Does anyone really believe that only two tenured teachers in Illinois, on the average, deserve to be fired each year? After all, there are 95,500 tenured teachers in the state. Any private employer that retained all but two of its 95,500 veteran employees each year would be in trouble, if not with its customers then with all the other employees who had to cover for the lazy, the incompetent or the unpleasant workers.
But a report by the Small Newspaper Group found that only two teachers, on the average, are let go annually for poor performance. Another five or so are fired for criminal activity.
School officials argue, correctly, that many poor teachers leave the classroom before their four-year probationary period runs out. Even after they earn tenure many incompetent teachers get out of the profession voluntarily – before they are fired by school officials. Some school boards have even been known to use so-called reductions-in-force orders (RIFs) to get rid of inadequate educators.
So maybe the figures about tenured firings aren't quite as bad as they appear.
But what is more troubling is the way that school administrators in Illinois – each of whom is supposed to take at least one course on evaluating school personnel – are neglecting to adequately assess the quality of teaching in their schools.
How else do you explain the newspaper group's finding that 93 percent of Illinois school districts haven't rated even a single teacher as "unsatisfactory" in more than a decade? Teachers cannot be like the children in Garrison Keillor's Lake Woebegone, all of whom are above average.
"An absolutely scathing evaluation might say something like, 'Mary could improve at ...' These evaluations are written very diplomatically," said T.J. Wilson, a Monticello lawyer who specializes in educational labor law.
Without a paper trail of "unsatisfactory" evaluations, school districts aren't going to have any luck weeding out bad teachers who make the educational system bad for everyone else – students, parents, administrators and other teachers. And if districts do try to fire a poorly performing teacher who has received "satisfactory" evaluations, it's going to cost them a lot of money – perhaps more than $100,000 – and many months. That's why many school districts sometimes choose to tolerate poor teachers – and let schoolchildren suffer the consequences.
Some argue that the teacher tenure system should be eliminated. But Roger Eddy, a state representative who also is superintendent of schools in Hutsonville in Crawford County, says that even today teachers need tenure to protect them from retaliatory dismissals by irate school board members or administrators.
Eddy acknowledges that many administrators, who work almost daily with the people they evaluate, too often suffer from the "halo effect," that is they find it easy to praise teachers and too difficult to criticize. The "halo effect," unfortunately, isn't found only in education.
But its results are most widespread in education. An incompetent teacher can poison educate for dozens of children, perhaps permanently. It is imperative that school administrators lose their timidity and start delivering honest, straightforward appraisals of teachers. This is a statewide issue that deserves the state's attention – certainly more than all the jabbering about junk food in some schools.