The teacher evaluation system in D.C. has high stakes for ineffective teachers–they get fired. But the system includes an escape clause, one that has a very interesting link up with what behaviorial economists call the importance of a “default” position.
If people were fully “rational” (in the very narrow sense of “rational” sometimes used by economists) then they would look at possible choices and choose the best option. Behavioral economists have shown that in practice people often find it easier to not make a choice, just going along with whatever default is provided. This means that in designing a system, the result of inaction matters.
In D.C. teachers who are rated “minimally effective” two years in a row lose their job, except that their principal can save them. 141 teachers were at risk to be terminated this year. Principals chose to save only 4. This suggests a combination of two factors were at play:
- Principals largely agreed with the ratings.
- It was made very easy for a principle to let an ineffective teacher go–all that was required was inaction.
Closely related results were found in a different system in Chicago. Brian Jacob looked at what happened when Chicago principals were allowed to dismiss nontenured teachers by checking a box on a computer form without having to do anything else. Dismissal rates rose significantly.
Moral 1: If you think principals should be dismissing more teachers, make it very, very easy to do.
Moral 2: The D.C. experience says it’s okay to use principals as a safeguard against unfair dismissals, rather than as a first line for creating dismissals.
I wonder what would happen if a positive case had to be built for a teacher to earn tenure rather than tenure being the default after a couple of years.