Monday, August 31, 2009

Sunday Commentary: Why getting rid of bad teachers probably isn't as hard as you think

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.


June said...

Very nice post Corey. For the most part, I follow your argument, and I was one of those who were astounded and angry (at teachers) in the New Yorker article.

The only part I questioned in your post was when you write:

"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?"

Actually, this is at the crux of all of this debate. The fact that teachers get tenure with little to no effort (just putting in the requisite time) is a big issue for me. An in fact, the tenure rules play a big role in making the system difficult to let bad teachers go. I agree with you that bad teachers can become good teachers, and I believe that trend would be beneficial for all... but the current outcry deals with the fact that bad teachers who continue to be bad teachers (and don't want to leave their stable well-paying jobs) cannot be let go without years of wasting tax payer money on litigation and arbitration.

You are right that the problem lies somewhere in the middle. There are tremendous numbers of good, hard-working, well-meaning teachers. However, there is still a significant minority of bad teachers who don't care... and really, it only takes one to ruin a child's life. what makes me angry is that the unions protect the bad apples, instead of strengthening their case by maintaining an extremely strong workforce.

kerri said...

okay, so if it's not so hard to fire teachers, then why doesn't it happen more often?

"The Washington-based Center for Union Facts says that from 1995 to 2005, 112 Los Angeles tenured teachers faced termination — 11 per year — out of 43,000. It also said 47 New Jersey teachers out of 100,000 were fired in a 10-year period."

i think you've got a good point about the paucity of the alternatives, it's not as though there are tons of qualified people waiting to take on teaching positions, esp. in high-needs schools. but i did teach around some positively useless people who were costing NYC hundreds of thousands of dollars because of how long they'd been "teaching" -- and that is not okay.

Corey Bunje Bower said...

June: What I'm arguing is that when teachers get tenure without earning it we should be asking principals why they deemed the teacher worthy in addition to asking whether union rules are too protective. A principal giving an unsuccessful teacher a free pass isn't evidence that teachers are impossible to fire -- it's evidence that principals aren't trying hard enough to do so.

Kerri: I never said that teachers weren't hard to fire. Re-read the italicized part before my argument begins. And there's an important distinction between firing a teacher and getting rid of a teacher. It's much, much harder to get a teacher fired than to get them out of your school. But I'd argue that the latter is what matters more (as long as they don't take a job somewhere else and harm kids there).

kerri said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
kerri said...

so you're arguing that principals don't actually want to get rid of bad teachers, not that it's too hard (in reality or perception) for them to do?

RDT said...

I think one of the challenges for principals is that their jobs involve so much more than being managers and evaluators.

Most large employers have well defined steps for getting rid of problem employees. The challenge is that documenting bad teaching is somewhat time consuming, and unless a principal is pretty sure they can hire someone better, they may feel their time is better spent in other ways.

But do we really want principals to be able to fire teachers without some documentation of what the problems are?

Corey Bunje Bower said...

I never said it wasn't too hard. I said that it's not as hard as many would have us think.

Part of that is because principals might think as many teachers are bad as we might imagine, part is because there are other ways for teachers to leave a school than being fired, and part is because principals often don't try that hard to weed out the worst teachers.

Even in the outlier stories cited by the New Yorker, those teachers are no longer in their schools.

June said...

Corey, I definitely agree with your argument that principles should play a more active role in weeding out the bad teachers.

However, there are also few incentives for principles to put their necks on the line (this is just my opinion, and I'd love any principles out there to educate me).

What does a principle get for giving a teacher a bad recommendation? Perhaps the teacher gets put in the rubber room and then the principle has years of arbitration cases to look forward to.

The other problem is, perhaps a small but significant minority of teachers do just fine in the first three years of teaching, and play nice until they get tenure. But then afterwards, the principle has no power to remove a tenured teacher.

My position is, we definitely need to safeguard teachers from possible abuses of power (i.e. the principle that just doesn't get along with someone and wants them out)... but I'm sure these horror stories are few, relative to most daily working life. Remember, our urban schools NEED teachers, not to kick them out. We want teachers to be good and stay put.

On the flip side, we also need to give administrators flexibility to weed out the really really bad teachers. Unfortunately tenure and other restrictive policies inhibit that.

Thanks for the post Corey, great discussion.

Attorney DC said...

I agree with Rachel that one problem principals face is that their job involves so much more than being managers and evaluators. In most companies with 50 to 75 employees (similar to a typical school), there are middle managers or department head who can evaluate the employees and feed their evaluations to the CEO. The CEO is not responsible for personally evaluating each and every employee. They have too many other things to do!

As a former teacher, I was evaluated AT MOST two periods per year. In summer programs, I was often not observed or evaluated at all. This lack of time spent evaluating teachers is why I am not in favor of giving principals blanket authority to fire teachers (or, conversely, to evaluate them for merit pay) without due process or supporting evidence. Honestly, most principals never have a chance to really see what's going on in the classrooms - they don't have the time.

Attorney DC said...

Correction: My comment should have read "department heads" not "department head." Sorry!

Corey Bunje Bower said...

ADC: A principal doesn't have to spend a ton of time evaluating every teacher, for two main reasons:

1.) There are Asst. Principals to help. We had 3 or 4 APs in my school, who conducted 90+% of the evaluations.

2.) Tenured teachers don't need to be evaluated as frequently.

That said, the point still stands that administrators don't always have as much time to spend in the classroom as they should. But that doesn't mean we should blame teachers for not being evaluated as thoroughly as they should've been.

Alex said...

