Response to Eric Hanushek

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.

59 thoughts on “Response to Eric Hanushek

  1. Attorney DC

    I agree with most of the points in Ms. Ravitch’s post. Ms. Ravitch’s concluding paragraph is particularly astute:

    “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.”

  2. john thompson

    As Dr. Ravitch explains, “Nobody disagrees that there are ineffective teachers and that, if they are unable to improve, they should be removed.”

    So much of this fight is whether that is “THE key to fixing U.S. public education” or A key to fixing public education.

    It would be helpful if Hanushek, and other data-driven reformers would clarify whether the agree that removing ineffective teachers is a problem or “the problem.” If it is not the later, then why is there such a push by reformers and the Duncan administration for the federal government to mandate the use of experiemental models based on primitive test results and algorythms that are still on development to fire teachers?

    If Hanushek would join us in protesting that simplistic and risky quick fix, he could also urge Duncan and others to back off from using not-ready-for-prime-time value-added models, at least in the hands of management alone, for high stakes decisions.

    And the gets to the bigger problems that Ravtich discussed. The bigger problems are our attrition rate, our inablity to attract and retain more teaching talent, and our failure to invest in high-quality teacher education.

    I hope that Hanushek understands that the biggest, avoidable problem with all of the above is misuse of high-stakes standardized tests that are undermining teaching and learn. As an economist, he should know that the push for evaluations based in large part on standardized test scores is already driving teaching talent out of the schools where it is harder to rauise test scores. For instance, the Tennesseean, Ed Week, and NPR have all reported on the damage done by Tennessee’s new teacher evaluation system. (As I recall, a generation ago the modal number of years of teacher experience was 15, but now it is one.)

    I would love for an economist to try to articulate a scenario where the use of test scores in evaluations does not produce an exodus of teaching talent from urban schools. I simply do not see how you can make teaching into a more attractive profession by subjecting us to arbitrary numbers-driven policies that incentivize educational malpractice. Why would a teacher commit to a career where there is a 1/4th or 1/6th or even a 45% chance of having your career damaged or destroyed simple by mathematical chance?

  3. Attorney DC

    Mr. Thompson, well said: “I would love for an economist to try to articulate a scenario where the use of test scores in evaluations does not produce an exodus of teaching talent from urban schools.”

    Very true (but apparently overlooked by the education ‘reformers’)…

  4. Stuart Buck

    “In addition, attrition is huge. Overall, some 50 percent of new teachers are gone within five years.”

    Can you produce a source for this? You always say it, but never show any evidence for it, and it seems apocryphal.

    This paper from Georgia suggests that your 50% statistic is vastly overstated (http://www.gppf.org/pub/education/OSA_retention.pdf), because most studies fail to account for 1) teachers who simply move, 2) teachers who take time off (perhaps to have children) but return to teaching later, or 3) teachers who are still working within the school system but aren’t coded as a classroom teacher. The paper also noted that even using a multiply-flawed definition of teacher retention, the 50% statistic is overstated.

    Given your wide following, it would be good to check your facts.

  5. Anthony Cody

    Mr. Buck calls in to question the severity of the retention problems in our schools. I worked for 24 years in the Oakland, California, schools, and spent the past four years working in a program designed to support and retain beginning science teachers. I can tell you from first-hand experience that at many Oakland schools we lose even more than 50% of the teachers after five years. Some of them lose 50% or more of their teachers from one year to the next! And this is typical of high poverty schools, which presumably are of the greatest priority in terms of the need to boost teacher quality.

    And the interns which are being brought in to fill the gap left by this high turnover leave even more rapidly. Three years after they begin, 75% of the interns from Teach For America and other intern programs have departed.

    Unfortunately, Dr. Hanushek has been hugely influential in the past decade, and we are seeing a great many policies focused on ranking and removing teachers, often based on student performance. We have a Department of Education which advocates closing schools and firing teachers as a means of improving outcomes, and linking pay and evaluations to test scores. As Dr. Ravitch suggests, this expands the instability in our schools, when the opposite is needed.

