That’s the headline from Saturday’s front page WaPo story and it pretty much says it all about where we are as a field. But, there is more to it than that both in D.C. and in general.
First on the firing issue overall, my take is that everyone is right, and everyone is wrong. The teachers’ unions are right that if you follow the rules you can fire a low-performing teacher. But, what they don’t tell you is that it’s often hard as hell to follow all the rules, by design, especially when you have to fight every step of the way, and sometimes the process can be a deterrence to even trying unless you want to spend all your time in hearings or in court. The teachers’ unions don’t get enough credit for the subtle ways they do sometimes counsel lousy (or worse) teachers out but they also minimize the larger systemic issues here (see for instance this report on Chicago, even in the worst schools, everyone is great!).
Where the teachers’ union critics are wrong is in the major assumption underlying all this that, if only if they were empowered to act more quickly and decisively, school leaders would be dealing with low-performing teachers right and left. That might help with some of the issues mentioned above, but this assumption ignores the role of culture, education just isn’t an industry that is highly talent sensitive right now. And besides, at least as much as most people, your average school principal will avoid hard decisions and uncomfortable situations. It’s why you have to create systems and norms to encourage and support that sort of decision-making. It’s actually an interesting dilemma in a field like education because the kind of person you want in a room full of 3rd-graders is often not the kind you want making tough HR decisions that are in the best interest of the overall organizational mission, and the reverse is true as well.
But, when you look across the states, factors other than the nature of the process itself, say whether it is 90 days to dismiss a teacher rather than 180, seem to have more to do with dismissals than the regulations. Also, when you dig into it, this whole firing issue quickly exposes the underbelly of education’s systemic human capital problem. In this case, often across schools and rarely across entire systems are there high quality, externally validated, and uniform ways of evaluating teachers. The unions are not all wrong when they say that some of this ends up being arbitrary. That doesn’t mean that low-performers shouldn’t be moved out, they should, considering what we know about the impact of ineffective teachers on student learning that’s a big deal, only that it’s important to be cognizant of the nature of the system today — and consequently fair about how this is done. By way of background, it is worth noting that in some cities, for instance Washington, DC and New York City the labor market is changing (pdf).
In the case of D.C., this debate is actually larger than whether Michelle Rhee will be able to fire some people from the central office and some low-performing teachers. It’s a proxy for how hard she (and Mayor Fenty) will push on the schools. If they lose this one it’s an enormous setback and the wait them out game will start in earnest. If they win, they might not have to fire so many people anyway because it will be a clear signal that business as usual is over. For Rhee, a lot riding on this. Insert your own metaphor here.
Update: I think that Sherman Dorn reads too much into the last line of the last graf here. His post is interesting, and I’m glad he wrote it. But all I meant is that there is a lot riding on the resolution of the political fight here or insert your own metaphor like “all the chips are in the middle of the table” or “this is for the ballgame” etc…