Why Fire Teachers?

ED Kain has been blogging a lot about teacher firings, and makes what I think is one of the better cases for the tenure/civil service/union protections from firing that teachers now enjoy.

Teachers need protection from over-zealous bosses and ideological politicians. This is the same thinking behind seniority rules, which protect more expensive teachers (i.e. veterans) from being laid off due to budget cuts. Teaching is not a high-paying job compared to jobs in the private sector, and one of the benefits is some job security. Occasionally this means bad teachers take longer to fire.

But the answer to that problem is not making all teachers easier to fire. This would undermine teacher recruitment. If you take away pensions, job security, tenure, the ability to unionize, and basically all the other perks of teaching, what you're left with is a very difficult job with no job security, mediocre benefits, and relatively low pay. This is not how you attract good people to a profession, or how you guarantee a good education experience for your children. Paying starting teachers more but making their long-term prospects in the career less certain is also wrong-headed. High turnover is not desirable for any business, teaching included.

Naturally, I'm going to be the mean person who steps in and argues in favor of firing teachers, even though I think that this will make teachers worse off in some important ways.

Let me start by saying that I think there are some jobs that are too important to let any consideration intrude other than the best way to get the job done.  Nuclear power plants, firefighters, poison control--I don't want to let other social goals, no matter how laudable, hamper their mission.

Teaching is one of those jobs. I just can't prioritize making teachers' work environments fair, interesting, or pleasant for them--not if there's any potential conflict with the goal of providing the best possible education for kids.  Particularly disadvantaged kids, since I basically assume that educated and competent parents are going to ensure that their offspring are educated and competent.  But where there are needy kids, my entire focus is on them.  I want to make teachers' lives pleasant only insofar as this advances the goal of helping kids who need a lot of help.

So for me, the only important question is whether making it easier to fire teachers will make it easier, or harder, to educate kids.  Here are my basic assumptions:

  • Teacher quality matters
  • Elementary and middle schools are more important than high school: they lay the foundational skills kids will need to succeed
  • Experience matters most in elementary school--but least in poorer schools
  • Teacher experience doesn't measurably improve performance after about five years
  • Compensation matters--yes, even if teachers "don't go into it for the money".  A program that is structured to "compensate" people by giving them good early retirement benefits and making them difficult to fire attracts a different group of people than a system that compensates people with cash.
  • It is possible to identify very bad teachers, harder to identify mediocre ones; even if you think testing works, it only gives you reliable teacher data over a period of years.
  • Every problem of institutional design represents a tradeoff between Type I and Type II errors
  • Educational credentials have no measurable impact on teacher quality
Focusing on the kids doesn't mean that there are no good arguments against teacher tenure.  I can think of a few; no doubt my readers will chime in with others:

  • Making teachers easier to fire will magnify the effect of bad principals
  • If we make it easier to fire teachers, we'll have to pay them more; if taxpayers resist, as they might, we'll end up with lower average teacher quality
  • Some of the firings will be arbitrary: the result of a string of bad luck, an unreasonable but powerful parent, or some other factor.  That means losing some good teachers.
  • Layoffs will target expensive teachers, leaving inexperienced neophytes who aren't good for the kids
  • More employment security will lead people to invest in making their teaching better, since they won't worry that their investment will become obsolete
These are the good reasons that schools are currently structured to minimize turnover--not just with tenure/civil service protections, but with seniority rules that punish teachers for switching districts (or even schools), and pensions that reward time-in-service-at-a-particular-place.

Contra E. D. Kain, however, I don't think that all organizations should strive to minimize turnover.  Why do fast food restaurants have turnover rates in excess of 100%, when they could lower them substantially by paying higher wages?  Answer: because in a dirty, stultifying job like fast food service, it costs a lot in wages to reduce turnover a little, and people won't pay enough for a hamburger to justify those wages. 

"Hamburgers!" I hear you cry, "Are you really comparing our kids to hamburgers?"

Why, no, not exactly, but let me spell it out: I doubt that the lowest possible turnover rate is compatible with the best possible education.  Turnover has costs, but it also has benefits: fresh blood, lower burnout rates, and an incentive for teachers to keep performing.  The whole idea of hiring someone in their early twenties and employing them forever seems like an unhealthy organizational structure to me--in the military and old-school law firms as well as teaching, though the military and law firms do more to weed out the number along the way.  It breeds an organization that is insular--resistant to new ideas, suspicious of outsiders, resentful of its nominal clients.  We should be looking for ways to make teaching more open to part-timers and people in second, third, or eighth career cycles, and to make it easier for teachers to move around between schools and districts, and between teaching and other industries.

So what are the benefits of making teachers easier to fire?

