Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Ridding Schools of "Bad" Teachers

A recurring theme in education commentary is that there are too many bad teachers -- largely because teachers are too hard to fire. The latest blurb on this topic comes from the Fordham blog and cites a statistic that only 1.9% of teachers with at least three years of experience were dismissed or didn't have their contract renewed due to poor performance. The leap to connecting the bevy of bad teachers to burdensome contract rules is, thus, easy to make. Before we can draw any firm conclusions, however, we'd need the following info:

How many teachers are actually "bad" enough that they should be fired?
This is, of course, subjective -- but we have to have some ballpark figure of how many people should be fired before we can determine that not enough are

How many teachers are fired in their first three years?
Ideally, tenure should be granted only to effective teachers -- meaning that the vast majority of less effective teachers would move on in the first few years

How many "bad" teachers leave voluntarily?
Efficacy is closely related to satisfaction in teaching, and it stands to reason that less satisfied teachers would be more likely to leave

How many "bad" teachers are counseled out rather than officially sanctioned?
Just because only a small number are actually fired doesn't mean that only those teachers are leaving the profession. Beyond those who leave voluntarily, I'm willing to bet that many more people are "counseled out" than are officially fired.

How hard is it to actually dismiss a teacher?
I hear a lot of complaints, but I'd like to know if it's really impossible or if it simply takes more effort than many are willing to put forth

What percentage of "bad" pre-tenure teachers are thoroughly reviewed by their principals?
If teachers are making it through the tenure process unscathed despite being ineffective, that doesn't strike me as their fault -- part of a principal's responsibility is to evaluate teachers, particularly novice teachers

How many teachers become "bad" after being granted tenure?
If principals thoroughly review beginning teachers and allow only the best to be tenured, but these teachers then burn out and stop trying then we might want to reevaluate the idea of tenure. On the other hand, it would also be worth considering why they burn out.

In short, citing a statistic about a low number of teachers being fired fails to fully describe the situation. It doesn't tell us how many people should leave, are leaving, or why they are/are not leaving.


mazenko said...


These are excellent thoughts and questions about that all important issue of getting rid of bad teachers. Recently, a conservative neighbor of mine who is opposing a budget/bond referendum suggested that my school ought to fire 20% of the teachers. He had no specific reasons, other than that some teachers are bad teachers. I explained how shocking that assumption was considering our school ranks 250th on Newsweek's list and Pew ranks one of the 30 best high schools in the nation at preparing kids for college. Out of 20,000 high schools, I'd say the staff must be pretty effective.

The question of how hard it is to get rid of effective teachers is the one that really frustrates me. Any administration/board/district/community that wants to rid itself of bad teachers can. They should look to the new superintendent of DC schools Michelle Rhee who has fired more than one-hundred principals, cut administrative staff, and sent pink slips to 750 teachers. Or, they could look at North High School in Denver that sent pink slips to all its staff, requiring them to re-apply. This rid the school of roughly two-thirds of its staff. The school kept the teachers it wanted.

Any school district that doesn't rid itself of bad teachers simply doesn't have the will to do so.

Thanks for a great post with great questions.

Roger Sweeny said...

How hard is it to actually dismiss a teacher?
I hear a lot of complaints, but I'd like to know if it's really impossible or if it simply takes more effort than many are willing to put forth

Well, in those "many" districts, it will never happen, so practically it is impossible.

from mazenko's comment:

Any school district that doesn't rid itself of bad teachers simply doesn't have the will to do so.

Most don't have the will. And I can't say I blame them. There are only twenty-four hours in the day. Firing a tenured teacher requires documentation extending over a significant period, showing complaints against the teacher and what steps the administration took to warn the teacher and then work with him or her to solve any problems.

The firing will almost certainly be appealed by the union. Administrators will have to appear at a quasi-judicial proceeding, at which they will give testimony and present their documentation. Most don't want to go through this whole process.

ms-teacher said...

At my school site, there were quite a few years where I did my own evaluations, which was then signed by my principal. I can usually count on one hand the number of times I see my principal in my classroom in any given year. We have a clearly defined evaluation process that is not always followed by administration.

