Close your eyes and envision your workplace — the office, the shop floor, wherever. Now mentally rate your co-workers. Are they all doing an OK job? Or is there someone who's not up to the task, whose performance is sub-par?
If your answer is no, everyone's work is at least satisfactory, perhaps you're a tenured Illinois public school teacher, a category in which almost no one does a poor job, if you believe the ratings prepared by administrators in the state's 876 local school districts.
On average, only one out of 930 tenured teachers — roughly one-tenth of 1 percent — are given "unsatisfactory" ratings by their supervisors each year. The other 99.9 percent are deemed "satisfactory" or better, according to an exhaustive, six-month review of teacher accountability records conducted by Scott Reeder, the Statehouse bureau chief for Small Newspapers.
Moreover, the study discovered, more than four out of every five Illinois school districts have never listed any tenured teacher as unsatisfactory during the past decade. Other findings appear just as startling.
Only 61 school districts — just 7 percent — have attempted to fire a tenured teacher since the current evaluation process was put in place; only 38 succeeded. Under a 1985 law, school boards outside the city of Chicago can't fire teachers directly, but must make the case for dismissal before a hearing officer in an adversarial proceeding.
On average, hearing officers each year approve dismissal for only seven out of roughly 95,500 tenured teachers in the state. Just two are fired for poor job performance, while the other five are let go for misconduct.
The eye-opening investigation stemmed from a simple question Reeder asked himself: How well has the teacher accountability law worked since its enactment 20 years ago? The answer seems obvious — not very effectively.
School administrators and education researchers tended to attribute the findings to aggressive defense of underperformers by unions, which wield formidable political money and muscle and are aided by complex procedural hoops that local administrators must jump through to make the case against a bad teacher, often at the cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars, the analysis found.
Leaders of the Illinois Education Association and the Illinois Federation of Teachers said the study missed a key point — most poor teachers are weeded out in the four probationary years before they are tenured. Moreover, they argued, the few bad apples that do slip through tend to leave voluntarily before formal dismissal procedures are invoked.
If one accepts at face value the unions' arguments — that almost 100 percent of tenured teachers are doing a satisfactory job — one reasonably might expect that this near-universal competence would be reflected in Illinois schoolchildren's scores on the standardized tests of basic skills given each year.
Yet the most recent results belie the assertion. Children in 3rd, 5th, 8th and 11th grades were tested last spring against state standards in math and reading. The percentage of children passing the math test ranged from a high of 79 percent in 3rd grade to a low of 53 percent in 11th grade. In reading, the pass rate ran from 73 percent for 8th graders to 60 percent for 11th graders, according to the State Board of Education.
While the 2005 scores were slightly up, the results were hardly what one would expect if all but a tiny fraction of tenured teachers were meeting the mark.
Some have seized on the newspaper group's work to call for the abolition of tenure, contending that its sole purpose is to shield incompetent teachers from dismissal. While that may be one result of the current system, tenure also serves the worthwhile purpose of protecting good teachers from politically motivated employment decisions. That's nothing to be taken lightly in a state like Illinois, where patronage remains a fact of life that infuses much government hiring, and in a time in which classrooms increasingly are becoming battlegrounds in the nation's culture wars.
To avoid such a draconian response, union leaders would be well-advised to join legislators, the business community, education activists and other interested parties in making the evaluation process more meaningful, so that principals are no longer routinely rating teachers based on a couple of hours of classroom observation and one-on-one meetings every other year. To do so, experts in teacher evaluation say, one might:
• track each student individually each year, measuring how much the child has learned during the time spent with the teacher, rather than whether the child can clear some fixed bar. Children learn at different rates, and measuring each child's progress toward learning goals would be a much better indicator of a teacher's effectiveness than using the current apples-and-oranges comparison of this year's 3rd graders to last year's.
• give principals more time for classroom observation and draw on additional sources of information — such as self-evaluations and portfolios, ratings from fellow teachers and surveys of students and parents — to get a better assessment of teacher performance.
• create more realistic improvement plans for teachers having difficulties, including mentoring by master teachers, access to best-practice training and other proven techniques.
• ease some of the procedural burdens that make it difficult for incompetent teachers to be fired, so that dismissal decisions are based on the teacher's competency, not legal technicalities.
• offer financial incentives to the best teachers, those whose evaluations and student performance consistently are good, based on clear, objective measurements.
• require the state board to compile and publish evaluation information on at least a statewide, preferably a district-by-district, basis, including data on the percentage of probationary teachers not granted tenure and the number of tenured teachers who leave voluntarily.
Such comprehensive reform would strengthen accountability, but more important, it would help assure that Illinois school kids aren't having their future prospects shortchanged.
Charles N. Wheeler III is director of the Public Affairs Reporting program at the University of Illinois at Springfield.
Illinois Issues, January 2006