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Can We get Great Teachers by Firing Bad Ones?

Last night I attended a presentation by Tim Daly of The New Teacher Project, one of the authors of a recent study, The Widget Effect, that has been hugely influential in education policy over the past six months. This study began with the widely accepted premise that the outcomes for children lucky enough to have a series of effective teachers and the unfortunate children who get a series of ineffective ones can be vastly different. In spite of this, the researchers found that school districts treat teachers as interchangeable widgets, in the ways that they are evaluated and developed.

The research on evaluation made this point dramatically. Our evaluation systems are not, on the whole, useful for much beyond identifying individual teachers who are grossly incompetent or derelict. The data they collected showed that the vast majority of teachers receive satisfactory or excellent evaluation ratings, and a tiny proportion are rated less than satisfactory. An even smaller number are terminated or "counseled out" of their positions.

The Widget Effect report concludes with four recommendations:

  • ADOPT a comprehensive performance evaluation system that fairly, accurately and credibly differentiates teachers based on their effectiveness in promoting student achievement and provides targeted professional development to help them improve.
  • TRAIN administrators and other evaluators in the teacher performance evaluation system and hold them accountable for using it fairly and effectively.
  • INTEGRATE the performance evaluation system with critical human capital policies and functions such as teacher assignment, professional development, compensation, retention and dismissal.
  • ADDRESS consistently ineffective teaching through dismissal policies that provide lower-stakes options for ineffective teachers to exit the district and a system of due process that is fair but efficient.

Some of these recommendations make a lot of sense. Ideally, teachers should be involved in observing one another and giving each other feedback. We should be sharing our student work, and getting ideas to improve instruction. A strong evaluation system would be informed by these processes, and would give teachers a chance to reflect on their growth, and target areas where they want to become stronger. Professional development would be connected to these individual goals, and teachers would take more responsibility for moving forward as professionals. Evaluation would not be a "gotcha" observation by an administrator, nor would it be an arbitrary judgment based solely on student test scores.

Unfortunately the media and policymakers have focused on only two aspects of this report and made illogical extrapolations.
The fact that a great teacher makes a difference has been extended to the conclusion that if we had only great teachers, we could solve the persistent problems we have in our schools. And the corollary conclusion is clearly that the easiest way to get great teachers is by firing bad teachers. From the notorious Newsweek cover we get the message "We Must Fire Bad Teachers," and a portrait of a profession "insulated from accountability."

So now we have school reform by the method of the clean sweep, where whole school faculties are fired and forced to reapply for their jobs. One of the four pillars of Race to the Top, (and most likely soon the new Elementary and Secondary Education Act,) is to restructure "failing" schools.

School districts must agree to one of four turnaround models: closing the school and sending students to higher-achieving ones; turning it around by replacing the principal and most of the staff; "restarting" the school by turning it over to a charter- or education-management organization; or implementing a mandatory basket of strategies labeled "transformation.

There are a host of problems with this approach to improving schools.

First, as Secretary Duncan has himself stated (though strangely, he seems to only emphasize this when speaking to teachers) the means by which we measure student achievement are deeply flawed, and "so many schools get mislabeled," as a result. How can we justify such an intrusive reform regime when it is based on these flawed measurements?

Second, we have been down this road before, and it has not led us anywhere. In California the list was just released of the schools the state has identified as the "bottom 5%" targeted for restructuring. The five Oakland schools on the list are less than seven years old. Each of them was created when the school previously on that site was closed, in the previous round of restructuring forced by No Child Left Behind. They are all within a five mile radius, all in the impoverished African American and Latino immigrant community. I work with teachers at some of these schools, and they are highly dedicated, motivated professionals, who work long hours for their students. What makes policymakers think another round of disruptions is going to have different results?

Oakland, like many urban districts, has taken to filling vacancies with minimally trained interns. Three years after they begin, three fourths of these interns have left the District. So any teacher that we terminate is likely to be replaced by an intern, who is likely to leave within a few years. Does it make sense that we focus on turning over even more teachers?

And the whole disruption caused by restructuring may cause you to lose as many good and great teachers as bad ones, if the experience at Fremont High School in Los Angeles is any indication. The majority of teachers there have signed a pledge NOT to reapply for their jobs, in spite of their deep dedication to their school and their students. This restructuring is having some very negative effects.

What would the reforms look like if we turned these solutions on their head? It might make more sense to focus on how we might improve our evaluation systems to RETAIN and IMPROVE teachers, rather than to get rid of them. It is ironic that a reform movement based on the premise that every child can succeed has decided that though all children can learn, many of their teachers cannot.

What do you think of the emphasis on firing teachers to improve schools? Is there a better way?

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