    This war of attrition on America’s teachers is having devastating consequences. The long-term quality of our teaching force is being degraded, and we are creating a culture of discontinuity and disruption in our most vulnerable schools. The trauma and instability poverty creates in the lives of children is reinforced by the way their schools and teachers are treated by a system that seeks to punish them for the very conditions they must confront. This is a shameful thing.

  6. Chalk Face

    As a teacher educator, one troubling trend that I see on the horizon is evaluating the effectiveness of preparation programs on the test scores of my former students’ students. And one sure sign that this is on its way is the administration of a common core curriculum. That way, if a former pre-service teacher moves from MD to, say, CA, then their progress can be tracked easily. But, alas, this says absolutely nothing of how students in different states, with different backgrounds, mediate curricula. This does not take into account any variation in implementation. Overall, it’s a really bad and unreasonable idea, for a lot of reasons that I won’t get into in a comment strand.

    What I think needs to happen, and I feel like I can say this as an education faculty member who spends his summers still teaching in a DC charter school, that some of these wonks need to walk through a school with me, arm in arm, and see if from a different perspective. I’d like Hanushek and others to sit with me and explain what they see, what have they observed that is good, what is bad? Is it acceptable for schools, for example, to hang test-based vocabulary on the bathroom walls to, you know, give students something to read while washing up? Is it acceptable for first and second graders to be preparing for a test they will not take until 3rd grade? Do we define a good education by having students as young as eight sitting in their seats from roughly 9AM to 1PM, with no break? Finally, is it acceptable that, in the interests of test preparation, to eliminate all instruction in science and social studies from January onward, and in some cases sooner? And all of these examples I’ve highlighted take place in schools that meet AYP every year.

    What is going on?

  7. Angie Jays

    I´m not sure how the system works in the US but here in the UK it´s virtually impossible to remove teachers even when it is blindingly clear that they are ineffective, poor quality and giving very little in return for their salary.
    It appears that once they are appointed they are in a job for life, or at least, as long as they want it.

  8. Ajay Srikanth

    Diane Ravitch does a decent job of pointing out the flaws in his argument, noting that identifying bad teachers is not as easy as it sounds. Based on my experiences, I would argue that being a good or bad teacher is largely a function of the environment where you work. A teacher who is not up to par (by any evaluation method) at one school may be an excellent teacher in another school. For example, I received satisfactory ratings as a high school teacher in Chicago but got an unsatisfactory during my year teaching elementary school. The age and race of the children you teach, along with your camaraderie with other teachers, support from your administration, class size, sufficient resources, adequate facilities, and motivation of children and parents all play a big role in teacher quality. Teacher quality is not constant by any means. . I do agree that bad teachers should eventually be removed, but only after sufficient intervention and determining whether they are in the best possible environment for their talents. Hanushek also vastly overstates the importance of the teacher. Teachers matter, but it isn’t like the movie Freedom Writers where the nice new teacher comes along and instantly turns everything around despite poverty and neglect. We need to have realistic expectations.

  9. Attorney DC

    Ajay: I agree with what you said. When I taught (prior to becoming a lawyer) I had similar experiences to yours, in that I was much more effective with some classes/subjects/students than with others. For me, I tended to do better teaching higher level or honors classes and tended to struggle more teaching remedial classes (which often contained students with significant behavior and emotional problems).

  10. Chalk Face

    Will the health outcomes in this country improve if we remove all the knucklehead physicians that don’t really improve health? Will we see BMI and weight decrease, rates of heart disease and diabetes decrease, if we immediately remove the bottom tier of doctors out there?

  11. Parry

    While I agree in part with the other comments that stressed the contextual nature of teacher effectiveness, I only agree to a point. Yes, some teachers who are effective in one environment might be less effective in another environment, and vice versa. But after working as an assistant principal and principal for eight years, I can say with utter conviction that there are some teachers who will not be good in any environment.