Being in a high school, most of the priority falls on the department supervisors to perform evaluations of the staff, but our principal makes it a point to perform an evaluation of all 1st year teachers by the end of September. The evaluation schedule happens to be pretty effective (at least 3 for non-tenured, at least 1 for tenured).

My beef with our evaluation process is the means by which we are evaluated. My district has 2 forms - a Likert-type and a narrative, with the choice of which form to use going to the evaluator. Unfortunately, most of the time I get the Likert-type form, which gives me zero meaningful feedback for improvement. I'm damn good at teaching, but I'm not perfect.

There's an answer (although not a truly great one) to your closing questions, that was best answered by my favorite professor (a former principal and superintendent): he said that when he was a principal, his superintendent would always ask them if they REALLY wanted to give a teacher tenure, because if they came back in 5 years with that teacher being a problem, the supt. would be unsympathetic and they'd be stuck with the bad teacher. Is this the right means of dealing with it? Not necessarily, but it's the type of scenario that should be painted and that principals should consider before granting tenure.

Sasha M. Harris said...

"there is still a significant minority of bad teachers who don't care... and really, it only takes one to ruin a child's life."

June, I don't think you're giving children any credit with a statement like that. Children everywhere manage to survive and thrive after being undereducated by "bad teachers who don't care."

Rather, the reverse is more true. It only takes one good teacher to turn a child's fortunes around.

But we live in the era of zero tolerance where one "bad apple" holds the power to bring down an entire population of student test scores and ruin the reputation of an otherwise promising school. It's not the union's job to evaluate teachers and do the job that has been designated for administrators - but that is what critics of the union are suggesting.

The simple fact is that in urban public schools even the hardest-working, best intentioned principals don't have the resources, time, or people power necessary to manage their workforce properly. Before receiving tenure I was evaluated, at most, twice on a given year - and never did the A.P. and I sit down for the required pre and post observation meetings. The point was made clear to me - there simply wasn't enough time in the day to satisfy the basic requirements of the process. But because our schools has a good reputation and attracts higher achieving students, administrators made a conscious choice to allocate their time differently - with less attention to instruction.

Today's urban school Principal is under enormous pressure to show improvements each year. They operate with a skeletal admin staff and are basically asked to perform miracles as their jobs depend on it. It's not like they can hire more admin staff with their budgets and hire fewer teachers - there's a mandated limit to how large class sizes can go.

If Duncan/Kline are intent upon finding a villain in all of this the union makes a convenient target. But I suspect that many schools are not being managed well because of how resources are allocated. Surprise surprise, schools need more teachers and more administrators!

Richard said...

I assume, Corey, that the targeted teachers who disappeared after your second year were treated to the bullying tactic of teacher removal. As a discarded teacher who was targeted for bullying for no reason, I can speak, along with several others in my building, to the concept of "getting rid" of "the deadwood" in the real world, not in academic heaven.

The variety of tactics used to make us want "to go someplace else" (a constant refrain from the superintendent, principal, and office manager) reduced our effectiveness as teachers, created severe physical and mental health issues, and increased the amount of student bullying that was observed in the school.

Drs. Blase and Blase from the University of Georgia report in their 2002 book "Breaking the Silence" that 20-25% of teachers in the US have been the target of bullying from their principal; in Sweden it is 3.5%. They call the problem of adult bullying in the schoolhouse "serious, very serious" and note that they faced a "scholarly taboo" against even studying the topic. They note also that it is NOT the underperforming teacher who is targeted, as everyone assumes, but rather the best and brightest (most threatening?) in the building. As the building union rep, at least 8 of 45 staff in our building came to me to report bullying of themselves or others. The year I left, 14 of the 45 fled the building (retired early, went to another district, returned to college, went on leave, quit, etc.) to get away from the principal and his mob who aided in the bullying. What would be the predicted effect of this turnover on student progress? Test scores went down, did not recover for four years, and have never exceeded their previous levels. An earlier blogger noted "one bad apple" teacher can delay a child's progress; by the same token, one "bad apple" principal can reduce the effectiveness of dozens of teachers and the learning of hundreds of students.

A previous blogger stated "I'm sure these horror stories are few." My experience is to the contrary; Blase and Blase have researched the topic from an academic perspective and are not speaking in a vacuum. We understand that it might be difficult for people to understand what is actually happening in the schoolhouse; it took us three years before we figured it out. When we tell people all the things done to us, they cannot believe that a principal would do such a thing. Principals, apparently, are perfect and can do no wrong. Why is that the assumption? Yes, there are many good, intelligent principals; there are some who are ineffective; but the bullying principals are out there in large numbers and cause a disproportionate amount of damage to the system.

Most teachers are so naive and trusting that they are devastated by being bullied; they have no experince with it and cannot cope with the treatment. Every so often, a bullied teacher commits suicide, not because they are weak or inferior, but because they misplace the responsibility. The target assumes something is wrong with THEM; they blame THEMSELVES for the way people are treating them.

Sure, everyone in education is under the gun; we are all trying to get better results with fewer resources. But that doesn't excuse, pardon, or mitigate driving people out of the profession by bullying for no reason. There are law firms that run seminars for principals on how to legally get rid of teachers with a minimun of paperwork. Annual change of teaching assignment, writing teachers up for minor violations, extinction, yelling, threatening your evaluation, and on and on, all tactics designed to make it "uncomfortable" for the teacher to stay there. And when you complain about it to a higher authority (as your employee manual and union contract says you should), they ignore you and say "Improve YOUR attitude and have an nice year." It is a whithering assault and often presents the same psychological symptoms of PTSD.

U.S. classrooms and service in Iraq or Afghanistan. Quite a pairing.