Teacher quality is the most important within-school factor influencing educational performance. And every school should be serious about doing what it takes to recruit, develop, and retain the best teachers possible. People complain about how difficult all three of these are, but it seems that the firing of "bad teachers" draws the most attention.
I've read countless alarmist pieces decrying the fact that only about 1-2% of teachers are rated unsatisfactory in a myriad of districts. And the recent hit job published by the New Yorker seems to have made people even more upset. A plaintive cry seems to be rising from the public: "why are bad teachers so hard to fire?!" Followed, of course, by "this must stop!!"
Well, there are actually some good reasons that teachers are hard to fire -- but that's another topic for another time. My gut feeling on this, though, is that it's not quite as hard for a principal to remove a bad teacher from a school as many seem to assume. Before I explain why, let me add that I'm not saying it's an easy thing to do but, rather, that it's not as hard as many are making it out to be. Here's why:
1.) It's not at all clear that there should be many more teachers receiving unsatisfactory ratings (in other words, that our schools are overrun with bad teachers). Only about 1% of teachers in San Francisco are rated "improvement needed," "does not meet standards," or "unsatisfactory." Yet, about 2/3 of principals report that they always or frequently assign such ratings to teachers who deserve them. And 94% "at least somewhat agree that teachers who are not performing 'up to standards' receive Improvement Needed or Unsatisfactory ratings." (p. 43 of this report).
2.) Teachers don't need to be rated unsatisfactory to leave a school or the profession. Untold teachers are simply "counseled out" (or succumb to threats) and leave without ever receiving a negative evaluation or filing a protest. My principal decided to set her sights on a few teachers she didn't like my second year. None received unsatisfactory ratings, but none were teaching at the school the following year. In short, just because 1% are being rated unsatisfactory doesn't mean that only 1% are being fired.
3.) It's not clear that principals are doing all they can to thoroughly evaluate their staff and rid their schools of teachers they don't think are helping children. Evaluations are regularly treated nonchalantly in a number of places. I had an Asst. Principal my second year who simply asked for a lesson plan from teachers so she could write up evaluations and put them in their file. I had one evaluator forget to come one day and ask me to repeat the same lesson again with the same kids the following day. She and another one sat through about 10 minutes of the lesson, but wrote up evaluations as though they'd been there for 40. I was never formally evaluated the mandatory three times per year for beginning teachers. In order to make up for the lack of evaluations my first year we received vaguely worded positive (actually, glowing) evaluations from the principal to sign off on. In the end, there were long evaluation sheets that administrators had to fill out at the end of each year rating teachers on a myriad of categories (anything you can imagine, including dress and punctuality) followed by an overall rating. Both years I received a satisfactory evaluation in every single category. I can assure you I did not deserve this.
Have some rules gone too far? Undoubtedly. Are there some teachers entrenched in positions they shouldn't be in? Of course. But there are some relatively simple and painless solutions to a lot of these problems. And it's really not worth declaring that teachers and their unions are the scourge of the Earth.
Before deciding it's the end of the world, I'd like to see some evidence that there are really that many bad teachers entrenched in their positions (and, lets forget, better teachers waiting to take their places). I'd also like to hear some calmer discussion about how to encourage teachers that aren't a good fit to go elsewhere -- and keep in mind that sometimes a "bad teacher" can become a better teacher, let's not treat them like lepers. Lastly, I'd like to see some evidence that principals are living up to their end of the bargain. I find it odd that when we hear about a bad teacher, people aren't asking the following questions: How did that teacher get tenure? Were they really good enough to earn it, or were they given a free pass by a principal who wasn't paying attention?
So please put down your pitchforks and join me in a sensible discussion of how to better ensure schools retain the best teachers they can.