Willingham takes a look at the issue of dismissing low-performing teachers and urges teachers’ unions to take a firmer hand. He notes that natural tendency to focus on the negative outliers at the expense of the positive stories hurts the unions in the court of public opinion.
True enough, but there are a two problems with his analysis. First, right now the teachers’ unions are in a purgatory of their own creation. They don’t want to use data to evaluate teachers and they don’t want to use managerial discretion. I guess that leaves the Magic 8-Ball? In practice, a combination of data and managerial discretion is how most professional fields operate and the most promising avenue for education. But the unions structural inability (they are not designed to lead on issues like this but to protect) to embrace really meaningful reform here leaves them unable to truly propose breakthrough ideas. The most far-reaching idea they have, peer review, is a great start and helps address the problem of observably bad teachers but does not get the field anywhere near where it needs to be in terms of performance-oriented management and growth of human capital. The numbers in the places where it has been tried speak to that. This gets at the larger tension between industrial-style unionization and how to organize a profession. Forward looking teachers’ union leaders are trying to sort that out.
Second, he states that,
“The issue of firing teachers has been poorly framed. It’s usually described as an issue of getting poor teachers out of the classroom in order to improve overall quality of instruction. That’s important, of course. But how big a difference is this really going to make to American education as a whole? If you had a perfect diagnostic to evaluate teachers, how many would you dismiss tomorrow? One percent? As many as three percent? If you had a perfect diagnostic and dismissed incompetent teachers the students in their classrooms (and their colleagues down the hall) would be glad. But the impact on the overall national quality of instruction would be minimal. Such dismissals could, however, make a dramatic difference in the public’s perception of the profession.”
I’m not sure what Dan’s basing this on? That figure would certainly vary by locale. But teachers themselves and school administrators in lower-performing school districts say it’s higher, in many cases substantially so. One has to be wary of the downstream effects of any teacher policies in terms of impact on recruitment and so forth, but if schools were to address some significant percentage of low-performing teachers, say 5, 10, or even 15 percent, the impact on student learning could be quite powerful – especially if schools and the work of teachers was organized differently and more professionally. The field has always taken a quantity approach to teachers rather than a quality approach. The evidence on class size reduction, teacher effects, and other alleged predictors of performance suggest that this approach may be profoundly misguided.
I’m not arguing here for some mass termination policy, only that we shouldn’t casually dismiss the potential impact of such an approach. Getting highly ineffective teachers out from in front of kids is no small thing in terms of outcomes.
In related news, Charlotte, N.C. says performance will matter in any layoffs.