The number of non-tenured teachers fired from Chicago Public Schools has more than doubled over the past five years, rising to 144 in 2004 from only 56 in 1999.
Principals and CPS officials say pressure to raise achievement has sparked tougher scrutiny of untenured faculty, leading to the sharp spike in dismissals.
“Principals are taking stock of their role as instructional leaders and realizing that teacher performance and evaluation is a critical part of that role,” says Xavier Botana, CPS’ director of accountability under the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). “With that recognition, they’re doing more observation, and where teachers can’t be successfully remediated, they’re taking the next step, which is dismissal.”
Botana says achievement goals set under NCLB are part of what’s driving greater scrutiny of non-tenured teachers. But he also maintains that CPS’ hiring of area instructional officers is the more salient factor.
AIOs are “walking through schools and identifying problems that principals need to deal with,” including substandard classroom instruction, Botana explains. “They’re much more active. We didn’t have [that] before 2002.” The biggest increase in firings came between 2002 and 2003, when the number of teachers dismissed rose from 106 to 166.
Michael Keno, principal of Bret Harte Elementary in Hyde Park, says poorly performing teachers need to improve their craft—or be weeded out—early in their careers. He has fired one non-tenured teacher in seven years.
“If the person is probationary, you want to do whatever you can as principal before it hits the tenured part, so you’re not stuck with a bunch of tenured teachers who should not have reached that point,” Keno says.
Clarice Berry, president of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association, agrees that principals face “extraordinary pressure” to raise students’ test scores. If teachers are not helping a school with that bottom-line measurement, Berry says, principals take a more critical eye at their performance, creating a “domino effect” of more firings.
Obstacles to firing
Despite the increase in non-tenured teacher firings, the number of tenured faculty who were dismissed remains much lower, at an average of 24 per year between 1999 and 2004.
Principals point out that the months-long, multiple-step process required to dismiss tenured teachers is an obstacle to ridding schools of some poorly performing veterans.
“There ought to be many more [fired], but the process is ridiculous,” says Joan Forte, principal of Randolph Elementary in West Englewood.
“Everything we know about teaching and measuring whether a child is learning gets thrown out the window, as though children have all of their lives to wait for this adult to get their life together.”
“The procedure for firing a teacher is very cumbersome,” says Berry. “If you miss a deadline even by a single day, you have to start all over.”
Teachers will sometimes “circumvent” the process by taking sick leaves that overlap those deadlines, forcing principals to begin the process over, she says.
But Larry Poltrock, general counsel for the Chicago Teachers Union, has no sympathy for those complaints. “It is a process that requires the principal to do their job, the board to do their job, and to prove that their reasons [for firing] are legitimate.”
Forte says principals are giving more scrutiny to tenured teachers laid off from schools that close due to poor performance.
“Why would you want to bring in a tenured teacher and not have a trial period?” says Forte. Good teachers who lose their positions when schools close for poor performance, she adds, “are probably having a hell of a time finding a job.”
Constance Means, principal of Barton Elementary in Auburn Gresham, notes that the real goal of the process is to help teachers improve, not get rid of them.
“No educator wants to dismiss another educator, but if you’re ill-suited, you’re ill-suited,” says Means. “You’re not going into the process with the attitude that you’re going to fire a teacher, [but] with the idea that you’re trying to help the teacher be successful.”
Even so, Means adds, “You spend an awful lot of time with one or two teachers, rather than being able to spread yourself out and keep a good look on your entire staff.”
Ed Finkel is a Chicago-based writer. To contact him, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.