    Whether or not “some” translates into Hanushek’s 5-10%, I don’t know, but it would not surprise me if there are somewhere between 5 and 10% of current teachers who have neither the skill nor the will to be effective teachers. And while there are definitely teachers who might be rated “effective” on one rating system and “not so effective” on another, bad teachers are simply bad on any rating scale, and it does not take long to figure out if someone is truly “bad”.

    Will getting rid of those teachers transform education? My guess is that it would not, but it sure wouldn’t be a bad step. I also have a hard time with the argument that bad teachers just need the right kind of leadership, the right kind of support, the right mentors, etc. Yes, we need good leaders, good support for teachers, good mentors, and good professional development in schools, but teachers are paid with public money, and they have a responsibility to earn that money. If someone is ineffective—in other words, they are not doing their job of getting kids to learn successfully—then they should not bring home a paycheck just for showing up at school every day.

    After the students, the people who are hurt most by ineffective teachers are the effective teachers who work hard and do their jobs well. I have had the privilege of working with hundreds of highly effective teachers. They deserve to know that there are standards for performance, and that those standards mean something. And principals need the flexibility to hire—and remove—based on performance.

    Parry

  12. Stuart Buck

    Mr. Cody —

    A few points:

    Diane is talking about “overall” statistics, not from a few schools in Oakland. Moreover, she is saying that 50% or more “leave teaching,” not merely that they moved to a different school (which surely is part of what you’ve seen) or that they took time off to have kids.

    It would be interesting to see if there’s any actual evidence for this oft-repeated statistic.

  13. Anthony Cody

    Mr. Buck,
    True enough. But it is germane, is it not, to consider the turnover rates at high poverty schools? After all, one would think that these schools would be of greatest concern when considering how to raise student performance. I realize my evidence is narrow in scope, but having lived it firsthand, it seems a bit more real to me than the models and charts offered by Dr. Hanushek.

  14. Timothy D. Slekar (@slekar)

    “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.”

    Game over. Diane did not need to write anything else. Once you understand that Hanushek’s “research” has never been tested with real people in real places his entire position crumbles. Any simple statistics course would teach one that the number of assumptions Hanushek has to make so dilutes his “findings” that making any type of cause and effect statement is pointless.

    Dr. Hanushek I have a suggestion. Opt Out!

  15. Beatrice

    @Parry – Can you please share with us how you, in your role as a principal, address the issue of teachers “who will not be good in any environment”? You mention that principals need the flexibility to fire based on performance. What were/are your responsibilities and limitations to evaluate, document and make employment decisions?

    @Stuart Buck – I suspect you’re being facetious in your request for documentation. A 30 second Google search on “five year teacher attrition” yielded numerous studies backing the close to 50% at five year rate.

  16. Stuart Buck

    Yes, Beatrice, but are any of them good enough to rise above the serious objections raised by the Georgia paper I cited above?

  17. Carrie Remis

    Dr. Ravitch’s essay has a very troubling retro-90s feel. If there’s any doubt that professionalizing teaching is the answer to our achievement gap, I suggest a visit to Rochester, NY home of Adam Urbanski, the patron saint of reform unionism. In fact, I’d be happy to arrange a junket for all the wonks reading this blog.

    The utopia described by Dr. Ravitch is Rochester, except with a <40% graduation rate, an egregious achievement gap and some of the highest per pupil spending in the country.

    Beginning with the landmark 1987 Rochester contract, the union began making big promises to our community in exchange to be treated like professionals. We heartily supported the idea only to find 30 years later that we had granted almost absolute power to the teachers union in the process. Today, the union dominates every Rochester decision-making table, site-based management team, the tenure review process, even parent engagement programming.

    Some examples from the ground: Despite evidence that our children would benefit from more instructional time, every Wednesday in Rochester school is let out early for professional development, which Urbanski recently negotiated to include “paper work relief.” Meanwhile, our multi-million dollar student data system designed to use local assessments to target interventions and communicate strategies with parents is hung up because teachers refuse to use it and Urbanski is negotiating their protection in the Living Contract Committee—Rochester’s 24/7/365 collective bargaining table. Parents of SES-eligible children without transportation usually find that they have a choice of two SES providers granted access to the buildings: one of which is usually the union-run SES, known as Dial-A-Teacher, or as we like to call it, Teacher Overtime. If a parent wants to voice their concerns about any of this, they can do so in the district’s annual parent survey, which–you guessed it– the union has a contractual right to approve.

