Posted by Adam @ 4:36 pm on February 26th 2007

Hiring and Firing Teachers

There’s a very interesting post at Chad Orzel’s blog on the subject of firing incompetent teachers or, more precisely, commenting on the difficulties in so doing, and why in Chad’s opinion it’s not something to be greatly worried about. I made a long comment and a short comment there, nearly all of which I’ll reproduce here (because, godamnit, I wrote it, I should put it on my own blog). Education being my main hobbyhorse, I was not very brief. Rojas will doubtless have opinions on my opinions as well as on the general issue.

My first point should be a disclaimer; I have not taught highschool in the US. I have taught highschool in the UK. Unless the US has a significantly higher standard of teachers than does the UK (of which I have seen no particular evidence) then I would say that incompetent teachers are a problem here, contra Chad’s assertion. Even if they weren’t, of course, there would be nothing lost by it being possible to fire them, but I am inclined to think that they are, although admittedly only one problem amongst relatively many. Perhaps the biggest problem of all relates to useless parents and is largely outside of government control (and let’s hope that the government continues to accept that).

I was a teacher myself (of physics mostly, although I taught maths, chemistry, biology and some other stuff as well; of those, maths was my favourite) and my experience was that the best AND the worst teachers were all 20+ years in. It was a matter, in my opinion, of experience making the best teachers the best, and a lack of continuing interest making the worst teachers worst (particularly a refusal to accept anyone else’s opinion because, you know, they know it all).

That it is hard to document teaching incompetence is certainly true; it’s not hard for a fellow teacher to work it out over a few weeks, but that’s an ‘I know it when I see it’ sort of thing that’s not going to produce a lot by way of legal objectivity. There is some merit to looking at ‘value added’ statistics if a suitable assessment regiment is in place, but you have to average it over a lot of classes. Furthermore, and here is the rub, you introduce a bureacracy and paper trail, the feeding of which takes teacher time away from activities more directly related to doing the job of teaching. Thus, the majority of (perfectly adequate) teachers get extra work in order to help create the information that will be used to take care of the bad teachers. It may be, of course, that the existing assessment framework is perfectly usable for identifying bad teachers, but that’s not a given. It may be that the extra effort is worth it. It’s a non-trivial problem in itself, however.

The reason why, in my opinion, incompetent teachers are a problem is that you don’t need very many incompetent teachers to affect potentially large numbers of students. A given teacher teaches quite a lot of kids over, say, a five year period; even a year of poor teaching makes a big difference not just to student achievement but also to student interest (which is probably the key factor). That’s just anecdotal, of course; a further and more limited anecdote I would add is that when I was a Head of Department, I found that an incompetent teacher creates all kinds of problems. Which kids do you inflict that teacher on? Parents work it out pretty quickly, too; how do you fancy explaining that to them? Parents are, in many ways, the real ‘customers’ and they are quite rightly not inclined to see the ‘big picture’; their focus is, appropriately, on their own kids.

As a (former) teacher myself, I have no interest in there being any protection for incompetent, or lazy or disaffected teachers, because they do material damage to the education of their students. Like most people, my main concern is that a framework for judging competence isn’t then used to remove adequate, but expensive, older teachers. Bad teachers, though, are poison, and in my experience they were mostly of the experience that would see them well into tenure in the US system; most were not bad teachers in the past but had become disaffected, or had new demands on their time, or failed to adapt to changes, whatever. If it was easier to fire those teachers, a lot of them wouldn’t have gotten that bad in the first place, because whatever their faults, they didn’t want to get fired from the job (and in the UK, there is no ‘tenure’; it’s just harder to fire people and, in particular, to fire teachers. Nothing like the solidity of the US tenure system, though).

I hate bad teachers. What little I know of the US system suggests that there are enough of them here, too. Being a great teacher is something special and most teachers aren’t that, but being ‘not bad’ isn’t brain surgery, it just takes work, ability to adapt and a willingness to take on advice. There’s no excuse for being a bad teacher. If the majority experience of Americans from a variety of schools is that they don’t really pose a problem here, then fair enough; what little I know suggests otherwise, but in that, I confess a paucity of information.

I agree entirely with Chad that there a heap of other problems, many of which might well be more pressing (and even harder to solve). It looks to me as if the US public school education system, overall, may have the distinction of being the only one in the West that’s worse than the crumbling UK state education system; these things are, of course, hard to measure (further complicated by the breadth of the US highschool system curriculum compared to, say, the UK system where specialisation starts at age 16).

My preferred solution would be no tenure and no payscale, although of the two, I am more bothered about abolishing the payscale. School districts would pay what they had to in order to attract teachers with the right set of skills, and the necessary facility in their execution; teachers wouldn’t be priced out of the market for their experience, because the teachers that you can get cheap are cheap because they aren’t in great demand. This, though, won’t make poor school districts any better unless they have the funds that they require. As I have said before, I think that education has to be a conservative priority and that’s inevitably going to cost money. Only this way, though, can we be honest to ourselves when we look to save money by reducing social welfare bills by cutting aid to people that, we claim, have brought their current straits upon themselves.

