Is Peter a better school Principle?

Scibling Chad weighs in on the discussion between Mark Kleiman and Kevin Drum among others, over whether firing teachers would improve the schools. Kevin wonders whether principals would know enough about teacher performance to know which ones to fire. Kleiman observes that “that discussion leaves out what seems to me the most important fact: For current wages and under current working conditions, there’s no ready supply of good teachers to replace those who would be fired if we made firing teachers easier.” And Chad rightly notes that:

The incompetent teacher trope is one of the standard assumptions of the debate about education in America, probably because everybody can think of at least one example from their own school days of some teacher who was just horrible at what they did. ?

The question, though, is whether this is really a significant problem, compared to the other issues in public education. First of all, the fraction of incompetents is really pretty small?

The other question that has to be asked is whether the situation is actually any better in the “real” world. That is, are the incompetent people in a typical white-collar job really fired at the sort of rates that people pushing teacher firing as educational reform would have you believe? Or, to put it in the same sort of terms used above, what is the fraction of people in a typical office who are hopeless at their jobs who nevertheless go for years without being canned?

If you’ve ever listened to a white-collar worker talking about work, the fraction is clearly not zero.

Indeed, given that there is a whole name and theory developed behind the Peter Principle, it seems like that fraction is relatively large.

I think Kleiman’s point is most apt. School teachers are underpaid and over-regulated. Qualified science or math experts who go into teaching have little incentive beyond altruism. Scientists with doctorates who enter academia, industry or government can expect to earn six figures within a few years of entering the job market. The number of public school districts paying comparable salaries can probably be counted on one hand (OK, a couple hands).

In any field but teaching, those experts would have tremendous freedom to freely exercise their training. Public school teachers have to follow curricula developed by non-experts and are typically highly restricted in how they can go about teaching their subject. Principals and district rules limit their discretion and their ability to explore and develop their own approaches. Programs like No Child Left Behind accentuate the trend, while simultaneously requiring districts to attract more highly skilled teachers.

Of course, there’s no funding to hire those teachers, or to train the teachers they already have.

The place where the Peter Principle applies best is within the educational policy ranks of the conservative movement, and, alas, among those people responsible for setting teacher salaries and their working conditions. There’s little to be gained by taking that out on principals or teachers.


  1. #1 John Wilkins
    February 24, 2007

    You overlook also the fact that principals are often not up to the job: The Peter Principal.

  2. #2 Jason
    February 25, 2007

    As a teacher this is obviously something that’s near and dear to my heart. Your point is also my main point. There isn’t a whole line of people waiting to get in the door to be a teacher. There are very few outright awful teachers at my school but we did have a terrible math teacher last year. Why? Because he was the only one that applied for the job. Let me repeat, the ONLY one. He was fired because he was that bad. Of course we couldn’t find a math teacher this year so we moved a science teacher to math in hopes a science teacher would be easier to find and because under NCLB, only math and language arts “count.” We couldn’t find a science teacher and have had a series of subs all year. Since they’re not “highly qualified” they can only stay for 20 days. Even when we do have a good sub, they can’t stay.

  3. #3 mark
    February 25, 2007

    I never had a really bad teacher, and I was not aware of any in the system I attended (sure, it was long ago and far away). The worst I had (Earth Science, 9th grade) was not terribly bad (she could read the book as well as we could) but it was probably because she was really a math teacher with no training in Earth Science that made her less than ideal.

  4. #4 BadLiberal
    February 25, 2007

    I haven’t known any school teachers who felt like they could succeed in the system as it’s set up. I have *never* talked to a public school teacher who didn’t experience pressure from leadership to inflate grades or to reward unacceptable work. Additionally, the ideology of “self-esteem” and consistently softening discipline and expectations seems to be producing generations of self-satisfied, uncurious, whiny dolts.

    I know it’s heretical to be for school choice, but the public schools are set up on such dysfunctional methodologies that I can’t see how reform would work.

  5. #5 Kapitano
    February 25, 2007

    Here in the UK we have a slightly paradoxical situation. The government gives cash incentives for science graduates to enter teacher training courses, with the result that there are several times more people quallified to teach science than there are vacancies for them. But, the shortage of people willing to teach science is growing more acute, because most of them leave the profession the first opportunity they get.

    I’m an arts graduate, and there are 2 year courses available to supposedly give me a “top up” science degree from scratch and teach me how to teach. And the government pays me up to 16,000 USD to take it.

  6. #6 Decline and Fall
    February 26, 2007

    One of the problems is that “Qualified science of math experts” are often not allowed into teaching because they lack training in pedagogy. I used to work as an accreditor for charter schools, and I remember one teacher in particular: a Doctor of Chemistry who was so dynamic that more than a dozen 7th graders (from a small school) were staying after school to work on non-credit science projects. This was a guy who knew how to connect with students and to inspire them–the type of teacher they make movies about. The thing was, he was considered “unqualified” to teach in the local school district (Glendale, Arizona, incidentally) because he lacked an education degree. That charter school was the only place he could get hired.