    In my experience as an education advocate and former school of ed admissions director, the culture that allows these perverse practices is why young, idealistic teachers leave the field.

  18. Tim

    Stuart, you are moving the goalposts here a bit. You asked Diane to provide links backing up the 50% figure, and while Diane herself didn’t do that, it’s clear that there are multiple credible academic and journalistic sources for the 50% citation.

    Can you explain to me how a study that focuses only on Georgia is superior to these other studies? A quick glance at the study reveals that retention is particularly high in rural Georgia. Does the study investigate a possible relationship between retention and how much access to teacher labor a district enjoys?

  19. LaborLawyer

    Assuming that poorly-performing teachers are the, or even a, major problem, we should recognize the critical distinction between the teacher who is an incompetent teacher and the teacher who is a competent but lazy teacher.

    The incompetent teacher is fairly easy to identify — a 30-minute observation by an experienced teacher should do the trick. The competent but lazy teacher is much harder to identify — such a teacher can usually ace an observation (even an unnanounced observation) by keeping some canned go-to lessons available and/or by avoiding the time-wasting laziness conduct (such as reading the newspaper while students play games) during the observation. And, if such a teacher blows an observation, the teacher can respond by improving his/her performance for a few weeks until he/she aces the next observation.

    Conversations with veteran teachers + my personal experience advising management regarding poorly-performing white-collar employees (albeit not teachers) suggest that lazy teachers are a much greater problem than incompetent teachers.

    There are not many incompetent teachers. Principals rarely hire an incompetent teacher + a diligent but incompetent teacher will often make the effort needed to improve + it is usually unpleasant to do a job incompetently so an incompetent teacher will often quit teaching of his/her own accord.

    By contrast, given that most teachers work in almost complete isolation from supervision (or even from contact with other adults) and given human nature, it is inevitable that many teachers will become lazy, at least to some extent. And, since most competent but lazy teachers will be reasonably content with his/her life, it is unlikely that he/she will suddenly become diligent or decide to quit of his/her own volition.

    Bottom line — if we want to improve our public schools by attacking the problem of poorly-performing teachers, we should focus our efforts on deterring teacher laziness, on identifying lazy teachers, and on treating lazy teaching as misconduct rather than incompetence — that is, use progressive discipline (warnings of increasing seriousness culminating in discharge) rather than the usual observation/evaluation approach to solve the lazy-teacher problem.

  20. Stuart Buck

    Tim, you say:

    “You asked Diane to provide links backing up the 50% figure, and while Diane herself didn’t do that, it’s clear that there are multiple credible academic and journalistic sources for the 50% citation.”

    If that’s true, please provide 3 such sources. Please do not do so, however, until and unless you can demonstrate that the sources are exempt from the problems I’ve already discussed several times. To quote from the Georgia study:

    “There is a large body of academic research on teacher retention—Scafidi, et al., (2007) provides a survey of this literature. Often, researchers code any move that a teacher makes as attrition. Thus, if an individual is teaching one year and is not teaching the next, then that individual is counted as having left the teaching force. However, that one measure of teacher attrition may not capture the overall pattern of the career paths of teachers. For example, some teachers may leave teaching and soon return, and some teachers may move into a non-teaching job within the public education sector. There is limited evidence on both of these possibilities.”

  21. KatieO

    At the end of the day, I do not believe, nor have I seen any convincing evidence, that teacher quality is THE issue. At best, I think it is a secondary topic that should be explored by PROFESSIONALS WHO UNDERSTAND THE FIELD. At worst, I think all this talk exacerbates and worsens the problems that high-poverty schools face.

