Sara Mead writes at Ed Week about teacher legislation, especially new policies allowing “ineffective” teachers to be canned, or at least to be laid off first:

But what about teachers who are rated “Needs Improvement” [the second lowest category] –but never actually improve? Under many of these laws, a teacher could remain in the “needs improvement” category for his or her entire career.

Is this a good policy? Or should these teachers be given some window of time in which to improve or find something else to do? I’m not sure, but it’s a question worth asking, particularly as we gain more experience and see how these systems actually play out in practice. (Indiana is an exception, allowing for dismissal of teachers who receive an “ineffective” or “needs improvement” rating in 3 out of 5 years)

I could argue that essentially no teachers are truly ineffective, that the question is simply a matter of how strong that effect is, and in what direction. I could argue further that no teacher is perfect, and that thus every teacher should fall into the “needs improvement” category. But that’s a semantic quibble over poorly chosen category labels.
Let us set that aside aside, and also, for the moment, set aside my previously stated concerns about standardized tests and their use in evaluating teachers. I’m prepared to grant that there are good teachers and bad teachers (though the problem of bad teachers seems massively exaggerated in the policy debate). I’m prepared to grant that good teachers can be distinguished from worse teachers, and that there really are teachers who “need improvement.” Let’s assume we have ways to identify those teachers.

Should a teacher who is judged to persistently “need improvement” for many years be fired? Unless those laws come with funding to provide in-service training to those lagging teachers, and mentoring and review from master teachers, and paid prep time to rework lesson plans and practice and develop new skills, I don’t see how we can expect those teachers to improve to any significant degree. Assuming that we’ve got the tools to accurately identify teachers who need some help, that identification has to be matched with some sort of actual help, if we’re going to attach penalties. The same is true, of course, for teachers rated “ineffective.”

Highly motivated, passionate teachers go out of their way to find training opportunities, and will attend unpaid trainings, pay their own way to conferences, and do their prep work whenever they can fit it around their work schedule and their family life. The teachers who need the most help are, I’d wager, the least likely to seek out these sorts of opportunities or to invest this sort of time. If the goal is simply to fire teachers, then the sorts of policies Mead is discussing will work fine. If the goal is to actually improve the quality of teachers, it sounds like a big part is missing.


  1. #1 Lyle
    August 16, 2011

    One alternative is to put the needs improvement teacher into a position where no step salary increases, i.e. the teacher must be satisfactory to get the step increase, which again is what industry would do? Essentially this suggests that the individual seriously re-consider their career choice, if they stay at the salary they were hired in for 20 years and get no step increases.

  2. #2 Ford
    August 16, 2011

    The goal of firing bad teachers is presumably to replace them with good teachers. That can only work if:
    1) there’s a large pool of potential teachers out there who would be better than ones we fire,
    2) those great potential teachers find teaching an attractive profession, even without security of employment, and
    3) the hiring process reliably picks new teachers who are better than the ones just fired.

    If it’s easier to fire teachers, it will be harder to attract new teachers — except those with few other options or those who are confident they won’t be fired. What fraction of the latter group is actually likely to be great teachers?

  3. #3 Cheryl Shepherd-Adams
    August 16, 2011

    Most agreements between teachers and their employers include “on improvement” provisions. What’s frustrating is how a teacher who does the same thing every year, who never seeks out learning opportunities, will be compensated at the same rate as the one busting their butt trying to make sure those kids are getting only the best he/she has to offer.

    Finland seems to have some answers: make sure teachers are drawn from the same high-achieving pool as doctors and lawyers, then compensate them accordingly.

  4. #4 Lee
    August 16, 2011

    Making it easier to fire teachers may or may not create opportunities for better teachers. It will serve as motivation for those who know that they are lacking to improve their performance or to evaluate their choice of professions.
    Administrators should also be held accountable for their failures. It is the responsibility of the administrators to identify the shortcomings of their staff and address them.

  5. #5 CCPhysicist
    August 17, 2011

    Why doesn’t anyone ever talk about firing the principal that recommended the bad teacher for tenure?

    Remember, there are no limits on firing a bad teacher who does not have tenure, only on those that taught for N years and were granted tenure by the school system’s administrators.

New comments have been disabled.