Not Protecting Bad Teachers.

By Editor B; used under a Creative Commons License.

A few weeks ago, Randi Weingarten, the head of the American Federation of Teachers, made big news when she said the powerful teachers union would make room for dismissals of ineffective teachers — a common sense tactic that she and teachers unions had long opposed. (To see how tragicomic their stridence on that position could get, you should really holler at Steve Brill’s bananas New Yorker article from last summer on NYC’s “rubber rooms,” holding pens where teachers who are deemed unsuitable for the classroom are sent for years and years at full-pay because firing tenured teachers — even objectively terrible ones  —  is so expensive and difficult that it is virtually impossible.)

In 2004, Chicago and its teachers union entered into a new contract that changed the rules governing teacher dismissals. Principals were given discretion in firing new teachers who were still in their probationary periods. And unsurprisingly, teacher performance dramatically improved.

Results suggest that the policy reduced annual teacher absences by roughly 10 percent and reduced the prevalence of teachers with 15 or more annual absences by 20 percent. The effects were strongest among teachers in elementary schools and in low-achieving, predominantly African-American high schools, and among teachers with highpredicted absences. There is also evidence that the impact of the policy increased substantially after its first year.

I’m still making my through this paper, so I’m not sure yet if better performance by Chicago’s teachers resulted in better performing students. But as we’ve blogged before, good teachers are a huge part of the equation in fostering higher student achievement. If we want better students, we need better teachers, and part of doing that is not blindly granting tenure to those who are terrible at their jobs.



Gene "G.D." Demby is the founder and editor of PostBourgie. In his day job, he blogs and reports on race and ethnicity for NPR's Code Switch team.
  • Agreed, but there’s a caveat. One major reason why teachers’ unions are really reluctant to support the “fire bad teachers” idea is that everyone and their dog thinks that they know what “good teaching” is–so what do you do if you get pressure from parents to fire the teacher who has the kids analyze music lyrics instead of Shakespeare, or the teacher who’s a tough grader, or who talks openly about sexuality?

    Not to mention the potential for legislative pressure. Dunno if you saw Roger Ebert’s recent post on the same topic, but he was making much the same argument, using test scores as the main measure of which teachers are succeeding. Which, GAH–you can have a teacher who teaches to the test and boosts scores 10%, say, vs. one who really gets the kids to *talk about* and *analyze* literature but then on the test the kids don’t follow the (dull, conventional) rubric that the graders are looking for, so the scores are okay but not great. And then what if there’s pressure from someone to fire that “bad” teacher? If you have a principal who’s willing to look at what’s happening in the classroom, and gets what the teacher’s doing, and most importantly has the backbone and credibility to successfully back her teachers, great; but if not, you end up with decent test scores but seriously mediocre rote learning.

  • R.A.B.

    Think about it: there are lots of terrible tenured teachers, but there are also lots of terrible TFAers. It makes sense for unions to interpret “fire the bad teachers and replace them with good teachers” as “fire the bad teachers and replace them with cheap teachers,” because that is, to effect, what many reformer voices suggest as accountability.

    But also, yeah, there are major problems with developing fair and encompassing standards of teacher assessment.

    • Dear god yes. I keep meaning to write about my experience as a (cheap) adjunct, but the short version is that I was really bad at my job–and I’m actually a good teacher; I’ve won awards. But the conditions of cheap teaching, which are all predicated on the idea that there’s some magic formula that’ll be more efficient than lots of individualized attention and the time/freedom to think of how to engage the kids, really really make for terrible rote teaching, which leads to burnout incredibly fast (I mean, who likes feeling that they’re doing a crappy job?). It’s a really vicious cycle.

  • R.A.B.

    Funny enough, one of the things that I most appreciated of that New Yorker piece and of much of the Michelle Rhee/DC Council news coverage from a few months back was that it captured the reality that, yeah, some teachers suck and are in denial about that fact, but in many instances no one ever really bothers to justify firings to the teachers individually, or to anyone.

    • quadmoniker

      That’s probably true, but I do feel like teachers bang that drum a lot. Developing fair and encompassing standards of assessment is hard for any employer at any job, but they do it. Surely there’s a way to assess teachers that might be short of perfect but is better than the irrational fickleness teachers fear from teachers. I feel that comes from an old problem, a tension between teachers and principals rooted in sexism that doesn’t entirely exist in the same widespread way anymore.

      • Absolutely. The problem is that teachers *themselves* (and other educators, like principals and local district administrators) are almost never allowed to figure out those criteria. There is a lot of research about how to teach effectively. And most of it is ignored, if not completely undermined, by legislators.

  • RtG

    This American Life did a piece on rubber rooms about a year ago. Apparently there’s a documentary coming out about it, too. Scary stuff.

  • RtG

  • Anonima

    bitchphd–you’re on point.

    I’m a former teacher. Moment of transparency: Was I a good teacher? Not really. I busted my ass trying, but in the end I found it difficult to manage behavior and deal with certain unrealistic expectations (like expecting a kid who cannot read to learn oddball literary terms…hello…the kid cannot read!). I feel guilty over it,and wonder if I could have done this or that or tried harder…but ultimately, being a teacher became too toxic for me and I had to go before I really broke down.

    With that said…I have problems with the “good teacher” drum pounding. Mainly…where are you going to find them? I came into teaching optimistically. i left…optimistic for other opportunities. it didn’t work out for me…but when you have half of new teachers leaving w/in 5 years and seasoned teachers retiring…you have a problem few people are talking about.

    Kids will come in and say “what does this have to do with the real world?” and sometimes “I don’t want to read.” Part of the problem, imo, is curriculum based. I swear synecdoche was part of my state’s curriculum for English. Literature terms have their place…but I think HS students need to work on reading, writing, and thinking more than anything. The reading thing–a lot of kids live in homes where their parents don’t read…and I believe this is across racial and class lines. If the only place you’re asked to read is in the classroom (and we all know everyone reads everything that they’re assigned), then you’re definitely going to get kids who lack that fundamental skill…which is the key to pretty much any core class you might take and a just plain life skill. But you can’t force parents to take their kids to the library or change their own reading habits (and some parents can’t really do that because of time, access, and their own literacy problems) So…teachers.

    Schools will try and find a way to pass kids, which helps their prospects after graduation somewhat, but gives them little incentive to work. You’ve got kids graduating with 1.5 GPAs–before you look at just their academic courses. That kid can go to community college, and I would encourage her to do so, but at a 1.5 or less, are they really prepared to succeed?We have not figured out, on a large scale, an effective way to keep kids in and make sure they have a quality education. Test scores do not really = quality. You can train a kid to test well-SAT prep, anyone? And if you try to teach everything that they could come across on the test, you lose out on a lot of valuable instruction. In my state, English tests are pretty much multiple choice except for the writing test. So writing falls by the wayside. And then you may have district-mandated pre and post “assessments” (read: tests) that are supposed to evaluate students progression, but they are often fraught with problems, previously untested, and multiple choice.

    And I’m not sure that we, as Americans, really value education as much as we think. I know in my state, the dropout rate hasn’t really changed in at least 20 years. What HAS changed are the jobs you can get w/o a high school diploma or w/ a GED.

    • R.A.B.

      I got into an argument with this VA state senator back when I was a senior in high school. He was talking about how state standardized testing is obviously a boon because it boosts SAT scores. I was like, So you’re telling me that standardized testing ad nauseum makes kids better at standardized testing? smh.

    • quadmoniker

      It’s really not about defining good teaching though, it’s about defining bad teaching. Principals can deal with teachers who are just alright. It’s the bad ones who stick around and gum up the works.

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