    I went to one of the top public high schools in the country, New Trier High School on the North Shore of Chicago. I had many great teachers, some mediocre teachers, and a few truly bad teachers (I would guess about, oh, 5-10% of them). But guess what? It didn’t matter. All of our students still did absolutely TOP on tests, went on to top colleges (99.5% college bound in my class), and now lead generally successful lives. If the real problem was truly teacher quality, then New Trier kids should have been deeply affected by the few poor teachers we had. And yet we were not.

    We all know which schools fail. I later went and taught in some of them. They are in the neighborhoods that the education reformers and bilionaire boys club will not even drive through with their doors locked.

    All this talk about teacher quality is taking the focus off of the real discussions about the repercussions of 21% of our children living in poverty. I currently work as a teacher in a psychiatric hospital with students with significant mental health issues. Most of our kids are from the inner-city of Chicago and are almost all minority students. While mental health can affect anyone anywhere, it disproportionately affects people living in poverty.

    I will tell you right now, teachers cannot handle some of these kids on their own. Our multi-disciplinary staff who are trained to work with kids with significant behavioral and emotional disorders still struggle. And yet, with all the budget cuts in mental health services, teachers are forced to “make do” because there is no where else to send them after they leave the hospital.

    Teachers are being asked to do too much, with too little. This has never been OK, but in my opinion, it has gone beyond enbarrassing and petty into the realm of dangerous and immoral.

    It matters that teachers are being held “accoutable” for things outside their realm of influence. (As was mentioned above, we do not hold doctors “accountable” for preventable disease epidemics like obesity, heart disease, or Type II Diabetes. We do not expect police to reach unattainable goals like 100% crime-free streets.)

    How long will our country punish, scare, and threaten some of the only people who bother to confront America’s dirty little poverty secret?

  22. Beatrice

    @Stuart Buck “Yes, Beatrice, but are any of them good enough to rise above the serious objections raised by the Georgia paper I cited above?”

    Yes.

  23. Anthony Cody

    Mr. Buck,
    You seem intent on missing the point. If turnover is high in our low performing schools, where the need for high quality teachers is the greatest, then how does Dr. Hanushek’s solution work? It does not really matter to the schools in Oakland if some of the people who have left these schools continue to teach in some other area. The idea that we will improve these schools by firing some arbitrary percentage that Dr. Hanushek has decided are incompetent is a very silly one, and the fact that his theories are taken as gospel by some is an indication of how out of touch “reformers” are with the realities in our tougher schools.

  24. Chalk Face

    Let me give a rather concrete example of why many teachers in inner-city schools leave within five years. A former student is teaching in Baltimore City where she has a class of 40 third graders. That’s right: 40. The District, despite being awash in RtTT money, will not hire an instructional aide, let alone a new teacher. When I observed the never-ending train of students marching in lockstep down the hallway–it was so long that she could not supervise them around each corner–I wonder what other message this could possibly send other than, “We do not care about you.”

  25. Stuart Buck

    Beatrice — try to be specific; it would be at least possible for you to be believable if you could cite and discuss the methodologies of specific studies.

  26. Stuart Buck

    Mr. Cody says:

    “If turnover is high in our low performing schools, where the need for high quality teachers is the greatest, then how does Dr. Hanushek’s solution work? ”

    Well, this blog post isn’t the only thing Hanushek has ever written on the subject of teacher quality. Far from it. Elsewhere, he has said that “in order to improve the quality of the teachers available to disadvantaged students, extra financial support for teachers in schools with concentrations of disadvantaged schools is likely to be necessary.”

    Or if you read the final 5 pages of this paper citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.180.1474&rep=rep1&type=pdf , Hanushek and his co-author discuss paying 25 to 43% more for urban schoolteachers,

    They also point out, “if schools with high minority concentrations have more disciplinary problems, rigid bureaucracies, poor leadership, high student turnover, and general safety concerns, improvement in such directions may reduce teacher turnover. (And, improvement in these dimensions may simultaneously have a direct benefit for student performance). In addition, improvements in academic preparation, such as through better preschools or child care services, may well have the indirect benefit of making schools more appealing to prospective teachers.”

