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Firing the Worst Teachers

When Time devoted its latest cover story to bad teachers ("Rotten Apples," Nov. 3), it drew attention to a subject that has great intuitive appeal to taxpayers in the same way that its cover story on Michelle Rhee did ("How To Fix America's Schools, Dec. 8, 2008). The hook for the present article was the Vergara v. State of California decision and its implications for teachers and students.  

I won't try to rebut the points made because readers of this column are familiar with the issues involved.  What I'd like to do, however, is to address one major factor that is given short shrift in the ongoing debate.  I'm referring now to the achievement gap and why firing all but the best teachers in any school will do little to narrow the gap.

Contrary to popular belief, there has always been an achievement gap between students from different socioeconomic classes.  Even during the so-called golden age of education in this country when teachers ostensibly were more dedicated and effective than they are today, the gap existed. It always will exist as long as conditions outside of school are blatantly unequal.  

I agree that teachers are the most important in-school factor in learning.  I also concede that individual students with inspired teachers do better academically than those with ineffective teachers.  But the issue is the achievement gap between students from different socioeconomic and racial backgrounds. Hence, taxpayers read that white and Asian students perform better than black and Hispanic students on average.  I don't doubt that the best teachers can help individual students within these groups learn far more than they do today, but these same teachers can have only little effect on how the different groups perform relative to each other.

I make this vital distinction between individuals and groups because the media do not. That's why teacher tenure is a red herring.  If it were abolished tomorrow and principals were able to hire whichever teachers they want, the achievement gap would not be significantly affected.  Test scores overall would no doubt rise, but when the scores were broken down socioeconomically and racially, the results would not be nearly as impressive as they seem.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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