Good Housekeeping Goes After Bad Teachers

Published February 1, 1998

One who can’t spell. Another who falls asleep in a class of 5-year-olds. Thanks to tenure job protection, it’s virtually impossible to fire either teacher. What’s a parent to do?

Among the articles promoted on the front cover of the January issue of Good Housekeeping–with such titles as “Get Thin in 1998,” “Healthy 20-Minute Meals,” and “What to Say to a Grieving Friend”–is one that indicates how widespread concerns about bad public school teachers have become: “Bad Apple Teachers: What Parents Can Do.”

Redbook magazine’s September 1997 issue ran a similar story highly critical of teacher tenure and teacher unions. (See “Redbook Blasts Unions for Bad Teachers,” School Reform News, October 1997.)

The Good Housekeeping report, by Lynnell Hancock, opens with an account of how parents’ concerns about a veteran New Jersey teacher went unaddressed until a 5-year-old student’s accidental discovery of the teacher’s cocaine supply led to felony charges and suspension. Parents were outraged.

“The system just broke down when it came to this teacher,” parent Nancy Toomey told Hancock. “Teacher evaluations didn’t work. Parent complaints didn’t work. We felt let down.”

Tenure–an extra layer of job protection for public school teachers–is the reason it is so difficult to get rid of a weak teacher, notes Hancock. “Aside from college professors, there are no other workers in the labor force who enjoy such protections,” she writes. But while tenure is supposed to protect the jobs of good teachers, it also protects the jobs of teachers who are incompetent or who have committed criminal acts. For example:

  • A suburban Chicago school district spent $70,000 trying to dismiss a math teacher who didn’t know basic algebra.
  • New York City spent more than $185,000 over three years to suspend a Brooklyn special education teacher who had been convicted and jailed for selling cocaine.
  • After being caught several times kicking and slapping her students, a Washington, DC, teacher was not fired but merely transferred to a non-teaching position.

When a tenured teacher’s performance is rated unsatisfactory, most states allow up to a year for improvement, at which time the teacher can be fired if there has been none. But if the teacher appeals the firing decision, he or she continues to collect full pay during the years-long appeals process. In New York, it costs nearly $200,000 on average to fire a tenured teacher who appeals. In New Jersey, it takes over $100,000, while in Illinois it takes three years and at least $70,000.

“The dismissal process is so cumbersome, and so expensive that in many cases administrators don’t even bother to try and terminate the worst teachers,” said Gwendolyn Gregory, deputy general counsel to the National School Boards Association.

Good Housekeeping writer Hancock points out that, while teacher tenure may once have been necessary to guard against capricious firing, civil rights laws today protect all workers against arbitrary dismissal. In addition, teachers have the right to due process–fair notice, fair explanation for a firing, and an opportunity to respond.

“Tenure has outlived its usefulness,” Robert E. Boose, executive director of the New Jersey School Boards Association, told Hancock.

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].