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Just The Right Amount of Firing

by Justin Baeder | @eduleadership

I'm convinced that we need a little bit of firing in public education. Some principals, teachers, and other educators simply aren't cutting it, and are harming kids as a result.

Some of us need to be fired. Not too many - just some.

But what role should firing play in improving education, and how should we go about it?

Results Now...Or Else
A popular, yet still entirely theoretical, strategy for improving public education in America is to simply make it clear what results people are to achieve, and fire them if they fail to achieve said results. This appears to be the way head coaches in collegiate and professional sports are hired and fired. If the team wins, you stay, and can demand a higher salary. If the team loses, you'd better update your résumé. The current push for value-added assessment data is a clear example - we want to know which educators are effective and which aren't, in order to reward the former and eliminate the latter.

But firing - like merit pay - does not address the systemic factors that contribute to low performance, nor even require that anyone identify the individual dimensions of performance that were lacking (to say nothing of the challenges of measuring educator performance meaningfully and fairly).

When results are everything, and practice goes unexamined, the organization has no obligation to learn from its failures, and no mechanism by which it can do so. We teach our students that mistakes are just great opportunities to learn, yet the current rhetoric in education reform suggests that if we had the right people, they would achieve the right results; therefore, firing, not learning, is the only option for improving performance.

Firing based on bad results may be nothing more than scapegoating, the ritual bloodletting that makes people feel better after a loss. If everyone attributes the failure to the now-dismissed teacher or leader, no one is paying attention to the other (possibly more intractable) factors that contributed to the failure. Moreover, firing one person doesn't guarantee that the next will be any better.

Just this past week, we saw the consequences of firing a school leader on the basis of test scores. Solving one problem may create another, and replacing people who are doing tough work is never easy. In this case, the principal was replaced due to the school's low academic achievement, yet when she left, the school descended into chaos and violence. My knowledge of this situation is limited to a single news story, so I can't say whether this was the right thing to do, but clearly firing people is not a foolproof recipe for improvement.

Changing the Workforce
But I would wholeheartedly agree that changing the population of people working in the education profession is something that needs to happen on a national scale. McKinsey & Co. recently released a report on how we can attract the top 1/3 of college grads into teaching, and even if our best and brightest don't stay in the classroom for long (as is true for many Teach for America alums), at the very least we have more people informed and passionate about improving education in our country.

Eric Hanushek of Stanford says changing the teaching population is one way merit pay could ultimately be helpful:

"The biggest role of incentives has to do with selection of who enters and who stays in teaching - i.e., how incentives change the teaching corps through entrance and exits," Hanushek said. "I have always thought that the effort effects were small relative to the potential for getting different teachers. Their [POINT merit pay] study has nothing to say about this more important issue." WaPo

Can we improve education by hiring smarter people and firing our lowest performers? Perhaps, but we have to get the incentives right for the former, and we have to get our measures (not to mention our interventions and supports) right for the latter to work.

What will not work is to set an impossibly high bar and fire everyone who fails to meet it. This Darwinian approach to improvement - firing all but the best new teachers - would be catastrophic for recruiting, even if it could increase the prestige of teaching. One recent study suggested that the optimal rate of dismissal (after two years of probation) is a whopping 80%. Keeping only the top 20% would not only result in major teacher shortages, but would also deter many qualified people who don't like the idea of investing in a career only to face an 80% chance of dismissal.

Why We Need a Little Bit of Firing
Having said all that, I can think of two major reasons we need to fire more people in education:
1. People who do their jobs poorly are supposed to be fired. This is how employment works, and education should be no exception. If people are terrible, they neither deserve their paychecks nor should they be allowed to continue to cause damage to those they serve.

2. Education has a reputation problem related to performance, primarily because we hardly ever fire anyone. When bad people are allowed to stick around, they make everyone else look bad, undermining support for public education. When no one ever gets fired, it's easier for critics to paint with a broad brush and blame individuals - rather than more systemic factors - for educational failure.

Failing to fire incompetent educators creates a downward spiral. When good teachers see that incompetence is tolerated, they start to find somewhere else to work, and when bad teachers know they'll be tolerated in a certain school, they gravitate to it in larger numbers. This is especially the case in systems where teachers can be reassigned at their request or at the request of their administrators, which was described in Waiting for Superman under the cynical moniker "pass the trash."

It's time to do more firing in education, but we need to do it carefully, rigorously, and without treating it as a magic bullet.

Justin Baeder (@eduleadership) is a public school principal in Seattle, Washington. He speaks and writes about principal performance and productivity, and is a doctoral student at the University of Washington in Educational Leadership & Policy Studies.

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