Friday, December 4, 2009

Cincinnati Teachers: "Bad Teachers Not a Big Problem in Our Schools"

TNTP today released a report based, in part, on a survey of teachers in Cincinnati.  And I have two shocking bits of information to share with you about the report:

1.) One of the questions asked of teachers was the following:

“Are there continuing contract teachers in your school who you think should be terminated for poor instructional performance, but have not been?”

Having interacted with dozens, if not hundreds, of urban teachers over the past 5+ years I'm not sure if I can think of a single one that would say there's not a single teacher in their school who shouldn't be fired.  I think teacher quality was far from the biggest problem at my school, but I would've responded "yes" to that question in a heartbeat -- there were clearly some teachers without whom the school might have done better.  And I would think the vast majority of lawyers, nurses, social workers, accountants, etc. would say the same thing about their organizations -- there are some people that deserve to be fired.  So I expected that the number of teachers who said "yes" would be somewhere around 90%.  Maybe closer to 2/3 because of social desirability concerns.  So I was surprised when I saw the actual number . . . 34%.

The number is almost laughably low.  I find it almost completely implausible.  I can think of three explanations:

1.) Cincinnati has an awful lot of schools without many remarkably bad teachers
2.) Teachers don't like saying bad things about each other
3.) Teachers have low expectations for one another

Either way, that this number is so low merits further investigation.  Especially since only 57% of principals -- who are supposedly hamstrung by ridiculous regulations and dying to fire half their staffs -- responded affirmatively to the question.

2.) Even more shocking to me, Jamie Davies O'Leary over at Flypaper thinks that the 34% number is remarkably high.  And I simply don't understand how one can interpret the number this way.

I'd like to challenge the Flypaper staff to name a field or profession or two in which we'd expect to find that fewer than one-third of the laborers thought they had at least a colleague or two who should be fired.  The only possibility in my mind is people who work in very small offices and don't have many colleagues.

So, Cincinnati teachers either think their colleagues aren't all that bad, or aren't will to say so.  What does this mean?  Clearly, there are "bad" teachers out there -- just as there are bad policemen and bad accountants -- but maybe they aren't as prevalent as conventional wisdom seems to hold.  Or maybe teachers stick together.  There's an awful lot of evidence that teachers feel demeaned and victimized, so maybe it would make sense that they would want to protect their own.


RDT said...

Two thoughts...

One that you alluded to at the end -- teachers have to know that a survey like this is going to be used for political purposes, so they fudge.

The second is the wording of the question. It doesn't ask whether they have colleagues the school would be better off without, but whether they have colleagues who should have been fired, and I think in most work places that's a different standard.

Most offices have a person or two whom many people -- including the boss -- would be happy to see quit, but aren't quite at the level of incompetence that gets people fired.

Roger Sweeny said...

Maybe they operationalized "should be fired" as "would be replaced by someone better"--and figured the chance of getting someone who had both the skills and the emotional strength to work in the Cincinnati Public Schools simply wasn't high enough to justify the hurt of firing a colleague.

Anonymous said...

High or low, does this percentage actually mean anything? In my school, I'm betting 95 per cent of teachers think they have a colleague who should have been fired- and we're all thinking of the same individual. As a previous poster pointed out, isn't this the case in most workplaces? It certainly does nothing to prove that there is widespread teacher incompetence.

Attorney DC said...

As a former teacher, I would have probably answered "no" to that question as well - not because all the teachers in my school were perfect, but because: (1) I think, as Rachel does, that "firing" someone is pretty drastic and should only be done for very good reasons; and (2) Teachers are pretty ganged up on by the media and by administrators and, as a result, there's a strong impulse to defend teachers as a profession.

Roger also has a good point that, in many low-income schools, firing a teacher doesn't mean that you'll automatically fill the slot with someone better. In my experience, when a teacher left mid-year, the teaching spot was simply filled with substitutes or sometimes uncertified teachers. I'm also wary of the process by which a principal would determine which of the teachers would be fired; there's a lot of politics in the hiring and firing of teachers, unrelated to the teacher's actual effectiveness as an instructor.

Sasha M. Harris said...

All good points being made here.

How many times have teachers made informal evaluation of their colleagues only to revise those evaluations over time? Evaluating student performance is a far cry from evaluating teacher job performance. I'm trained and experienced in the former not the latter.

Also, with more experience in teaching comes more understanding and acceptance that different methods/practices lead to similarly successful results. I went through phase early in my career of observing all the veterans and "star" teachers in my building. I was appalled by the practices of some who the principal thought were among the best in the school and learned a great deal from others who were thought of negatively by those same administrators. In the end, were any of these teachers worthy of being fired? I didn't think so.

Knowing who should be fired or replaced is, thankfully, not in my job description. Perhaps most teachers, being the kind-hearted people we are, would rather avoid making negative evaluations all together.

Brian Rude said...

I am not surprised by the figure of 34%, but I see your point. I have not taught all my life, but I do have a year or so of experience in each of four schools and four colleges. I can think of only one teacher in that experience that I would think of as really needing to be fired. But I read a lot in the blogs about teachers that ought to be fired. So I wonder about them. On the one hand I can imagine that teachers tend to think that other teachers that disagree with them, or teach differently, must be bad teachers. That's sort of a gossip-over-the-lunch-table kind of judgment, shallow and unfocused because there are no stakes. On the other hand I can imagine teachers being deeply thoughtful and deeply concerned about the practices of some of their colleagues.

You write well, Corey, and you mention that you had very definite opinions that some of your colleagues ought to have been fired. Why don't you put together a description, at least a thousand words, preferably two or more, of a bad teacher in your experience. I wonder if your idea of a bad teacher would agree with others'.