Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Fire all the Bad Teachers . . . And then What?

Good news: the most consistently thoughtful education blog (Bridging Differences) is back in business. Diane Ravitch leads off with a piece on the new reform efforts in education and how Democrats seem to be adopting the ideas of Republicans. Although it's only tangentially related, it reminded me of a question I wanted to ask.

A lot has been written about Michelle Rhee's plan to give teacher's huge raises in exchange for getting rid of tenure -- I assume that she's planning on firing a lot of teachers, otherwise I don't see the point of the plan. But here's my question: who's going to replace the fired teachers?

I don't know the situation in D.C. well enough, so it might be the case that the D.C. Teaching Fellows and other efforts can recruit enough teachers to replace whoever gets fired in this plan, but more generally speaking I always hesitate to believe that simply firing all the bad teachers will solve our problems. Beyond the fact that it's harder to identify "bad" teachers than we might want to believe, we often forget to ask whether there are better teachers waiting in the wings.

As an anecdotal example, let me talk even more about my school. My school was not the worst one in the Bronx, but about a quarter of the teachers left each year. My second year we had a handful of positions that remained vacant for all or most of the year (after two chorus teachers were driven off they couldn't seem to find a third). The new principal, however, decided she needed to go after a number of teachers she didn't like in order to replace them with her people. I'm not going to say that every teacher in my school was nominated for teacher of the year, but what, exactly, is the point of firing teachers when you don't have anybody with which to replace them?


Anonymous said...

My understanding is that Rhee's program for higher pay is an opt-in contract. Teachers already in the system can choose to retain their tenure and seniority, which would keep them on the old pay schedule; or they can voluntarily give up their seniority and tenure and go on probation for a year. If they're re-hired at the end of that year, they're put on a much more generous pay schedule. If you assume that the teachers who are doing a mediocre job more or less know it, the better teachers will more or less self-select into the higher-pay program, and most of them will be rehired - so you probably won't see a massive and immediate loss of teachers. But the teachers who opt for job security and lower pay will eventually retire or move to another career, and they'll be replaced by new teachers who are hired under the lower-security, higher-pay contract. This way, the "bad teachers" are eliminated by attrition, rather than all at once.

Corey Bunje Bower said...

I see two reasons to believe it won't work that way:

1.) From an administrative point of view, what reason could one possibly have for eliminating tenure other than to make it easier to fire teachers?

2.) Teacher attrition is highest in the first few year -- before people have tenure. Therefore, I see no compelling reason to believe that tenured teachers that don't opt-in will systematically leave the system. They've made it through the rockiest years, been awarded tenure, and can now start building up a pension.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to know more about Rhee's proposal. Once tenure is eliminated (assuming it will be for many teachers), will the school then be held to a "for cause" basis for firings, or will firing be "at will" - like in private corporations?

In my understanding, public sector jobs (like teaching) tend to have more protections than private sector jobs.

My concern is that if principals can fire "at will" (e.g., for any reason other than a legally discriminitory one), this gives principals a lot of power to play favorites, and to make teachers bend to their will.

Roger Sweeny said...

The idea, of course, is that you do want teachers to bend to the principals' wills. But that assumes that the principals know what to make the teachers do.

Anonymous said...

Roger: I didn't mean that principals shouldn't be able to have basic administrative powers in their schools. What I meant was that principals should not be able to use their power to punish teachers for things unrelated to their quality as teachers.

That's the beauty of "for cause" - the teacher would have to be shown to be a bad teacher to be fired - not because the principal disagreed with their political views, or wants them to work after school as a lacrosse coach.

Nancy Flanagan said...

You make an excellent point here: promising teacher candidates (especially in shortage areas like math, science and special education) aren't exactly thick on the ground in high-needs areas.

I have seen researchers lobbying for expensive value-added achievement data systems in states, claiming that by having access to such precise "effectiveness" data will allow districts to lop off the bottom quintile of teachers. My question is the same as yours: who will replace these teachers--and will they get lopped off in the next cycle?

Perhaps we should focus on improving and retaining the teachers who have already been hired and demonstrated a commitment to working in a challenging district.

Great post.