Newsweek: Why We Must Fire Bad Teachers

Public schools have seen more than their share of fads. Yet it’s been easy to over look the obvious, say Evan Thomas and Pat Wingert, writing in Newsweek: “Yet in recent years researchers have discovered something that may seem obvious, but for many reasons was overlooked or denied. What really makes a difference, what matters more than the class size or the textbook, the teaching method or the technology, or even the curriculum, is the quality of the teacher” (emphasis added).

So how do public schools manage teachers? Not well. They work according to union seniority rules and the widget effect, which says that one teacher is as good as another. Generally, state policies regarding personnel policies on teachers are “broken, outdated and inflexible.” As a result, states “are complicit in keeping ineffective teachers in the classroom,” says the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ)

Kansas, and other states for that matter, would get more out of its public school dollars if it required districts to have policies along the lines suggested by the Widget Effect report and the NCTQ.

Effective policies for teachers is especially important for students from educationally-challenged families. But those children are getting a bum deal, say the Newsweek reporters: “It is also true and unfortunate that often the weakest teachers are relegated to teaching the neediest students, poor minority kids in inner-city schools. For these children, teachers can be make or break.”

What’s the problem?

But here is the rub. Although many teachers are caring and selfless, teaching in public schools has not always attracted the best and the brightest. There once was a time when teaching (along with nursing) was one of the few jobs not denied to women and minorities. But with social progress, many talented women and minorities chose other and more highly compensated fields. One recent review of the evidence by McKinsey & Co., the management consulting firm, showed that most schoolteachers are recruited from the bottom third of college-bound high-school students. (Finland takes the top 10 percent.)

At the same time, the teachers’ unions have become more and more powerful. In most states, after two or three years, teachers are given lifetime tenure. It is almost impossible to fire them.

The problem starts with laws that grant tenure far too easily and far too quickly in a teacher’s career. It extends to principals who can’t or won’t evaluate teachers, as well a culture of low expectations. Some charter schools (such as those operated by KIPP) do well, but can their success be replicated on a large scale?

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  • Dale Harper  On April 13, 2010 at 7:36 pm

    I would suggest that one of the problems is that new teachers are often assigned low performing students because tenured teachers have “earned the right” to teach the plum classes.
    Well trained administrators shoul be able to assist or weed out poor teachers with the current system of tenure.

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