A further point relates to teaching unions. Many teachers in the UK join them merely for the legal insurance, but I think beyond that it’s a net positive benefit to have them there. However, there has to be competition amongst unions for members and also a freedom not to belong to any union at all. I have heard, again anecdotally (from friends of mine who are teachers in different states) that sometimes there is not a great deal of practical choice not to be in a teacher’s union at all, that there is at best considerable pressure to join. That, I don’t like any more than I like places that refuse to recognise unions.

Even as an evil capitalist pigdog conservative myself, I like unions; if employees can organise themselves, they can negotiate with the employers, which can allow for minimising the government bigfooting it into employee-employer relations by passing populist across-the-board laws that ignore context. The ‘union closed shop’, though, where you have to be in the union to work there, that’s just plain wrong. Unions should compete amongst each other for members based on how good a service they provide, and one of those competing options should be the “don’t join a union at all” option. I also have no problems with unions that are freely joined donating money to political causes or parties, if corporations and other organisations are allowed to (and they are, at least until McCain bans money in politics altogether). If you don’t like it, don’t join.


  1. I’ve recently become enamoured of voucher systems.

    Comment by tessellated — 2/26/2007 @ 4:54 pm

  2. If you’re going to give vouchers to people with kids, give me at least some of my schooltax back for not having kids at all. Otherwise, I know that public school systems can work, I’ve taught in them myself, let’s get the economies of scale working to our advantage.

    In the UK, private schools provide a better education than state schools, but they cost at least twice as much, and often 4-5 times as much, per student (and many pay teachers more, for less days of work). I have no idea how American schools run so badly that in some places that it is cheaper, or at least comparable, to send kids to private school. That’s a real problem, to my mind.

    Comment by Adam — 2/26/2007 @ 5:17 pm

  3. I’ll confine myself to the issue of wretched teachers and to the specific points discussed.

    First: it is really, really difficult for any one person to offer an assessment of how many teachers are incompetent based on anecdotal evidence. The bureaucratic dynamics of many districts are such that a lot of really bad teachers end up being warehoused in the same building, and in general, the students whose education is ruined don’t end up posting on blogs. I think it is sufficient to say that we’ve now heard from a couple of individuals who presumably came up in reasonably good schools, and even they can speak in terms of a double-digit percentage of real idiots on the faculty. That’s too many.

    Adam has spoken of several ways in which bad teachers drag the whole community down with them. This is quite true, just as it is true that a good teacher carries a lot of the load for people who are only average. There is an ugly dynamic about any system in which the most competent people end up dragging a batch of free riders behind them at equal pay. It results in the loss of a lot of those competent people. Bad teachers do damage far beyond their numbers, and the existence of other problems within the educational system is no reason not to fix this problem as well.

    Should teachers’ wages be increased? Well, yes, absolutely they should, but unless you’re talking about a HUGE increase, you’re not going to be pulling many highly skilled people out of other professions. I don’t know of any doctors or lawyers for whom an extra $2k a year is going to
    be the decisive factor in jumping into education. If you want better teachers (or if you want to replace bad ones), it has to be a lot easier to enter the profession from outside–and at present, the main barrier is five semesters’ worth of professional education coursework. Some of which is helpful to a new teacher (though pretty much never so much so as to be the difference between a competent and incompetent teacher), and some of which is decidedly not.

    Yes, vouchers are a good idea. ANY system that presumes to improve teacher quality is going to have to enable the creation of classrooms in which being a teacher is an endurable experience.

    Comment by Rojas — 2/26/2007 @ 6:01 pm

  4. Five semesters is bizarrely long. After my bachelors I did one year teacher-training and the most useful thing I learnt from those instructors was how to write on the blackboard in straight lines (the trick is to articulate at the shoulder). The useful element of it was teaching a 50% timetable in a real school with someone to look at my plans and sit near enough to ensure that I didn’t screw up horribly, then give me feedback.

    Comment by Adam — 2/26/2007 @ 6:09 pm

  5. Five semesters is useful if you want to limit the number of people competing for jobs in the sector to people who are–well, willing to put in two and a half years of their time being full-time students. And willing to accept a degree of ideological indoctrination in the process.

    Not a lot of doubt whose interests are served by that.

    I did go through the system myself; I am proud to teach at a school at which not everybody did. Indeed, some of our BEST teachers didn’t.

    Comment by Rojas — 2/26/2007 @ 6:13 pm

  6. Also, when I am talking about payrises, I am talking about big payrises. 50-100% sort of big payrises, if needed to get good teachers for particular subjects. If you can get good PE teachers for 50% below current wages, do that, too.

    This really is my most Leftward political position, for sure.

