Second Response From Diane Ravitch

Ed Note – All week Eric Hanushek and Diane Ravitch have discussed and debated the pros and cons of more assertive policies to deselect the lowest-performing teachers.  Hanushek started on Monday, Ravitch responded on Tuesday, again Hanushek on Wednesday, and here is Ravitch with the final installment today.  Many thanks to both of them for this discussion.

By Diane Ravitch

I made two arguments in my first blog. Rick seems to have misunderstood both. Let me try again.

My first point is that the dramatic benefits he promises if schools fire 5-10 percent of teachers is not based on real world evidence. It is a talking point, not a policy.

Rick is a respected economist. When he tells policymakers that firing the “bottom 5-10 percent” of teachers would boost U.S. performance to that of high-achieving nations, they believe him. They think there is actual evidence that a systematic “deselection” policy will generate massive, miracle improvements over a relatively short period of time.

But no such evidence exists.

If Rick believes that firing based on comprehensive evaluation ratings comprised of multiple measures will produce the same results as “deselecting” teachers based solely on their ability to raise test scores, he’s entitled to that opinion. But he is just speculating. And he’s probably wrong.

Rick’s calculation is based entirely on wide variation in value-added scores in math only. Most teachers do not even receive value-added scores, and nobody – including Rick – can say how even well-designed evaluations will vary, or how well they will measure teachers’ ability to promote cognitive and non-cognitive skills, both of which should be valued outcomes. Rick can’t say how widespread “deselection” policies will affect the labor supply, or morale and teamwork. He can’t say whether these annual firings will hurt poor schools that already have very high turnover. In other words, he can’t say how his hypothetical calculation will play out in the real world.

I agree with Rick that administrators should fire bad teachers. In fact, it happens all the time. Teachers are easily and routinely dismissed in their first three or four years. If there are incompetent teachers who have tenure, they should get a chance to improve, and, if they can’t or won’t improve, they should be dismissed, after a fair hearing.

But it is irresponsible for Rick to claim, without qualification, that his formula for firings will increase student performance to the level of Finland or Canada within ten years.

The second, more important point I was trying to make in my response was that “deselection” by itself is not the best course of action if our goal is to improve the quality of American education.

We can’t fire our way to excellence.

It’s not that simple.

We need to change the recruitment of teachers. Entry standards should be set much higher. Before they are hired, prospective teachers should have at least a year of study and training, in addition to their undergraduate degree in academic studies. Once teachers are in the classroom, they should get support from mentors. If new teachers had better working conditions and consistent support, there would be less turnover. Instead of focusing on “deselecting” teachers, we should concentrate instead on recruiting better qualified people into the profession and making sure that new teachers have a fair chance to improve and succeed.

We should do whatever is necessary to raise the status of the teaching profession and make it truly professional so as to stop the current revolving door policy of high attrition and turnover. A policy of “deselection” will create needless turnover among teachers who might have become great teachers had they only been given the help they needed.

Unlike university work, where scholars often work alone, teaching is a collaborative enterprise – teachers share what they know with colleagues and often work with other teachers. Morale matters. The real purpose of evaluations by supervisors and peers should be to foster improvement among teachers, not “deselect” them.

The fact that Rick supports efforts to improve and support current teachers is exactly what makes his “5-10 percent” talking point so perplexing. Rick’s simulation shows only that teachers vary widely in how they affect math scores. By itself, this is not evidence that “deselection” will produce huge results.

Rick uses this argument often and without clarification. He fails to explain that its promised benefits are hypothetical and highly unlikely to hold up in real world implementation. He has allowed himself to become associated with a simplistic, uni-dimensional approach that belies his knowledge and actual beliefs. The endless repetition of his argument has convinced some people that all we need to do is “deselect,” and we’ll be Finland in ten years. This is unlikely, to say the least.

As it happens, I just returned from a week in Finland, where I visited schools and talked to teachers, principals, and university researchers. Finland did not rise to the top of international performance in reading, mathematics, and science by “deselecting” teachers. Entry into teacher education programs is highly competitive. Teaching is a respected profession. Every teacher must have a masters’ degree. There is very little attrition, very little turnover, and certainly no “deselection” of teachers. Finland administers no standardized tests until the end of secondary schooling; it trusts its teachers’ judgments about student progress. They are professionals, after all.

Finland improved its performance by long-term, intelligent action: by a steady investment in the recruitment, support, and retention of teachers. We should do the same.

104 thoughts on “Second Response From Diane Ravitch

  1. Attorney DC

    To Public Schools: I certainly agree that the public (i.e., tax payers and parents of school children) should have input into the schools that their children attend. However, I don’t agree that the general public’s casual opinions about these matters should be held up above the information we receive from statisticians, policy analysts, teachers, principals and other people who have first hand insight into education, especially when people’s jobs are on the line.

