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.