The other part of the equation is the inability of high need districts to keep teachers in the classroom. Every year, my district loses approximately 100 teachers and scrambles to fill classroom with qualified teachers. Many new teachers get experience in my district and go on to greener pastures because of the low pay, lack of support, and a host of other issues that plague us.

Some administrators really are of the opinion that it is better to have a body in the classroom than no body.

Nancy Flanagan said...

Hi Corey.

A couple of observations on getting rid of bad teachers (and, of course, there are bad teachers):

First, you have to come up with at least a few valid and reliable indicators--aggregated data that would lead to a rough definition of bad teaching. Ms-teacher mentions administrative evaluations, only some of which include anything worth measuring (the first item on my teacher evaluations was "teacher is neat and well-groomed"). Would this be a test data thing? Peer evaluation? Number of complaints?

Second, teacher effectiveness changes over time. If you could come up with a list of desirable traits and skills, many first-year teachers would be at the top of the list for the chopping block, because they're still making ineffective choices. And constantly getting rid of the newbies would lead to even less continuity and stability in developing useful pedagogy and curriculum.

Third--suppose you did lop off the bottom, say, 20%. Who would replace them? And if they were replaced by demonstrably better teachers, does that mean people who missed the cut in year one (and were still performing at the same level) would suddenly fit the "bad teacher" qualification?

And wouldn't some schools and districts that hired well and carefully mentored have almost zero bad teachers and other districts have large percentages? And wouldn't it be difficult to identify those districts--because some suburban schools are full of teachers who are coasting and some high-needs schools have done a good job of recruiting?

Guy Strickland, who wrote a book on bad teachers estimates that 5% to 15% of all teachers' work is so bad that they should be replaced. I don't know where he came up with that figure, but it feels OK to me. Let's say 10%--and 2% are already, according to Fordham, fired. And maybe some of the remaining 8% are probationary, and will be counseled out. So--that leaves 5% of the teaching force that really is incompetent. Not just uninspiring--incompetent.

Can we say that most businesses and industries have a lower rate of unsatisfactory work performance? Of course, in education, having a lousy teacher really sets student progress back. But having a lousy nurse can cost you your life.

Most of the discussion on bad teachers is politically driven, not an honest attempt to raise standards of practice. You asked some good questions in this post.

Rachel said...

A couple of thoughts...

First, how does that 1.9% compare to the dismal rate for employees with more than 3 years experience in non-unionized sectors (or even in non-union school districts)?

Second, my experience is that "counseling out" is pretty common for young teachers, and that poor evaluations have effects that don't show up in actual non-renewed contract numbers.

Attorney DC said...

I think Nancy Flanagan has a good point with regard to the difficulty of measuring teacher quality and the variation of teacher quality across time for any given teacher (e.g., a new teacher may not be "bad" per se, but may need another year to get himself firmly established).

My take of this stems from my own experience as a former teacher in a variety of school settings. In some settings, I was a very good teacher (both by my own estimation and according to the principal, students and/or parents). In at least one setting, I was a pretty poor teacher (again, by the same evaluators).

My teaching performance depended a great deal on factors out of my control: Number of subjects I was teaching at once, whether I had taught the subject previously, number of students in my classes, level of student (e.g., honors, remedial), class behavior (e.g., students' history of discipline problems), support from the administration, and many other variables.

As such, I find it difficult to truly rate a teacher as "good" or "bad" without examining the context in which he or she is teaching. As an example, in one school where I taught, I was assigned two periods each of three different subjects (history, writing and reading). Another teacher in the school was assigned only one subject, at her request (six periods of history). A third teacher (brand new to teaching) was given four different subjects (Spanish, history, writing and reading, I believe).

Needless to say, the amount of prep time we each had to devote to creating lesson plans and staying on top of our classes differed dramatically. If you were to observe teacher #2 and say: "Wow, what great, thorough lesson plans and visuals!," would you be taking into account the fact that each day she only had to develop ONE lesson plan, while teacher #3 and I had to develop four or three lesson plans, respectively?

Corey Bunje Bower said...

NF: You ask an awful lot of good questions. I didn't address those in this post b/c I limited my topic of discussion to why that statistic is of limited utility.