    For example, I pay taxes, and my taxes help pay for policemen. I know a little about police work from my experience as an attorney and from general knowledge (TV, newspapers, etc.). However, I don’t think that I should be trusted to determine the appropriate evaluation procedures used in a police department to evaluate the rookie policemen, because, while I have some limited knowledge of the field (and my tax dollars contribute to the expenses of the department), I’m not a policeman.

  2. LaborLawyer

    Linda/Retired Teacher —

    You asked about whether a teacher who faced discharge based on low standardized test scores could successfully challenge the discharge by introducing non-standardized-test-score evidence showing that the students had made significant progress.

    As with most legal issues, the answer is “yes, but”.

    A critical threshhold issue would be whether the union contract and/or civil service regs precluded a teacher from challenging the evaluation and/or the discharge based on the evaluation. The presumption would be that a teacher could challenge both the evaluation and the discharge based on the evaluation; it would take fairly explicit language in the union contract or the civil service regs to waive/preclude the teacher’s rights in this regard; however, explicit language could waive/preclude the teacher’s rights.

    A second issue (if the teacher were covered by a union contract) would be whether the union was willing to take the discharge to arbitration. Most union contracts give the union, not the employee, control over the decision to go to arbitration and also provide that arbitration is the only way an employee can challenge a discharge. Therefore, if the union decided not to take the discharge to arbitration and the teacher tried to file his/her own lawsuit challenging the discharge, the school system could probably get the lawsuit dismissed without reaching the merits on the ground that the teacher’s exclusive remedy was through arbitration. (Sometimes civil service regs limit this arbitration-is-exclusive-remedy rule.)

    If neither of these issues prevents the teacher from challenging the discharge, it seems to me that the teacher should be able to introduce the type of evidence you describe at arbitration or in court to challenge the discharge. How much weight the arbitrator or the judge would give the evidence would probably depend on how persuasive the evidence was as well as how the arbitrator/judge felt generally about the issue of using standardized test scores to evaluate teachers. If I were representing the teacher, in addition to the type of evidence you describe, I would try to also introduce evidence (statistics and/or expert testimony) showing the many non-teacher-controlled variables that impact student test scores as well as other evidence impeaching the reliability of student test scores as a measure of teacher quality (i.e., how student test scores do not correlate highly with principal evaluations + how the same teacher might have high value-added scores one year and low value-added scores the next year). An arbitrator/judge would probably accept the standardized test scores as meeting the employer’s burden of proving just cause for discharge and would put the burden of proving that the standardized test scores were inaccurate/unreliable on the teacher — that is, the teacher would have to prove the scores were inaccurate/unreliable; the employer would not have to prove the scores were accurate/reliable.

    Pehaps Attorney DC has some thoughts re this question?

  3. Linda/RetiredTeacher


    Thank you for taking the time to answer me.

    Teachers are being terribly mistreated at this time and I’m hoping they’ll get relief from the courts. If I weren’t so old (70 in December), I’d go to law school just for the purpose of defending teachers. I’m glad you are in a position to do it. And AttorneyDC has the added advantage of being an experienced teacher, in sharp contrast to almost all of the “reformers.”

  4. Brian Ford

    LaborLawyer was right when he said it seems extremely unlikely that teacher quality is the main problem with our schools. ”
    Prima Facie evidence:
    “Most of our suburban schools are doing reasonably well; most of our inner-city schools are basket cases. In order to argue that improving teacher quality is the key to improving our schools, you have to argue that suburban teachers are, on average, pretty good and that inner-city teachers are, on average, basket cases.”

    But there is a further contradiction among those who say that we should recognize the economic value of good teaching, ie. that it increases lifetime earnings (See, for example, the recent Chetty study)

    The contradiction: no attempt is being made to increase overall compensation, only to REDISTRIBUTE compensation. Arne Duncan calls
    for respect for teachers and says they should be paid $130,000, but he is doing nothing to make this happen. Bill Gates and Rupert Murdoch and Mike Bloomberg want to fire 25 to 50% of the teachers, give those salaries
    to the good to great teachers who will then have larger classes. (Yeah, like the retained teachers will ever get that.)

    And we don’t have a crisis in teacher quality. Even Eric Hanushek says he quality of the average teacher is really quite good. But this seems to get lost in the noise about Finland:
    So bringing up Finland, if we could replace the bottom five to eight percent of our teachers in terms of effectiveness with just an average teacher — and an average teacher is quite good in our schools — if we could replace the bottom five to eight percent with an average teacher, our national achievement would rise to the level of Finland.(EH on Diane Rehms show)

    Not only is the average teacher ‘quite good, but in defending his position regarding active deselection, Hanushek writes, that this does not apply to “teachers en masse . . . but a small number are dreadful. . . . The typical teacher is both hard-working and effective [but] a small proportion of teachers at the bottom is dragging down our schools. . . . replace the bottom 5%-10% of teachers with an average teacher–not a superstar–we could dramatically improve student achievement.”

    Myself, I think most of those are already weeded out and I don’t think we should put in place an evaluation system that will have a chilling effect on creativity.

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