  • We get rid of the worst teachers--the ones who now take years to fire.  The kids they're teaching would be better off with an utter neophyte.  As Noah Millman points out in the post I linked above, very bad teachers are not just a problem for their class; the effect spills over to other classrooms when those kids go from period to period, or year to year, degrading the effectiveness of the school as a whole. 
  • We end the temptation for long-time teachers to phone it in: teach the same lesson plans over and over, give essentially the same tests, etc. Yes, there are many dedicated teachers who keep putting in 110% for decades, but it is ludicrous to suggest that this describes every single teacher in America. 
  • We shift the selection pool from people who are more interested in decades-long job security to people who are more interested in money.  Not everyone who is interested in job security wants to be able to coast--but people who want to be able to coast are likely to be very attracted to job security.  Universities mitigate this effect by making it so spectacularly hard to get to the point of being a tenured professor.  Primary schools don't have that option.
  • We end up with fewer burned-out teachers still in the classroom.  If we make teaching the high-intensity, high reward job it should always be, then we're going to get people burning out.
  • We give teachers an incentive to do what works the best, rather than what is most satisfying for them.  I warn you that if you are about to suggest that this never happens, I am going to ask you if you have ever met any human beings, and if so, whether you actually spoke to them. As Ian Ayres points out, boring-but-effective systems like direct instruction have been blocked for years by teachers because it reduces their autonomy.  I grant that teachers convince themselves that they are doing this for the children. Journalists also convince themselves that they have a special right not to have their emails read the way they do to everyone else . . . and I assure you, they genuinely believe that this is a principled moral stand.
  • People will not invest so much in educational credentials, which are completely useless outside of schools. Since these credentials show zero impact on teacher quality, it would be better for the teachers to be studying literally anything else, including a reality television show from the couch.  At least they'd get something out of that.
  • Laying off older, more expensive teachers is not good for those teachers . . . but it is good for the schools.  It means you can achieve necessary budget cuts by laying off the fewest teachers.
Obviously, unlike Mr. Kain, I think that the educational benefits outweigh the drawbacks.  In part this is simple contrarianism: right now, it is very hard to fire teachers, and many schools are very bad.  It's worth trying whatever we're not doing.  

But I also recognize that this is no panacea.  At a minimum, making teachers easier to fire needs to be paired with extensive reforms: a move towards defined contribution rather than defined benefit plans (which make a mid-career job loss catastrophic); elimination of seniority and useless credentials as the primary criteria for setting pay; broadening the recruiting base by eliminating a requirement for ed degrees; and a shift towards paying teachers more, especially in math and science.  I also think it's absolutely crucial to set up some sort of Federal bonus to recruit high-performing teachers to the lowest-performing districts--a bonus sizeable enough to attract top teachers, and available only on one-year contracts.

But even if we did this, this would not turn inner city schools into Sidwell Friends.  These are marginal improvements that will make things better.  But they will not make all well in our most troubled schools.  The problems of poverty, as Kain and others have pointed out, are debilitating to learning.

So why such a laser focus on this, and other reforms that undermine teachers unions?  After all, aren't teachers unions now looking at ways to expedite the firing of the worst teachers and exploring merit pay?

I have a few answers to that.

The first is that it's hard to accept the power of the teachers unions when they've put such enormous energy into blocking any reform that doesn't directly benefit teachers unions (smaller class sizes, or universal pre-K: excellent.  Paying on merit instead of seniority: Never!).  It took decades of conservative screaming, in the face of liberals who accused them of caring only about union busting, to get one teacher's union to the point of suggesting extremely modest reforms that might allow some of the worst teachers to be fired.  This is an intolerable rate of progress.  It should not have taken Steven Brill's shocking article to shut down the rubber rooms.

The second is that many of the unions' defenders who talk about working with the unions to get the worst offenders fired, rather than dragging out the process, don't understand that the union literally cannot help a school district fire a teacher--even a teacher that everyone recognizes is absolutely terrible.  I'm sure that given their druthers, no one at either teacher's union would choose to defend elderly male teachers who kiss their unwilling students.  But unions have what's known as a duty of fair representation, and if they do not zealously defend even the very worst teachers, they are liable to be sued.  They may (eventually) help you change the process to make it faster.  But they are limited in their ability to develop a collaborative relationship with management on the actual firings.

Third, while it's absolutely true that many factors contribute to a child's learning, the only thing we can control in the schools is . . . the schools.  We've thrown money at the problems outside the schools that are easy to fix with money: a roof over the head, food on the table, shoes on the feet.  The remaining complex cluster of problems that go with poverty indisputably make kids harder to educate, but also aren't things we know how to fix so easily.  You can't say that we don't have enough superstar teachers to handle the problems of poverty in the schools--and then turn around and simply assume into existence a phalanx of highly competent, highly trained social workers who will make those problems go away before they get into the schools.

And the last is that while focusing on improving teacher incentives may not solve everything, it does help us make things a little bit better.   That's important!  Important enough to make teachers worse off in significant ways?  I think so. The teachers are adults who can go somewhere else.  The kids aren't.

There's an all-too-human instinct to discount marginal change, especially when it imposes substantial costs on groups we like, such as teachers.  But since there is very rarely a simple and cost-effective revolutionary change on the table, this biases our responses towards only ever trying things that won't cost any of the entrenched interest groups who currently benefit from the system.  It's fun to be the guy who proposes universal pre-K or smaller class sizes--the taxpayer will whine, but no one is going to scream at you for being a heartless, teacher-hating union buster.  

Unfortunately, many of these interventions won't work.  And if they fail, you'll now have yet another entrenched, expensive interest.  Those interests will block any reforms that threaten them, while of course siphoning off the funds that might be used for other experiments.

That's not to say that we shouldn't try pre-school, at least for disadvantaged kids.  But if we're going to embark on an experiment like that, we have to do so in an environment that maximizes its chances of succeeding, while making it as easy as possible to end the experiment if it fails.  That means that you have to be willing, at least occasionally, to take on the teachers' unions, and even the teachers.  Not because they're evil and you hate them, but because unless you assume, fairly unreasonably, that their interests are 100% in line with the interests of the kids, then occasionally you're going to have to choose.  And in my opinion, the education of our children is way to important to ever choose anyone else.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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