While many see teachers unions as yielding an unfair amount of power over school boards and preventing bad teachers from being fired, a recent study has found that unions aren't able to prevent principals from holding on to bad teachers.
As the research shows, even when principals are given permission to fire bad teachers, they choose not to. Matt Di Carlo at the Shanker Blog writes:
"Principals don't let go of a lot of teachers because they don't want to, not because they can't."
Economist and education policy professor Brian Jacob was one of the report's principal authors. He analyzed a 2004 change in the Chicago Public Schools' teacher contract that "dramatically reduced the costs of firing a probationary teacher in the district," writes Kyle Stokes at State Impact.
"Existing teacher contracts in many large, urban school districts actually provide considerably more flexibility than is commonly believed and yet administrators rarely take advantage of such flexibility. The apparent reluctance of many Chicago principals to use the additional flexibility granted under the new contract may indicate that issues such as teacher supply and/or social norms governing employment relations are more important factors than policymakers have realized."
"The professional culture in most public schools still sees firing as an extreme response to bad performance, instead preferring endless remediation. The supply of decent job candidates is probably not up to demand in CPS, either, meaning the labor market is a barrier to implementing better policies around teacher performance."
While the study doesn't include tenured teachers whose contracts certainly offer more robust protections, Di Carlo believes that constantly blaming teachers unions isn't correct:
"We should be careful not to reduce the complexity of employment policies and labor markets to a simple narrative in which personnel policies are the only impediment to improvements in teaching qualityâ¦
"There is little support for the idea that principals are just dying to fire at will — or that, once dismissed, teachers can easily be replaced by "better" alternatives — despite sometimes being taken for granted in our education debates. Although they are far from conclusive, and pertain only to probationary teachers, the descriptive results discussed above tentatively suggest that the supply of appropriate replacements may not always be quite as robust as is often assumed – and/or that there may be some other reasons for low dismissal rates that are not entirely a function of the difficulty of doing so."