Monday, September 08, 2008

Hiring and Firing Teachers

I have worked with and been taught by my share of lousy teachers, ranging from the apathetic and one-dimensional to the borderline sociopaths. I would have liked to see many of these people summarily fired, and some of them should have been. Others might have been a bit less apathetic if there was more of a chance of losing their job. At the same time, much of their dysfunction is as much due to decades of lousy management as from character flaws, and new hires would likely travel the same path given an unchanged environment.

There are, I imagine, places where contracts can and should be revised (through collective bargaining) to make it easier to get rid of truly bad teachers. It is a mistake, however, to think that this is a fundamental reform that will improve student achievement on a large scale. If making it easier to fire bad teachers would make a decisive difference, wouldn't there already be a clear pattern of higher achievement (by comparable students, in otherwise similar schools) in places where teachers have less protection? Like, say, the South?

The more practical reason I think rules about firing is a red herring is that in my personal experience, politics tends to be a bigger impediment to firing problematic teachers than union rules. In particular, the horrible, sociopathic teachers often have only gotten their job in the first place because they're connected somehow. Despite the fact that I'm writing from Providence, I don't necessarily mean "connected" in the Sopranos sense, it might be the Booster Club.

Let me just give you an example. Say you're a principal at a small urban school that generally has a good reputation, and does a good job sending a sizable chunk of its minority students to the state university system, where they are succeeding as first generation college students. But, you aren't making AYP, mostly because your drop-out rate is too high, because your program is designed to emphasize achievement of standards rather than seat-time, and too many of your students take five years to graduate (but they do stick with it for an extra year and meet the same standards everyone else does).

Let's also say you've inherited a horrible, sociopathic math teacher. Not so horrible that he's bad-touching students, but not teaching them and generally fouling up any of the larger initiatives of the school community that he comes in contact with. Clearly, this person should be fired. But he's a mean, sociopathic sonofabitch with connections, so you're looking not only at a union process, which you'd probably win, because you've got the documentation, but a political process involving central administration and the school board, the odds in which break down roughly as so:

  • 15% chance you lose your job, because you're on the hot seat over AYP and he's connected;
  • 30% chance of a draw, he returns, which is really a big loss for you;
  • 40% chance you get rid of him (ultimately, getting him fired isn't your problem) but upgrade to a benignly ineffective teacher, because there are no good math teachers available;
  • 15% chance you get rid of him and actually get a competent math teacher.

Maybe I'm being overly pessimistic, but is my perception of the situation more pessimistic than the principal's? Now, I'm not saying that this proves that not trying to fire the teacher is the right thing to do. What I am saying is that changing the union rules, and to a large extent the district policies, is not going to be decisive in making it easier to fire this guy, or make the odds look better to the principal.

Even under current rules in urban systems, some principals manage to step in and clean house. It isn't necessarily because they're working under a contract exemption; they've just got more juice. They're the ones that are more connected or the bigger sonofabitches.

This is a pretty bleak picture I've painted. I'm not saying "don't fire bad teachers," I'm saying "don't expect miracles." One reason charter schools, reconstitution and other startups are popular is that they give you an opportunity to wipe the slate clean of some of these politics and start over. Problem is, there is no evidence that those processes in themselves lead to higher student achievement.

In my experience (if not quantitative research) the sweet spot is site-based hiring. Principals have to have control over who works in their schools, ideally with veto power over transfers or bumping. Of course, this leaves you vulnerable to lousy principals, but there is nothing to be done about that. Trying to come up with a school system that works without competent principals is like trying to organize a navy without good captains. It just won't work. There is political pressure to hire people, but in my experience it is less brutal than pressure not to fire the wrong people.

I also think well-run teacher residency programs, where first year teachers work closely with and are monitored by mentors would do a lot to make it easier to get rid of bad new hires before they get entrenched.

Finally, the desire of new superintendents to conduct a purge of dead wood when they enter a system is understandable. From their point of view, it is a one time event for the city. From the city's point of view, every three years (give or take) they've got a new superintendent coming in to clean house. It is like explaining how rules work to a second grader. "If we let you do it, we'd have to let everyone do it." It sounds appealing as a one time thing, but as a gauntlet to be run, say, six times in a 20 year teaching career? I think I'd find a nice job in the 'burbs first.

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