Pay the Best Teachers and Fire the Worst, Ctd

by Conor Friedersdorf

In so many ways, I am sympathetic to the American teacher. I tend to think that he or she is underpaid, expected to accomplish unrealistic progress in the classroom, forced to take unfair abuse from some parents, judged according to the flawed metric of test scores, and given insufficient administrative support.

But I just can't get past the issue of compensation and job security. Experience in other industries and many conversations with teachers in beats I've covered persuade me that pay primarily based on seniority and masters degrees doesn't attract the best canidates to the profession or motivate the folks there to excel as well as a different system would. And I know of no enterprise that wouldn't see the quality of its output drop if its administrators, however imperfect, lost the basic authority to fire unerperforming members of their staff without a protracted administrative battle. Some readers disagree, and others suggest I'm only partly right. (One reader below suggests evaluations are important, but should be done by teacher peers.)

As always, Dish feedback is a pleasure to read, even amid disagreement. Here are some folks pushing back against my viewpoint. A basic complaint:

What makes you think principals are capable of evaluating teacher performance?  Current teacher evaluation programs in public schools are a joke and have been for decades.  I’ll admit that job protections in teachers’ union contracts may be a root cause of this, because so little is at stake in evaluations that nobody has much incentive to take them seriously.  That said, public school principals as a group have little experience in effective teacher evaluation and many are
not prepared for the responsibility.

Note: this is not a secret in the educational community.  It’s why so many of the Race To The Top grants, not to mention enormous investments by the Gates Foundation and others, are directed toward evaluation methods.

A reader writes:

I retired last May after teaching 29 years.  A mistake people outside public education make is assuming that administrators know good teaching because they rose from the ranks.  They didn't become administrators because they were good teachers.  They went to school and got an administration certificate in order to make more money and/or get out of the classroom.  In hiring new teachers they are typically interestted in finding people who can coach (I'm talking high school here), who won't bother them with discipline problems, and won't cause too many angry parents to call and complain.  Its the teachers who know who's good in the classroom and who's a joke or

A few years ago the Denver public schools, with the help of the NEA affiliated teacher's union, came up with a teacher evaluation program that uses teachers as observers/mentors/evaluators rather than administrators. Its been a great success.  Teachers being evaluated by people who know how to teach, imagine that!  Think it'll ever catch on?

Says another:

There's a myth that somehow teachers are finished products at all times--they are either good or bad--rather than professionals who need to develop and improve in their field much like other professionals.  Here's a fact--Education programs in our universities are abysmal, with a few notable exceptions.  Teachers do not have the structured professional development that they need, especially in terms of the time and guidance to accomplish professional development. The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) is really taking off at the university level, and what I see in that scholarship is precisely what K - 12 teachers should regularly be involved with and participating in.  Sometimes the solution isn't firing bad teachers; the solution is training good teachers.  Ah, but then there's money that needs to be spent, and who wants to allocate tax dollars for those lazy, good-for-nothing teachers?

One solution or idea: you hear a lot about year-round schooling for students, but why not for the teachers?  Make the school year 9 months for students, but 12 months for teachers, with the summers being a time dedicated to structured professional development.  Sure, this is what a lot of dedicated teachers do in the summer months anyway, when they're not working other jobs, but it's time to make SoTL work, in some form, a regular part of a teacher's life and profession.  Professional development seems like a no brainer, but sadly, there is not much time for it under current working conditions, especially in our high schools.

And to hammer home the point:

I must warn you that you're only looking at one part of the equation. Arguably the biggest problem in schools and one that's getting scant attention from policymakers or school reformers is the abysmal standard of management in many school districts, or even within districts at specific schools.  There is a chronic national shortage of superintendents and principals, leading to a situation in which school districts hire each other's cast-offs at ever increasing salaries.  Management training in education is often little more than a pseudo-pedagogical credential for extracting pay increases under formulaic contracts based on college credit rather than performance.

Personality-based conflicts and vindictiveness and retribution abound in K-12 education administration today.  Talk to almost any teacher and you will constantly hear horror stories about administrators who are beyond even Scott Adams' ability to satire.  It's no wonder that even teachers who were good to start with will sometimes turn into unpleasant little trolls in this environment. Show me a good school or school district and I can almost guarantee that it's one where good principals and superintendents have been present in a stable arrangement for a long time.

This reader points out the complicity of principals in the current system:

I agree that bad teachers should be fired and it is often hard, but not impossible, to do this.  But the folks who are working toward that end have not taken your advice.  Policy folks seem to want ever more complex statistical tools, using test score data, to rate quality.  The LA Times story about value added analysis is the best example.  The issue of principals is thorny.  Yes, they should be given more ability to work with the staff of their school.  But even the strictest of teacher contracts allow for probationary periods for new teachers--those are the moments when principals can and should figure out which teachers need more training and which teachers may want to find another line of work.  If someone has been in a system for 10 years and obviously shouldn't be a teacher, there is probably a principal, not a union official, who can shoulder some of the blame.

And here's a powerful objection:

The best teachers are almost always rewarded for being so good, but not with salaries. They teach in the best schools to the best students. That's the main sorting mechanism for quality in public education. The best teachers don't compete with one another for better salaries. They compete to teach the most eager and capable minds, and for the social status that goes with teaching them: the students are grateful, and so are their parents.

This, of course, is why bad schools suck. Not only are the students "disadvantaged," but most of the best teachers leave. You can fire all the teachers in a lousy school, but if the students are impossible to motivate and resist teaching, if their parents don't give a damn whether their kids achieve or not (or credit the teacher when they do) it won't matter how much money you pay the teachers. Their students will be sitting in front of a burnout in no time.

I don't understand why so many economists don't get this. Do professional economists teach college because the money's so good? No. If you do find a teacher that is highly skilled and willing to throw his skills and talents away on year after year of students and parents who can't or won't appreciate his work, shoot him. He's no teacher. Can you imagine that any artist who was true to himself would do it?