by Conor Friedersdorf

A reader writes:

I used to teach and this mantra( Fire bad teachers) I have heard for years as the panacea to solve all education woes. The difficulty is in identifying which teachers are the worst in an environment with thousands of demands (each student, parent, administrator...has a different opinion as to what is a good teacher!!).  I have also wondered why corporate America doesn't embrace this philosophy as well, why are there not bottom blows to companies every year to eliminate those under-performing people, surely they could benefit from the same policies!!  And how many times have you seen completely incompetent people rise to the very top of organizations!! 

I dissent.

The very worst teachers are the ones who assault students, regularly show up late, or are consistently labeled underperforming by administrators, peers, and students alike. As it stands, even these teachers cannot be easily fired. In corporate America, there are a lot of companies that fire the worst performers. Jack Welch famously ranked every employee at GE annually and fired the bottom 10 percent. It's true that empirically determining teacher performance is a thorny question. I'd answer it by giving principals wide discretion. Even if they treat a teacher unfairly, they only control a single school. There are lots of schools. (Test scores strike me as an imprudent method of evaluation.)

Almost every industry in America rates the performance of its employees in imperfect ways. Under the status quo, government employees are afforded more job security than almost anyone else. It's no wonder that managers in government face an almost impossible task when trying to improve the organizations they run. If a reform improves our public school system but results in some teachers being unfairly fired as collateral damage that is a tradeoff we should be willing to make. Right? And the other aspect of reform I suggested – paying good teachers more – ought to compensate for the decrease in job security.

Another reader writes:

It is incredible to me that he, like so many do, suggests that the only resolution to badly performing teachers is to get rid of them. Other professionals are not treated this way. Corporations spend enormous amounts on training (for all of their staff) and performance improvement programs (for under-performers), because it is more efficient than firing and hiring. If you fire and hire, you're quite likely to end up with someone just as under-performing as the person you just let go. Why is it better to do it differently for teachers, apart from the opportunity for self-righteous grand-standing against unions?

My experience of the private sector is that poor performers are fired rather than retrained. And it is uncontestable that if we look at the contract provisions that restrict principal decisionmaking, public employees are exceptional in being more difficult to fire than their private sector and non-union counterparts.

I'd say this to the readers who disagree with me. Imagine that you are hiring a babysitter to watch your children for a few hours each afternoon, or a tutor to help them with homework, or even someone to teach you guitar or French. (Beautiful language! Very useful to know if you're traveling in Africa.) I'd be right if I told you, "There isn't any way to accurately gauge the performance of a babysitter. A tutor might not have helped your kid pass their math test, but perhaps it's the fault of the child. As for your French teacher, I know she made a pass at you, but if you gave her a written warning she might not do it again."

In these examples, surely you see how burdensome restrictions about who you could hire, and whether you could fire them, would make it radically more difficult for you to settle upon the right person for the job?

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