Firing Teachers … or Improving Teaching?

In Rhode Island, they fired an entire high school of teachers because of poor student test scores and a perceived unwillingness to change.  In Florida, the legislature is now moving forward with plans to eliminate job security for teachers, essentially putting them on year-to-year contracts.  Center for American Progress researchers are writing about the need to fire bad teachers if we are to improve public education.  And officials at The New Teacher Project and Education Trust are calling for an end to last hired, first fired and an collective wave bu-bye to poor teachers in California. 

And earlier this year, riding the wave of Race to the Top and the U.S. Department of Education’s four education improvement pillars, even the American Federation of Teachers got into the discussion, advocating for greater adoption of teacher performance measures (albeit at a much less high-stakes way than CAP, TNTP, or EdTrust may call for).

Teacher quality is quickly become issue (and public enemy) number one in education reform debates.  For decades now, we have said that teachers are the most important component to school success.  You couldn’t work around the teachers if you wanted to bring about real change.  One needs the buy-in from educators to adopt real reforms.  All the curriculum, technology, and turnaround plans in the world will do no good if the teachers don’t embrace them and implement them with fidelity.

So as we continue to look at stagnant test scores (at least, according to yet another round of NAEP results), it is no surprise that those looking to make real changes to how K-12 education operates — and the results it generates — are focusing on teachers as either the catalyst or the roadblock to our potential success.  Schools that improve point to teachers (both traditional veterans and the ever-popular TFAers) as a major reason for their success.  Those who continue to struggle, those who fail to meet AYP now and will fail to meet AYP’s successor tomorrow often blame it on the status quo, with a capital S and a capital Q boldly displayed on the chest of a status quo teacher.

Eduflack often says that teaching is one of the most difficult jobs out there.  It is a job I don’t believe I am capable of doing well.  And there are a number of people leading our classrooms that likely should not, whether it be for lack of knowledge or pedagogy, a failure to relate to the kids, or a missing passion or educate.

But should we really be looking to fire all of the teachers who can’t get test scores up on one, three, or even five years?  Do we terminate the contracts of all teachers whose classes can’t make AYP for two years in a row?  And what about those years when educators are simply teaching a class full of rocks in a given year, do they only go on double secret probation then?  

I agree with CAP, TNTP, EdTrust, and many others that we need to do a much better job of those teachers who are struggling in the classroom.  We need to gather data on why they are struggling, determining if it is a failure of the system, the school, or the teacher.  We need to better understand the conditions and supports necessary for effective teaching, particularly with historically disadvantaged populations.  And we need to put all of that data and observation to use for us NOW.

But rather than looking to swiftly dismiss “bad” teachers, shouldn’t we first try to improve teaching?  Use the data to partner leader and laggard teachers to improve practice across the board.  Provide improved PD and supports to struggling teachers.  Put our best teachers in the schools and classes with the most need.  Give all teachers the chance to demonstrate they have the skills, the relatability, and the passion necessary to succeed in the classroom.  And then, when those teachers have been given all of the necessary pieces and still fail to clear the bar, do we look to clear the classroom and start new.

In professional sports, we often see the negative impact a succession of new coaches can have on a team and even on star players.  It is tough to learn a new system and a new teacher again, again, and again.  Those athletes who do the best usually come from systems that have stability and longevity.  Why wouldn’t the same be true of students?  Is it better to introduce a new cast of school characters year after year, signaling that students simply aren’t making the cut, or is better do invest in the team on the field, and improve the quality of play on the field?


One thought on “Firing Teachers … or Improving Teaching?

  1. And how will they assign student progress to special education teachers? Meaning, given how the nature of special education is changing in some areas whereby special education teachers team teach with content area teacher or provide consultation, how will student progress be apportioned in those situations?

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