  27. Stuart Buck

    Mr. Cody — aside from what Hanushek has said, do you or do you not agree with the point (made by the left and the right alike) that disadvantaged urban schools often get stuck with the worst teachers? If so, what’s your solution? Should we, based on the wish that they’ll magically improve, never get rid of hopelessly bad teachers? That’s the real question here.

  28. Chalk Face

    Mr. Buck:

    In response to your quote of Hanushek’s, if my aunt had balls she’d be my uncle. Seriously. We are quickly approaching relativism; that is, teacher turnover could be improved if we could only improve, well, everything else in education anyone has ever mentioned in the history of mankind that could possibly be improved… ever. So, what’s the point? Where is the genius in Hanushek’s work, and other reformers of his ilk, if over a number of studies, he notes so many potential factors that could improve teacher quality and retention that his single solution proposed here, that of firing an arbitrary percentage of the bottom, is relatively meaningless?

  29. Christina Lordeman

    Dear Dr. Ravitch,

    Dr. Hanushek clearly said in the article that he’s not talking about “ongoing, annual layoffs.” He does not say that firing teachers is “the key to fixing U.S. public education.” He is not talking about firing all who are deemed “ineffective.” His article also does not suggest that firing the absolute worst teachers is diametrically opposed to improving recruitment, mentoring and professional development for the teaching profession. The only one who seems to be suggesting that is you. If you disagree with Dr. Hanushek, why don’t you attack what he did say and not what he didn’t say? Is it possible that you both share a similar goal of elevating the teaching profession, and that firing the absolute worst teachers (which is what he suggests) is actually a critical part of reaching that goal?

    In my two years in NYU Steinhardt’s MA program in teaching I spent quite a bit of time in a variety of classrooms in NYC. I can think of several teachers I observed who might not even be in the bottom 5-10%, but if you were to observe them in the classroom, you would doubtless agree with me that they should not be in the classroom. Working with these teachers is draining and demeaning to any educator, but especially a young, motivated one looking for a rigorous experience in pedagogy and committed to helping students succeed. These teachers slow down their colleagues and hold them back but from reaching their own highest potential as educators. Strong teachers often have to pick up the slack for weak ones, collaborative efforts are thwarted by teachers lacking in content knowledge and pedagogical skill, and many teachers wind up having to re-teach material students’ earlier teachers failed to teach.

    I’m not sure how often you visit classrooms, but it doesn’t take much searching in NYC to find teachers who are failing their students. A lot of principals and teachers will tell you exactly which ones they are, perhaps even with unanimity. Yet you should know as well I do (probably better) how difficult it is for a NYC principal to fire an ineffective teacher, and how blindly and unquestioningly UFT will defend that teacher.

    You seem to argue that maintaining these conditions is essential to elevating the teaching profession and attracting better candidates to teaching. But do you, as a successful and highly educated woman, really think that other successful, highly educated individuals really want to enter a profession where those who clearly fail in their work are protected from ever being removed? You wouldn’t want to work with some of the teachers I observed as a grad student; what makes you think a smart, motivated young person would? How can a profession ever claim prestige when excellence is never rewarded and failure is protected and defended?

    You wrote that “we should aim to build the profession, not to make it more insecure and less professional.” I have two responses to this. First, if we want to make teaching a more “professional” profession, we have to stop protecting those who demonstrate no professionalism – those who clearly lack content knowledge, pedagogical skill, and/or commitment to students’ success. Second, the teaching profession is more insecure – especially from the perspective of the young, aspiring educator – with practices like LIFO determining firing decisions rather than teachers’ performance. Pretty much everyone agrees that there are problems with our current evaluation methods, especially standardized tests. I suspect that’s why Dr. Hanushek is only suggesting firing the worst 5-10% of teachers. But as a new educator entering this unsteady field, I’d like to know that I will keep my job if I perform well. The reality is that if a school faces budget cuts (which so many are these days), I’ll only keep my job if I’m not the newest person there. That’s something beyond my control. That makes me feel insecure about my profession.

