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Bad Teachers

There's no question that teacher quality is the most important in-school factor in student learning.  There's also no question that there are some bad teachers ("Why firing bad teachers isn't nearly as important as creating new ones," Los Angeles Times, Sept. 5).  But before concluding that the best way of improving schools is to fire these admittedly dreadful teachers, let's consider certain realities.

There are 3.2 million teachers in the nation's 98,000 public schools who are responsible for educating 48.2 million students. In any population of that size, performance ranges from outstanding to deplorable.  The familiar bell-shaped curve best illustrates the range.  I think the best we can hope for is a redistribution of the curve, with far more teachers at the high end. I don't think it's ever possible to make stars out of all teachers any more than it's possible to make icons out of all lawyers.  Quality unavoidably varies when a population is large.

To reshape the curve, I stress the importance of early intervention and proper support for struggling teachers.  These teachers can be identified in various ways: student complaints to their counselors, parent complaints to principals, and colleague observations.  The key is to make it clear to the teacher that the process is not intended to be punitive. 

Most teachers want to do the best job they possibly can.  But they too often are prevented from doing so by factors poorly understood by outsiders.  They often feel too embarrassed to ask for help, believing it is a sign of weakness.  Or they may rationalize their ineffectiveness. 

Even if all bad teachers could be fired at will, there is no assurance that their replacements would be any better.  No employer bats 1.000 in hiring.  Schools are no different.  Teachers can have an advanced degree from an Ivy League university and still be totally ineffective in the classroom.

The percentage of bad teachers is estimated to be between 1 percent or 5 percent. Let's try to help them improve before seeking to immediately fire them. Rehabilitation is far more cost-effective and fairer than punishment.

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