; aka “dance of the lemons.”

    When a friend, the headmaster of a top private school in the same area, heard about the incompetent and abusive teacher, he said that he would have been on the phone about a replacement as soon as the problems surfaced. That teacher would have been removed as soon as his/her classes could be covered.

  7. Look at the unions … Barack Obama is not supporting D.C. vouchers, despite his claims to “reject a system that rewards failure and protects a person from its consequences.”

    D.C. kids can’t get out, and the Obama administration’s not going to help them. It’s not just L.A. Unified.

  8. Robert Wright says:

    The truth is, a tenured teacher can be fired in 24 hours and I’ve seen in happen several times.

    And the times I’ve seen it happen, the firings were unjustified. It was office politics played like hard ball.

    All that’s needed to fire a teacher is for the board of trustees to cast a majority vote for termination.

    After the teacher is fired, the union lawyers get involved and it usually ends in a last minute settlement. If the district’s case is weak, the teacher resigns with three years pay.

    You don’t need a reason to fire a teacher. All a principal has to say is that conduct was unprofessional–and that can be anything.

    You don’t need to document the reasons for termination. What is needed is a lot of paperwork that is labeled documentation, but it can be all lies.

    The truth is, if you get on the wrong side of an immoral, vindictive principal, your job is in real jeopardy.

    The statistics are misleading because teachers are often harassed into voluntarily resigning after they find out that the support of their union turns out to be mostly hype.

    The bottom is this. If they want to get rid of you, they will find a way.

  9. “The bottom is this. If they want to get rid of you, they will find a way.”

    And how is that different than any other working person in America?

    Union members enjoy protections, even if they’re limited protections, that most other Americans don’t. Because of that, the bad are protected with the good. And that’s not good for the good ones.

  10. Oooh, argument by anecdote! A few years ago, my daughter complained that their class was disrupted by the class next door because they were so loud, and in fact that Mr. so-and-so (a member of an ethnic minority and tenured) had been caught sleeping. Since I work in this district, I was concerned. In fact, he was gone at the end of the year.

  11. fish on a bicycle says:

    My youngest has had 2 atrocious public school teachers over the years, and both had been lousy teachers (by anecdote) for more than 10 years.

    Give me a break about how easy it is to fire lousy teachers. The problem is principals and administrators (who continue to increase in number in our school district) don’t want to be bothered. Go along, get along.

    Meanwhile, the number of home schooled kids continues to grow.

  12. This issue seems to have a couple of sharp edges. One is that people should not be dismissed from teaching for factors such as political views that are irrelevant to effectiveness, provided that those factors do not interfere with that effectiveness. Cutting the other direction, though, is the problem of establishing effectiveness; because teaching is judged on subjective bases, it’s pretty hard to base a dismissal on evidence such as this: “My opinion is you are ineffective.”

  13. It would be much easier to determine teacher effectiveness if each student was assigned a unique ID number that would follow that student throughout his academic career (at least k-12, could be university as well). US Swimming established that system over a decade ago, for all levels of registered swimmers. Such a system would correct for the difficulty in determining annual progress for each student, regardless of how often that child changes schools. There are heavy emotional/political issues attached to such a system, which is why it won’t happen.

  14. Robert Wright says:

    Fish, I didn’t say it was easy to fire lousy teachers.

    Of all the teachers I’ve seen fired, being lousy was never a reason.

  15. Andy Freeman says:

    What do good teachers DO to get rid of bad teachers?

  16. Andy,

    Just curious, what makes you think teachers have any say so or who gets fired?

  17. I don’t have any say in who is hired or fired. Do any of the other teachers who come through here? That would be pretty unusual.

  18. “…you think teachers have any say so”

    The “Teachers Union” and therefore it’s membership (teachers) have the say so. As long as the union protects non-performing teachers, the children and schools suffer no matter how much $$ is thrown at them.

  19. I’ve sat on many interview committees,and seen about half our recommendations for hiring followed, but I’ve never had a hand in determining if a teacher needed to be fired.

  20. It just occurred to me that, given the difficulty and cost of firing a teacher, the reasons given for firing a teacher – [i]In 80% of the dismissals that were upheld, classroom performance was not even a factor[/i] – neatly quantify the importance of education in the public education system.

  21. People,

    These anecdotes really have to mention the state involved before any meaningful dialogue can take place.

    In NY, it is relatively easy to fire a teacher for insubordination, but extremely difficult to fire a teacher for incompetence.

    Firings that go through “easily” only happen because the teacher doesn’t fight it. If the teacher fights it, the process can drag out for between 1-2 years, with the teacher getting full salary in the meantime. And that 1-2 years is AFTER the firing; it takes at least a year to properly document a teacher BEFORE the firing. In NY, a teacher needs to be observed and then counseled about his/her performance (after all, the ideal case is where the teacher takes the counseling to heart and becomes a goodteacher) at least once a quarter for four quarters. Only after it can be established that the teacher is not improving can the case be made for firing.

    It’s not easy, and takes a lot of time for the principal involved. That’s why alternatives are readily embraced, e.g., “Oh, that teacher is retiring in a couple of years, which is how long it would take to get rid of him/her.” Or sometimes a teacher who is poor in the classroom is decent writing curiculum. Firing is not always the first choice.

  22. How many commenters live in LA? Here, anyone with two nickels to rub together send their kids to private school. My daughter’s class mates include the children of busboys, dishwashers, janitors, cops, US Senators, and the rest of us.

  23. Andy Freeman says:

    Various folks claimed that teachers were outraged by incompetent teachers. Now we find that the result of said “outrage” is just like the result of indifference.

    Teachers “own” organizations that have a huge effect on education in this country. Those organizations are quite active.

    Yet, they don’t seem to concern themselves with incompetence.

    People do what’s important to them.

  24. SuperSub says:

    I personally can’t stand working with incompetent teachers, but can’t do anything myself. As an untenured teacher I am shut out of the union process by the the prospect of termination without cause. The union leadership largely is the low-performing teachers in our district and they retain their positions through inertia and the occasional dirty politics.

  25. > People do what’s important to them.

    Indeed they do and the sooner you come to terms with that fact the sooner you’ll come to understand that blaming the unions for lousy teachers is like blaming the river for the flood.

    A union that doesn’t fight to make firing as difficult as possible is a union with a lot less value to the membership then it might otherwise have and the membership will elect representatives who’ll see to that shortcoming.

    You can find examples of unions taking the long view and policing their members but those are the exceptions. That’s not a criticism of unions, just a recognition of what unions are and what drives them. Blame unions for the shortcomings of public education and you cut yourself off from any further investigation.

  26. momof4 says:

    I’d like to see a law forbidding mandatory union membership as a condition of employment and requiring that each employee personally pay their union dues (no garnishing of wages), if they choose to join. I think Oregon did that and membership in their state NEA dropped by about 80%. That would give unions much less weight to throw around, unless they could convince teachers to join. In the professions, each member personally pays for membership in the associations he chooses.

    I don’t blame unions for all of the problems with public schools, but they are certainly part of the problem; too much money, too much political power and too much addiction to that money and power.

  27. Andy Freeman says:

    >> People do what’s important to them.

    > Indeed they do and the sooner you come to terms with that fact the sooner you’ll come to understand that blaming the unions for lousy teachers is like blaming the river for the flood.

    I’m not blaming unions for lousy teachers.

    I’m pointing out that unions are not concerned with education and that anyone who claims otherwise is either lying or delusional. The same applies to most public school advocates.

    Why should we listen to such people?