    Comment by Adam — 2/26/2007 @ 6:14 pm

  7. Adam, I don’t see where your point about getting tax dollars back for not having kids follows from my comment. Maybe we are thinking of different things? All I am suggesting is that the money already spent per pupil be tied directly to that pupil rather than a given school district. This way the money follows the students. A school that attracts more students attracts more funding. I don’t see how changing the method of dollar assignation suddenly gives non-parents the right to opt out of their tax burden. If it does, why not just make that very same arguement today?

    Comment by tessellated — 2/26/2007 @ 6:23 pm

  8. I don’t have a problem with abolishing school districts altogether and letting public schools compete for pupils (more like the situation in parts of the UK).

    However, it’s my money that is being spent per-pupil. I don’t want it going to private schools, for example, so I’m against the sorts of voucher systems that give money to private schools. The more general system where you can take it to different public schools and that school gets paid for having you there, that’s pretty much what I’m used to as a school system (although it’s not universal across the UK).

    Comment by Adam — 2/26/2007 @ 6:27 pm

  9. Right, I see the distinction. For clarification then, I am merely talking about restructuring how publicly-funded schools receive those funds. So yes, private schools would be exempt. I know from a 20/20 peice that this is how things work in Belgium. I think as things stand now, the value of a private institution is that it is subject to market forces that the public schools aren’t. Were we to introduce the market to public schools I would expect that gap to close.

    Comment by tessellated — 2/26/2007 @ 6:34 pm

  10. The difference between those schools and private schools (apart from no one making a profit as is the case with some private schools) is that they are run by governors elected to fixed terms (normally 2 teacher-governors, 3 parent-governors, then some local luminaries and the headteacher sits but may not be able to vote; the LEA also appoints governors, which I would prefer not to happen as I’d prefer to see the LEA’s role much reduced) who have delineated legal powers and responsibilities and, in extraordinary cases, the government can impose ‘special measures’ (which would be more relevant in an area where there mightn’t be enough capacity) in the short term. That can involve closer monitoring or even appointing an interim headteacher who specialises in turning schools around. Not a big deal in an urban environment where a bad school could just wither and die under normal competition, though. The governors aren’t paid for this, though.

    Comment by Adam — 2/26/2007 @ 6:50 pm

  11. Funny, you remarked that this issue brings out your leftmost political position and for me it has the opposite effect.

    Comment by tessellated — 2/26/2007 @ 7:18 pm

  12. My evil conservatism depends on being able to say that people after government handouts normally get that way through their own failings. It seems to me that access to a decent education is necessary for that to reliably be the case.

    Comment by Adam — 2/26/2007 @ 7:22 pm

  13. The failure of American public education is sufficiently severe to turn anybody’s ideology on its head.

    Not that there’s anything wrong with the education system or anything. If you ask the professional bureaucracy, they’ll tell you we do as well as any country, when you compensate for their cherry-picking of students and what-not.

    Comment by Rojas — 2/26/2007 @ 7:28 pm

  14. You don’t get into the professional bureacracy club unless you can justify your crap results at the drop of a hat based on ten different spurious reasons.

    In the UK, the government point to improved exam grades every year as evidence of educational improvement. I don’t think that, actually, anyone believes it. It’s like telling your horrific date that you’ll call, I guess; you have to say it, but no one ever means it.

    Comment by Adam — 2/26/2007 @ 7:36 pm

  15. I think the state of public education is mortifying. I also think that it is the single most important public service a government can furnish its populace to secure their collective future. It seems obvious to me (and no doubt to you) that for the long-term well being of a society nothing else rivals the importance of a properly educated electorate. I’ll go further and add (me, being a commie faggot leftist who doesn’t particularly have nationalistic tendencies) that we owe it to the world at large to produce a society of bright, educated individuals who have the tools to solve the problems all of us will face. I’m willing to do what works to accomplish that, regardless of ideology.

    Comment by tessellated — 2/26/2007 @ 9:01 pm

  16. By the way, I can’t remember if it was on this blog or elsewhere that I was linked to this 20/20 report that has me thinking about this subject:

    Comment by tessellated — 2/26/2007 @ 9:09 pm

  17. My being ‘left’ on education mostly means that I think that the state (government at some level) should pay for it through taxation revenues.

    Comment by Adam — 2/26/2007 @ 9:53 pm

  18. Chad Orzel has another thread, related to the one I already linked:

    Comment by Adam — 2/27/2007 @ 10:22 pm

  19. […] making some comments on a couple of posts at Chad Orzel’s blog, one of which I linked to earlier. To reiterate my position somewhat: I support the existence of unions, because it can help […]

    Pingback by The Crossed Pond » Unions after their pound of Democrat flesh — 3/1/2007 @ 7:21 pm

  20. […] have mentioned most of this before, including my opposition to tenure for schoolteachers (although I am more concerned about the pay […]

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