    I’ve been reading your blog for awhile and trying very hard to understand your opinion on this type of issue, but it still baffles me. We have to stop treating teaching like blue-collar labor, which means we have to stop making hiring and firing decisions with no regard for excellence. I don’t understand why you seem so hostile to this concept.

    Respectfully,
    Christina Lordeman

  30. Anthony Cody

    Mr. Buck,
    I am absolutely in favor of getting rid of teachers who are determined through a legitimate process to be incompetent or ineffective. I worked for two years as a coach in the Peer Assistance and Review program in Oakland. In that capacity I worked directly with teachers who had been identified as incompetent by the evaluation process. The majority of these teachers were, in fact, removed from the classroom as a result of this process.

    So I support an effective evaluation process. In fact, I worked with a group called Accomplished California Teachers to write a report with recommendations for a strengthened evaluation process: You can read about it here: http://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/living-in-dialogue/2010/06/a_quality_teacher_in_every_cla.html

    But Dr. Hanushek is going much farther than simply recommending that incompetent teachers be fired, which is rather self-evident. Dr. Hanushek is suggesting that this removal will result in a huge improvement in student outcomes. This is rendered rather improbable when we take into consideration the high turnover rates in many of our low performing schools.

    Dr. Hanushek’s “research” is being used to justify a whole raft of new teacher evaluation processes, many of which rely heavily on test scores to identify teachers who should be removed. Given the instability of this data, and the bad consequences associated with attaching ever-higher stakes to standardized test scores, I think this is going to do far more harm than good.

  31. Stuart Buck

    Good point from Christina. If Diane wants to make teaching more “professional,” perhaps she should consider the fact that it’s extremely unusual for professions to have anything resembling tenure. In fact, real professionals are not only subject to being fired if they screw up too much, they are often subject to lawsuits from the victims of their incompetence. Read up on malpractice lawsuits (which are hardly a secret) against lawyers and doctors. Imagine malpractice lawsuits against teachers for failing to teach a child to read or do math — that’s what being a professional would entail.

    What Diane wants, it seems, is all the benefits of being a “professional” without any of the duties or accountability. Nice work, if you can get it.

  32. Tim

    Stuart Buck wrote (seriously):

    “If that’s true, please provide 3 such sources. Please do not do so, however, until and unless you can demonstrate that the sources are exempt from the problems I’ve already discussed several times.”

    Next time, just leave out the insinuation that Ravitch is lying and go straight to your problems with the methodology of the studies that put the attrition number at or around 50%.

  33. Stuart Buck

    “But Dr. Hanushek is going much farther than simply recommending that incompetent teachers be fired, which is rather self-evident. Dr. Hanushek is suggesting that this removal will result in a huge improvement in student outcomes.”

    So what if you paid teachers in such schools 40% more but fired the bad ones? Bad idea?

  34. Stuart Buck

    Tim: so far, I haven’t been provided with any such studies. Try a bit hard to be specific, as I said to Beatrice.

  35. Chalk Face

    Stuart, TEP in NYC pays their teachers $125K and their test scores were in the toilet. They are also supposedly the cream of the crop, although that’s debatable.

  36. Tim

    NCTAF: 46% of all new teachers leave the profession within five years: http://www.nctaf.org/resources/news/press_releases/CTT.htm

    Ingersoll: “The data suggest that after just five years, between 40 and 50% of all beginning teachers have left teaching altogether. Of course, not all of this attrition results in a permanent loss of teachers . . . . But again, from the viewpoint of those managing at the school-level, temporary and permanent attrition have the same effect—in either case it results in an immediate decrease in staff, which usually must be replaced.

    http://depts.washington.edu/ctpmail/PDFs/Turnover-Ing-01-2001.pdf

  37. Stuart Buck

    Art — and by my reading of Table 4, 5% of those teachers were still working in schools, just not as “teachers.”

    So that leaves only 7.4% of teachers who had moved totally out of the school system in a two-year period.

    Hardly on track to hit 50% by 5 years . . . .

  38. alex

    Agree with the most points in the post. The problem of low-qualified teachers and professors is the most vexed problem in our education system, i think.

