09 March 2010

Firing Teachers? That'll Change Everything.

Newsweek's cover article argues for firing bad teachers. I'm sure that will change everything. Just like voting out all the bad politicians will change Washington.

We used to burn witches because we didn't understand disease and bad weather. Today we vote out politicians and fire people because we don't understand systems.

Are there bad teachers who should not teach? Probably. Can some of them be rescued themselves by better education about how to teach? Probably. Will more rigorously firing more teachers help? Probably not.

Keep this in mind. We have no more populous profession. How many teachers do we have in this country? 3.7 million, more even than lawyers (952,000), engineers (1.3 million), waiters (1.8 million), janitors, maids and household cleaners (3.3 million), and secretaries (3.6 million).

I am going to assume that we can't afford to pay enough to compete for the engineers or lawyers (and it is not obvious how many would have the personality and skills to deal with and manage kids anyway.) I am also going to assume that very few of the waiters and maids have the background to educate kids. So, assuming that we fire the bad half of teachers, where are we going to find nearly 2 million "good" teachers? (The Gates Foundation is researching what makes for good teachers and one thing that they can report with confidence is that current certification is no predictor of "good.")

We have an educational system. If we want a different output, we have to change the system, not the people working in the system. If you don't like the way the movie ends, you don't hire new actors: you change the script. (And I will agree that changing the system may change who gets through the system to become teachers. I don't deny that there are bad teachers. I just deny that they constitute a big enough problem to change outcomes much given how much we can now afford to pay teachers and the technology we currently use for teaching.)

And I would say that a measure of how well the system performs should begin with accurate measures. The Newsweek article suggests that the US performs about on par with Lithuania, ranking about 10th in the world. I think it would be more telling to know how first generation immigrants from Mexico or China (or Lithuania even) do on standardized tests compared to kids who are still in Mexico, China, or Lithuania. (And even this would not be apples to apples given that English as Second Language kids aren't given provision for learning a new language in most American school systems.) By that measure, I'd be willing to bet that we do pretty well.

No other country in the world brings in more immigrants from more countries. I feel confident that third and fourth-generation American kids would hold their own against kids from any country.

Does this mean that we ought not to change the educational system? I would never say that. I've argued for changing the system numerous times in this blog. (40 posts not counting this one.)

But succeeding at improving the current system would be the booby prize (and I don't mean booby in a good way). It would be like making a better turn table or horse carriage in a world of CD players and cars. If we could find a market for standardized tests, emphasizing them would make sense. We have not and they do not.

If we begin to pay some teachers $130,000 and fire others, we'll just raise the cost of an already costly educational system by increasing turnover, teacher training costs, and raise wages. Paying some teachers far more while firing others sort of reminds me of giving some kids A's and flunking others. If that kind of system gave us results that made people happy, we wouldn't be talking about firing teachers.


Lifehiker said...

I get your point, Ron. What I don't get is why the New York City school system has been unable to fire a teacher for performance reasons in 20 years.

I am fed up to my neck with public employees who get great pay and benefits (like here in NY), and also have virtually absolute job protection.

The public sector needs to become a lot more like the private sector when it comes to effectiveness and accountability.

dmorey said...

One step (of course not the only step) to improving a system is to add accountability. Even in its rough, crude form, some accountability is better than none. You are arguing in the extreme - reductio ad absurdum... Of course there are some bad teachers and some should be let go. Will this fix things? No. Will it be better if this accountability is added? Yes.

Ronda said...


Big Al said...

Definitely agree with the sentiments offered by Lifehiker and DMorey (and DMorey, if you're the person Ron has mentioned to me several times previously, neat article about you in SI. Fascinating stuff be Statistics). As a "lunch buddy" at the local elementary school where I join first a 2nd then later a 3rd grade student for lunch...boys the school has stated "need a little bit extra time with an adult male role model"...I shake my head in wonder at what I observe, namely at least two dozen students needing extra help just to eat lunch primarily because of mental difficulties. The school I visit has quite a few troubled children + the physically handicapped and I wonder how difficult it must be for teachers to not only prepare and teach students whose home life might be terribly stressful but the same teachers must also cope with a student or two who might an affliction such that they frequently interrupt class without meaning to do so.

Accountability is definitely needed, but to be fair, this year I'm witnessing teacher dedication that truly humbles me.