How to Fire an Incompetent Teacher

An illustrated guide to New York's public school bureaucracy


Joel Klein led the Justice Department's attack on Microsoft for its alleged efforts to monopolize the software market. But Microsoft is a hotbed of competition compared to the organization Klein runs now. Klein is chancellor of New York City's public school system, a monopoly so heavily regulated that sometimes it's unable to fire even dangerous teachers.

The series of steps a principal must take to dismiss an instructor is Byzantine. "It's almost impossible," Klein complains.

The rules were well-intended. The union was worried that principals would play favorites, hiring friends and family members while firing good teachers. If public education were subject to the competition of the free market, those bureaucratic rules would be unnecessary, because parents would hold a bad principal accountable by sending their kids to a different school the next year. But government schools never go out of business, and parents' ability to change schools is sharply curtailed. So the education monopoly adopts paralyzing rules instead.

The regulations are so onerous that principals rarely even try to fire a teacher. Most just put the bad ones in pretend-work jobs, or sucker another school into taking them. (They call that the "dance of the lemons.") The city payrolls include hundreds of teachers who have been deemed incompetent, violent, or guilty of sexual misconduct. Since the schools are afraid to let them teach, they put them in so-called "rubber rooms" instead. There they read magazines, play cards, and chat, at a cost to New York taxpayers of $20 million a year.

Once, Klein reports, the school system discovered that a teacher was sending sexual e-mails to a 16-year-old student. "This was the most unbelievable case to me," he says, "because the e-mail was there, he admitted to it. It was so thoroughly offensive." Even with the teacher's confession, it took six years of expensive litigation before the school could fire him. He didn't teach during those six years, but he still got paid—more than $350,000 total.

What did it take to finally get rid of him? What does it take to get rid of any teacher whose offenses are so egregious that administrators are willing to tackle the red tape? Read on.

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  1. I can’t download “How To Fire An Incompetent Teacher”. A window pops up with the following message:

    “The server at oldsite requires a username and password.”

    1. I know your post is an old one, Ellis. On Windows systems, try right-clicking on the link and select “Save link as…” [for Firefox; something similar for IE] then select a filename and destination. Please let me know if this works. On Mac systems, hold the CTRL button down while clicking on the link and do something similar.

  2. Yeah I’m seeing the same thing Ellis.

  3. You fail to mention or commend the majority of teachers who dedicate their lives to the success of their students! We dislike bad teacher, too. Bad teachers won’t get tenure if they don’t know what they are doing or are not willing to try to become better. The rubber rooms mentioned in this article no longer exist in the NYC public school system. As a teacher and taxpayer, I am happy to see serious cases resolved quickly.

    1. You are a teacher? You didn’t realize this article was about “Incompetent Teachers”? It wasn’t an article about teachers in general. How’s that reading comprehension coming along? Idiot.

  4. I know there are dedicated [and successful] teachers in NYC and elsewhere. One such example is John Taylor Gatto, a former NYC and NY state “Teacher of the Year.” He is now a speaker and author of such books as “Dumbing Us Down” and “A Different Kind of Teacher.” Do you suppose there is a compromise? One thing I would do is eliminate the 3-month statute of limitations on disciplinary letters and put them in line with other NY state statutes of limitations, which I believe is 7 years for most felonies except murder.

  5. When my son (now an adult)was in 3rd grade, I discovered that his teacher was with holding his lunches, making him lay face down on the floor spread eagle in front of the class, barring him from participating in classroom projects and recess, in an effort to get him to finish classroom assignments…rather than notifying me there was a problem. The principal refused to do anything, so I kept him home until the school finally agreed to move him to another class. The reason the teacher was not even confronted? She had “tenure”….!

    1. That is what teachers unions do for you.
      In Georgia there are no teachers unions. It is still a little difficult to fire incompetent teachers, but we do it all the time.

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  9. Can someone explain to me why a school system should be a hotbed of competition?

  10. If anyone is looking for the current address of the pdf, I found it here

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