Firing Bad Teachers

Over at Forbes, E.D. Kain is embarking on a new blog venture where he’ll be writing about education policy. Join me in wishing him good luck. He is also calling himself a progressive these days. I’ve followed his writing when he described himself as a conservative, an independent, and a prodigal conservative. I’m happy to continue reading him through this new iteration, though I still don’t see the point of asserting an ideological identity when it’s plain to everyone that he’s a thoughtful, intellectually honest guys who is figuring things out as best he can. There isn’t any shame in being uncertain or conflicted about what first principles to embrace or how they translate into policy – or being perfectly clear about one’s core convictions but cognizant that they don’t map onto any ideological category so banal that guys like Conn Carroll can immediately peg you.

It’s a blessing to live in Arizona, far from the Beltway, and to write about public policy as a side gig, unbeholden to the ideological constraints that make so many writers at think tanks and ideological magazines less interesting than they’d otherwise be. I’ll read Kain regardless of the ideological lens through which he’s engaging the world. But I’m rooting for him to try out the naked eye. To hell with gradually accumulating thumb prints.

Here’s the passage in his latest that I want to address:

We should get rid of bad teachers. This is just common sense in any organization, schools included. But it isn’t easy, and not just because there’s a union shielding bad teachers from getting fired. That’s a far too simplistic explanation – just like getting rid of bad teachers is a far too simplistic solution. Evaluating teacher performance is no simple task.

This is one of those statements that is true only because it’s so damned vague. Is it difficult to develop a precise metric for ranking every teacher in a school from highest performing to lowest performing in order to divide up compensation by merit? Yes, very tough indeed. In extreme circumstances, however, it is very easy to evaluate teacher performance. Say that there’s a student at your school who attempts suicide, and on his first day back, one of his teachers tells him, “Carve deeper next time – you can’t even kill yourself.” Or imagine another teacher who is caught keeping a stash of marijuana, pornography, and vials with cocaine residue on school grounds. Ponder a case where a male middle school teacher is observed lying on top of a female student in shop class. Or a special education teacher who fails to report child abuse, yells insults at children, and inadequately supervises her class. These aren’t hyperbolic examples crafted to make a theoretical point that has little bearing on the real world. These are actual examples of misbehavior by Los Angeles Unified School District teachers who weren’t fired!

In these cases, is getting rid of bad teachers “a far too simplistic solution”? I fail to see why. Let’s delve into another example from the same article.

District officials thought they had a strong case against fourth-grade teacher Shirley Loftis, including complaints and other evidence they said dated back a decade. According to their allegations before the commission, Loftis, 74, failed to give directions to students, assigned homework that wasn’t at the appropriate grade level and provided such inadequate supervision that students pulled down their pants or harmed one another by fighting or throwing things. One child allegedly broke a tooth, another was hit in the head after being pushed off a chair, a third struck by a backpack.
The commission, however, sided with Loftis. It acknowledged that she showed signs of burnout and “would often retreat from student relationship problems rather than confront them.” But it said the district did not try hard enough to help her and suggested administrators find her another job — perhaps training other teachers. “She’s obviously an intelligent lady, and such a program might well succeed.” When the district took the case to Superior Court, lost and appealed, Loftis retired. The district agreed to pay $195,000 for her attorney’s fees. Through her attorney, the former teacher declined to comment. Collins, whose first case with L.A. Unified was Loftis’, recalled being frustrated because, although the problems allegedly had gone on many years, the district was allowed to present just four years of evidence under the state education code.

Is it too much to ask that when the ultimate finder of facts determines a teacher is burnt out and inclined to retreat from problems rather than solve them she is fired? Under the current system it is! And it is that system those of us who want to make it easier to fire bad teachers seek to reform – not some hypothetical system where it isn’t exactly clear who ought to be fired because we’re still working on a very complex system of evaluation.

A bit later on, Kain writes this:

Yes, an exceptionally good or exceptionally bad teacher will make a difference for better or worse in students’ lives, but for the most part you’re going to attract a fairly average work-force into the teaching profession. Most teachers are neither exceptional or awful – they’re average, just like most workers in most fields. And I’m not sure that you’ll attract much better people even with higher salaries. People teach for a lot of reasons, but the money isn’t one of them (though, obviously, better pay wouldn’t hurt.)

Skip past the tautology in the first part of that excerpt – it’s the assertion that money isn’t a reason people teach that interests me. An extreme, counter-intuitive claim, it is contradicted by common sense and experiments like this one. Will that scale? Probably not. But it sure seems as though money attracts much better candidates, doesn’t it?

Kain’s post was prompted by an argument over this reform proposal: “It would give tenured teachers who are rated unsatisfactory by their principals a maximum of one school year to improve. If they did not, they could be fired within 100 days.” This post at The Daily Dish makes the case that even if that reform were adopted, it would still be far too difficult to fire bad teachers. Says Kain, “Andrew is falling into the trap so many pundits fall into: that simple solutions exist and if we just hold people accountable the system will fix itself. I would strongly recommend both Jim Manzi and Noah Millman on this issue, because both present sober, realistic evaluations of the limits education reformers face.” I too have a high opinion of the recent posts by Manzi and Millman. I suspect that both would agree that the ideal protocol for being allowed to fire under-performing teachers would proceed faster than one year plus 100 days.

I hope they’ll correct me if I’m wrong.