Are teachers more likely to die or be dismissed for poor performance? It's a morbid question, but it is possible to determine the answer, and the answer says a lot about our priorities.
Recently, Katharine B. Stevens, a Ph.D. from Columbia University, published the results of an in-depth analysis of teacher dismissal procedures in New York City. She found:
Over the 10-year period I studied (1997-2007), just 12 of New York City teachers (of whom there are 75,000 at any given time) were dismissed for incompetent teaching. Teachers who had years of “unsatisfactory” ratings; who were proven over months of hearings to be grossly incompetent; who were verbally and physically abusive to children, parents and colleagues, or who simply failed to come to work for days and weeks on end were returned to classrooms.
That averages out to 1.2 New York City teachers dismissed for poor performance each year. With 75,000 teachers, that equals an annual dismissal rate of 0.000016 percent.
How does this figure compare to teacher mortality rates? We can turn to the city's pension plan to find out. Defined benefit pension plans, such as New York City's, must estimate how long teachers will live in order to determine how long they'll receive benefits. They conduct regular "experience studies" to see how their estimates stack up against actual outcomes in order to have confidence that the numbers they use are accurate. The city publishes its estimates for mortality rates in Table 2 of the pension plan's annual report. The mortality rates range from 0.02 percent for 20-year-old female teachers up to 0.32 percent for 65-year-old males. New York City teachers have a median age of 40 and 75 percent of them are female, so that's the best point of comparison. That rate is 0.03 percent. At that rate, the pension plan is assuming that 22.5 active New York City teachers will die every year.
Many of these teachers are in the prime of their lives, so thankfully death is quite uncommon. But the fact that New York City teachers are 18.75 times more likely to die than they are to be dismissed for poor performance suggests something broken about the dismissal process. These figures give us a sense of just how difficult it is to remove poor performing teachers.