Friday, April 18, 2008

How Should We Get Rid of Bad Teachers?

My my last post had far too much vitriol for my liking, and I feel the need to cleanse my system with a less argumentative and more thoughtful post.

One problem in schools is that there are bad teachers who continue to harm students year after year. What do we do about these teachers? Well, fire them of course -- that's the easy answer.

Unfortunately, the solution is far from simple. Furthermore, the extent of the problem is maybe just as complex.

Let's start with the scope of the problem. How many bad teachers are there? What qualifies a teacher as "bad?" Are there more bad teachers than there are bad lawyers or accountants? Are teachers bad because they have no talent, put forth no effort, or because they attempt to harm students? I'm not sure that we have answers to any of these questions.

Assuming that there are a lot of bad teachers, the next question is why. Why are there so many bad teachers? Are the unions protecting them? Are principals failing to evaluate thoroughly? Do teachers tend to burn out? Do bad people try to be put in a position of authority? Are there no good teachers to replace them? There might be merit to theories that accompany all of these questions.

So, given that we (or at least I) don't really know how bad the problem is, how should we deal with the problem? Create better evaluation systems? Outlaw unions? Put more pressure on principals to evaluate teachers? Put more pressure on bad teachers? Give bad teachers more training? Fire them all?

I'm of the distinct opinion that there's no easy solution. That, of course, doesn't mean that we shouldn't try or should indefinitely delay action (any teacher that abuses a student, for example, should spend another second in the classroom). But I'll bet we'd be closer to an answer if people tried to answer all of these questions rather than just pushing a pet solution. In other words, it's likely that the solution is no simpler than the problem.

More questions inspired by comments: Would "bad" teachers be more effective in a different environment? When should "bad" teachers be filtered out?


Nancy Flanagan said...

This reference is probably too 1970s to be relevant to you, but this post reminds me of Gilda Radner's Roseanne Rosanadana: You aska lotta questions.

And--you make some pretty sweeping assumptions about "bad teachers who continue to harm students year after year." Teaching practice is "good" or "bad" in context. A teacher whose work is very competent in a suburban 2nd grade might be completely unable to manage in a rural, poverty-ridden middle school.

A lot of well-meaning, hard-working folks with credible training who believe they want to teach find the reality difficult or impossible. It's not a matter of talent, effort or malfeasance. Teaching is hard, complex work, when done well.

If there are more ineffective teachers, it's likely because there are millions of teachers, and the bar for entry into the profession is low. The work is sometimes billed as a kind of mission--giving back to the community, building the future, blah blah--rather than serious intellectual labor. Once again, it is interesting to compare the American perspective on recruiting and training teachers to that of other nations, which are highly selective and provide intensive on-the-job professional learning.

In my experience, in a strong-union state, most ineffective teachers remain in the classroom because the entire system find it easier to turn a blind eye (the union, principals who are unwilling to document poor practice and go public with it, and superintendents who don't want to call attention to systemic problems). Lots of people want to blame the problem of weak teaching on teachers' unions, but responsibility for not demanding quality teaching is more diffused.
The union asks for due process--it's their job. Believe me, good teachers hate teaching next door to an incompetent teacher, and good teachers know a weak sister when they see one.

You ask:
"How should we deal with the problem? Create better evaluation systems? Outlaw unions? Put more pressure on principals to evaluate teachers? Put more pressure on bad teachers? Give bad teachers more training? Fire them all?"

We might start by being more specific about what effective, quality teaching looks like. We might demand more stringent admission, and we might do something about flabby teacher preparation and lousy pre-service field experiences. We might spend the money on quality induction programs (which work--see data on the New Teacher Center's work) which will come back to us later in not having to continuously recruit and hire. We might start paying teachers more for excellence or for filling hard-to-staff positions with particular subject matter or context-related expertise (like paying teachers with demonstrated skill and desire to work in high-needs schools more).

And we might stop saying things like "Assuming that there are a lot of bad teachers..."

Corey Bunje Bower said...

I think you're over-interpreting what I wrote. The point is simply that the situation is far too complex for their to be easy answers. I'm not sure that any one of the questions has an easy answer, yet alone all of them.

The point of saying "assuming that there are a lot of bad teachers" is to say that if the answer to the above question is that the number of bad teachers is really a problem, then we'd need to answer the questions below. I'll put the "are" in italics to make that more clear.

That said, you've inspired me to ask even more questions -- I'll add them to the post.

Anonymous said...

A couple of thoughts...

Is there any evidence that there are more bad teachers in areas with strong unions than in areas with weak unions? Even if unions protect a few bad teachers, the higher salaries and improved working conditions that unionization tends to bring may help attract (and keep) good teachers.

And getting to more basic questions, it seems to me that before we can talk about getting rid of bad teachers, there needs to be more discussion of 1) how one identifies bad teachers, and 2) which aspects of bad teaching can be remedied, and which can't.

Without that discussion -- and at least a concept of how a school or district could come to agreement on the answers to those questions -- it seems to me that the "getting rid of bad teachers" discussion will continue to go around in not very enlightening circles.

Corey Bunje Bower said...

I was wondering the same thing about states/districts with and without unions.

I think I covered those two questions in my list.

Nancy Flanagan said...

It wasn't my intent to be belligerent or hostile. There certainly are incompetent teachers who should leave the classroom immediately and go into, say, real estate or something.

My response probably comes from my experience as a doctoral student in Ed Policy (in another nationally recognized program) where coursework and discussions come from that perspective: how can we fix education by getting rid of bad teachers? Whose fault is it?

From a policy standpoint, I would suggest that the required number of teachers would, alone, behoove us to think in terms of friendly policy--capacity building, incentive-offering programs--rather than mandates and punishments. There are well-meaning teachers whose substandard work could be improved. There are burnt-out teachers who might be rejuvenated. None of this will happen if our response to poor teaching is threats or humiliation. I know this from 30+ years in the classroom.

There is talent and spirit, but there's also training, support and mentoring, and you have to have them all to build an effective practice.

Corey Bunje Bower said...

Nancy, I'm not suggesting that you were belligerent or hostile. Indeed, if I'd said what you thought I said then you'd have every right to be. I'm suggesting that I didn't say what you thought I said. I wasn't trying to suggest that bad teachers are the downfall of society, I was trying to show how complex the situation is. In retrospect, I probably should have changed "get rid of" to "deal with" in the title to make that more clear.

I, too, have found that teachers are on the receiving end of an awful lot of blame and disdain in policy circles and I wonder how productive this really is. Thanks for reading and taking the time to write back.

Nancy Flanagan said...

Corey--I did link my blog on Teacher in a Strange Land back to this post, in the first sentence.

And--as I noted there--I do admire your questioning approach here.

My sympathies--empathy, more precisely--on the Ed Econ final. Been there.


Corey Bunje Bower said...

No, I meant you should have left a link on here.

Like this:

And that was just a quiz. The final is Saturday. You'll understand if my ramblings make no sense until that's over with.