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Extremism in Getting Rid of Bad Teachers Is Bad Policy

If teachers are the single most influential factor in student achievement, then it follows that those who consistently fail to demonstrate their effectiveness should be fired. Central Falls R.I and New York City serve as examples of dramatically different approaches, which in both cases shortchange students.

The media have given wide coverage to Central Falls High School, where the school board recently cleaned house by firing the entire staff. In one fell swoop, those deemed responsible for the failures of the school are gone.

New York City, however, has not been as "successful" in dispatching the alleged villains. Despite Mayor Michael Bloomberg's establishment of the Teacher Performance Unit, which consists of eight full-time lawyers and eight retired administrators working with a budget of $1 million, sub-par teachers are housed for protracted periods in what is euphemistically called the Temporary Reassignment Center (The Rubber Room, The New Yorker, Aug. 31, 2009).

Neither strategy is defensible because each represents the extreme opposite of dealing with the existence of bad teachers. Certainly, students deserve highly qualified teachers. But at the same time, teachers deserve due process. And don't think for a second that the best teachers are immune to baseless charges. Principals can give exemplary teachers unsatisfactory evaluations for reasons that are personal, rather than professional (A Bully on the Wrong Side of the Principal's Desk, New York Times, Dec. 21, 2005).

However, due process cannot go on for years. The task is to develop a system that identifies struggling teachers, provides them with support to improve, and then removes them from the classroom if they do not do so within a reasonable period of time. The overwhelming majority of teachers would welcome this kind of intervention because they realize that it is in their best interest.

Instead, reformers want blood. That's why they urge punitive measures. They justify their position by citing policies in the world of business, where they maintain employment at will is standard. This assertion is not based entirely on fact. But that's the subject of a future post.

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