"D.C. Schools Chief Wants Power to Fire Ineffective Teachers"

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…

5 Replies to “"D.C. Schools Chief Wants Power to Fire Ineffective Teachers"”

  1. And of course principals know that if they do succeed in ejecting the low performers, there’s not a line of excellent and experienced teachers forming around the block to take their place; they’re just as likely to end up with some fresh new form of incompetence, as opposed to the one they’ve already worked around for years, or else yet another eager white twenty-two-year-old in high heels who jumps every time the bell rings.

  2. Maybe this is my historian background talking here, but I want a handle on specifics in DC. A 90-day process for removing long-term teachers seems fairly short, and whatever changes Rhee wants for the teachers (I don’t know enough about the administrative side) doesn’t seem like it would affect the issues you’re mentioning, Andy.

    More broadly, there’s another issue here: teachers’ confronting coworkers and principals’ confronting teachers is a skill, and it’s not an easy one. Where is the professional development for principals not only in instructional and legal issues but in the thorny area of helping teachers either improve or leave?

  3. We want principals specifically to buy into “All kids can learn to high levels, and while we know that despite our best efforts some won’t get there, we should just push push push them to change and improve.”

    Meanwhile, we want those same people to say “Look, with teachers, we give them a few chances, but if they persist in sucking, then their cost to kids is too high, and we need to fire them — not ‘coach’ them forever with no progress.”

    So 4 variations on this 2 belief set.

    Top LEFT quadrant. Kipp. So called “Bad kids” get almost infinite chances; “bad teachers” get few.

    Bottom left quadrant: Typical school. “Bad kids” get almost infinite chances; “bad teachers” get almost infinite chances.

    Bottom right quadrant: Tough elite public school like Boston Latin. “Bad kids” get few chances; “bad teachers” get almost infinite chances.

    Top right quadrant: Some private schools where “Bad kids” get few chances; “bad teachers” get few chances.

    * * *

    But giving leaders autonomy assumes GOOD LEADERS. Which the teachers union and others correctly point out — often a bad assumption.

    So 4 quadrants here, too.

    Top Left: Competent leader (good judgment at least), lax with teachers.

    Top right: Competent leader, holds teachers accountable.

    Bottom left: Crappy leader, lax with teachers.

    Bottom right: Crappy leader, holds teachers accountable on whether they kiss his ass or not — thereby getting rid of the wrong teachers!

    This last quadrant definitely exists.

    This comment is way too long.

  4. Interesting post, interesting story.

    But the “labor pool” argument in the Calder link really misses the point, which affects then the ideas in this post.

    It’s pretty simplistic and unrealistic to assume that if “better” people decided to be teachers, things would get better. Isn’t there a big piece here in the education of teachers that should be addressed? What if all the struggling teacher were given high-quality teacher education? Would student outcomes improve? We can’t say because we don’t do that at the moment.

    Suppose all the students in medical school, or architecture school, or law school were tossed into the job market tomorrow and told to start practicing. Would you expect that these “better” people would do a good job? Of course not. What makes them competent professionals is not necessarily the resources they bring to their professional training, but the knowledge of professional practice they gain while in school.

    Given the great demand for teachers, the idea that we can somehow improve the labor pool seems like a long shot at best. How about we do a better job preparing the teachers we have? What if policymakers turned their attention to improving teacher education?

  5. I hate to say this, but I strongly suspect that if you took, say, the student bodies of the top ten medical and law schools in this country, and you persuaded them all to start teaching tomorrow, well —

    They’d be a lot worse than teachers with passion and wit and experience and knowledge.

    But they’d be a lot better than a lot of people.

    Plus, you can bet they’d read up pretty fast.

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