Ed Note – Yesterday in a post below Eric Hanushek argued in favor of removing the lowest-performing teachers. Today, Diane Ravitch responds below. Hanushek will respond tomorrow and Ravitch again on Thursday.
By Diane Ravitch
I had the pleasure of working alongside Eric Hanushek for a decade as a member of the Koret Task Force at the Hoover Institution. During that time, we had many opportunities to discuss these issues.
Rick claims that we are not eliminating enough teachers; that if we fired the “bottom” 5-10% of teachers, our national performance would rise to the top of the world. He assumes that a “low-performing” teacher would be replaced by an average teacher, thus leading to a drastic overall improvement in student outcomes.
Nobody disagrees that there are ineffective teachers and that, if they are unable to improve, they should be removed. But let’s clear a few things up.
When Rick says “research shows” that removing the “bottom 5-10” percent would generate dramatic results, he is referring to his own calculations, not to any actual program that has ever been tried. It’s a hypothetical extrapolation, and it consists of removing teachers based solely on test scores. Rick says he doesn’t advocate for purely test-based dismissals. But the dramatic improvements he foresees are based solely on students’ test scores.
Even in a perfect world where all the assumptions of his calculation hold up, we have very little idea of what the distribution of teacher effectiveness looks like when that effectiveness is measured using an evaluation system comprised of multiple measures. Different measures, such as observations and value-added, measure different things. The “bottom 5-10 percent” on one measure are not necessarily the “bottom 5-10 percent” on another.
At best, Rick’s calculation illustrates that there are more and less effective teachers, about which there is little disagreement. But there’s a difference between trying to show that teachers differ in their abilities and saying that firing people based on a criterion that nobody supports will produce huge results in the real world.
Rick “assumes away” many of the biggest issues. He seems confident that brand new evaluation systems can identify the “worst” teachers in a manner that is accurate enough for us to fire them based on those scores. A teacher ranked “ineffective” one year might be “effective” the next year, and this might happen often enough that we end up firing many good teachers.
Rick assumes that the teachers who are fired will be replaced by “average” teachers. But that is just an assumption. They are even more likely to be replaced by teachers in their first year of teaching, inexperienced teachers who need intensive support and training. Attrition in many high-poverty schools and districts is already at a critical mass. How will these schools manage under a system of ongoing, annual layoffs?
I would like to disagree as to the larger idea that firing teachers is the key to fixing U.S. public education.
The problem, Rick believes, is that we are not firing enough teachers. The problem, as I see it, is that we are not doing enough to recruit those who are well prepared and then supporting them once they are in the classroom.
At present, we have a very inefficient means of recruiting teachers. In many states, people may become teachers with little or no preparation, and they get little support once they are in the classroom. In addition, attrition is huge. Overall, some 50 percent of new teachers are gone within five years. In poor and minority schools, the percentage leaving may be even higher than 50 percent.
Among the 50 percent who leave teaching are surely many who were fired or who realized that they weren’t good at teaching. Rick’s own research finds that the teachers who leave tend to be less effective than those who stay. But many other good teachers leave because they are discouraged by the working conditions (lack of supplies, mentors, poor leadership, physical conditions, etc.)
I think we should take steps to raise entry standards, provide strong on-the-job training and support, and improve the retention of those teachers who make it through the first three-to-five years.
It is hard to see how Rick’s proposal would improve education or the teaching profession. Why would people line up for a job that is poorly paid and under constant attack, where working conditions are often abysmal, where the teacher is often expected to buy essential supplies out of her own pocket, where pensions and healthcare are being whittled away, where class sizes are rising, where librarians and social workers are laid off, and where support is minimal or nonexistent.
Elsewhere, Rick writes that (pdf), “in the long run, it would probably be superior … to develop systems that upgrade the overall effectiveness of teachers.” He worries that efforts to improve the quality of teachers, such as mentoring and professional development, have not thus far been successful, so he prefers what he calls “deselection.” I don’t think we should give up on efforts to improve the profession.
Given the already high turnover of teachers, given the low respect that teachers today command, given the need to develop a large number of well-prepared, skilled, experienced teachers, I maintain that we should improve the recruitment, support, and retention of teachers. We should aim to build the profession, not to make it more insecure and less professional. Other nations have improved the teaching profession by strengthening it, not by annual firings. So should we.