  39. Dave

    Debating whether or not to annually trim the bottom 10% is ludicrous. Instead of wringing our hands over firing F’s, we should focus on how to hire only A’s.

    There is no resource on this planet more valuable than a well-trained mind. Technology can expand the effectiveness of a great teacher, but cannot compensate for a mediocre teacher, much less a poor teacher. Therefore we must

    – encourage, select, and train great teachers from an early age

    – admit only the highest-caliber candidates into the teaching profession

    – make teacher compensation competitive with that of the most sought after professionals in engineering, biotech, medicine, finance, and law

    – provide teachers with technologies that free them from administrivia and increase their “reach”

    We don’t let first-year medical students perform brain surgery on our children; why allow teachers with even less education to perform surgery on their minds?

  40. Stuart Buck

    OK, Mr. Cody, you already said that you are willing to get rid of bad teachers. Is it that you don’t want to pay more to teachers in hard-to-staff schools? Why not?

  41. Attorney DC

    KatieO makes a good point when she says, “I went to one of the top public high schools in the country, New Trier High School on the North Shore of Chicago. I had many great teachers, some mediocre teachers, and a few truly bad teachers (I would guess about, oh, 5-10% of them). But guess what? It didn’t matter. All of our students still did absolutely TOP on tests, went on to top colleges (99.5% college bound in my class), and now lead generally successful lives.”

    I’m sure that many of the posters on this blog had the same experience when they attended school: Some teachers were great, some were mediocre, and a few were downright bad, yet somehow we all went on to college and to successful careers as adults.

    Pretending that a couple poor teachers over the course of a K-12 school experience will have a significant, deleterious effect on student performance is simply a convenient sound bite, put out there by people who don’t want to deal with the real problems in low-performing schools.

    These problems include poverty, student behavior/discipline, cultural attitudes toward formal education, English as a second language, learning and emotional disabilities, parental uninvolvement, uneducated parents, and MANY other problems.

    These problems will NOT be solved by conducting a witchhunt against our nation’s K-12 teachers.

  42. Stuart Buck

    Tim, I just saw your post with the links.

    First link is a press release that just happens to mention (with no support or explanation ) a statistic about teacher turnover in first 5 years.

    Second link admits that it’s being counted as attrition when teachers take time off and then return to teaching. That’s not very useful if you want to support the claim that 50% of teachers are gone forever within 5 years.

  43. Donald Kc

    Dr. Hanushek’s “research” is being used to justify a whole raft of new teacher evaluation processes, many of which rely heavily on test scores to identify teachers who should be removed. Given the instability of this data, and the bad consequences associated with attaching ever-higher stakes to standardized test scores, I think this is going to do far more harm than good.

  44. Tim

    Stuart,

    The ultimate source for the NCTAF figure is the same Ingersoll/SASS study. After skimming dozens of links, I concede that it appears the Ingersoll study is the sole ultimate source for the (many) journal articles and reports that cite a five-year attrition rate of around 50%.

    Regardless, I still don’t feel that Ravitch’s (or anyone else’s) citation of a 50% figure rises to the level of a meaningful “gotcha”. As Ingersoll notes, sure, some of the departing teachers will become admins, become teachers elsewhere, or take a break and return down the road. But at the building level, particularly in the worst schools where there is a predictable and unstoppable drain of the best teachers to better schools in the same district or better districts, what difference does a leaver’s destination matter?

    Guess who wrote the following about the NCTAF report, with its 46% five-year attrition rate prominently highlighted?

    “This report highlights one of the most pressing issues facing urban schools, namely the instability of the teacher workforce in the most disadvantaged schools. This instability leads to direct costs, as pointed out by this report, and to indirect costs in terms of high rates of new teachers teaching in the most challenging situation. We must address these problems head-on.”

  45. Stuart Buck

    Tim — if the claim is that the “worst schools” have a lot of attrition, that’s one thing, but if the claim is that 50% of all teachers everywhere leave for good within 5 years, that’s a much broader claim that requires some evidence.

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