In 2007 the educator Michelle Rhee was charged with a mammoth task: turn around public education in the District of Columbia, which included some of the most troubled school districts in the country. Though D.C. ranked third nationally in education spending, their students were some of the lowest performing, with less than 10 percent of D.C. eighth-graders reading at grade level.
As chancellor of the Washington, D.C., school district, Rhee was given carte blanche to implement any reforms she wanted. She started by firing teachers, who had long enjoyed considerable job security. When all was said and done, Rhee had let go 241 of the worst performing teachers in the city.
Now, more than four years later, the idea that firing bad teachers will make schools better is catching on. States like Idaho, Tennessee and Florida are all in the process of implementing reforms that would make public school employment contingent on some measure of teacher effectiveness.
These reforms are based on a simple philosophy: If we want students to perform in a global economy, we need effective teachers. This philosophy is supported by a 2007 McKinsey report on education, which found that the best schools in the world are those that do not allow ineffective teachers to remain in the classroom.
On the surface, the idea makes sense — why would you allow a bad teacher to keep teaching? The problem is in determining what makes a teacher effective, and who makes that decision. Opponents of this approach argue that if public school teachers, who often already feel underpaid and under-appreciated, had to work under the specter of possibly being laid off every few years, it would hurt morale and make it even harder to recruit new teachers. Since California made it easier to fire ineffective teachers, for example, the number of graduates seeking teaching credentials fell by 29 percent.
Despite these potential drawbacks, Sen Aaron Osmond (R-South Jordan) drafted a bill that would make it easier to remove ineffective teachers. Under current law, after three to five years in the classroom, Utah teachers achieve what is known as “career status”. After they have reached this point it becomes extremely difficult to fire them. Because the process can take months, many principals are hesitant to attempt it. For this reason, Sen. Osmond’s proposed that the state establish one-year provisional contracts for new teachers and three to five year contracts for more experienced educators. Shorter contracts would mean that administrators have more flexibility. Teachers who don’t measure up would be shown the door.
After discussing the potential legislation with thousands of teachers and members of the community, Sen. Osmond decided to reevaluate the proposal. The overwhelming response was that teachers feel they are under attack, and eliminating long term contracts could do further harm to their morale. But the problem remains that allowing bad teachers to continue in their positions will hamper any other attempts at education reform.
American students rank 29th in math, well below average and behind developing economies like Latvia and the Slovak Republic, according to a 2003 Program for International Assessment study. Eric Hanushek, senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institute, calculates that by firing the least-effective teachers, American students' scores would increase and make them competitive with top performing countries like China, Japan and Finland.
"Modest changes at the bottom," he argues, "have enormous implications for the nation."
And having a better-educated population would lead to economic growth, he says. Implementing a program that fires the bottom 5 percent of teachers over a 20-year period would yield GDP that is 1.6 percent higher, he says. "In terms of the U.S. economy in 2005," Hanushek says "1.6 percent [amounts] to $200 billion."
Mary Purzycki, a popular biology teacher at Park City High School, is precisely the kind of person schools hope to recruit. She worked for seven years as a biologist a federally funded research lab at Harvard, Brown and Princeton before making the transition to teaching. While she found fulfillment in her work, it was contingent on grant money, meaning that periods of plentiful work could be followed by months of unemployment. Purzycki found teaching attractive because it was an opportunity to teach kids about something she loved with the added benefit of job stability.
For people like Purzycki, traditionally teaching has had appeal because it has been seen as a stable, long-term career choice. If this benefit is diminished, educators argue, recruiting highly qualified candidates with other professional options may become even more difficult. The average teacher begins with a salary of around $30,000. By contrast, graduates in math and applied science command salaries starting at $60,000, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Mike Kelley, director of communications for the Utah Education Association, worries that increasing the stakes of teacher evaluations and placing more power in the hands of administrators could hurt teachers.
"Sinking teacher morale generally accompanies sinking student achievement," says Susan Black. an education consultant and contributing editor for the American School Board Journal.
The idea that making it easier to fire teachers will improve the quality of instruction rests on the assumption that administrators are capable of measuring teacher effectiveness with accuracy and neutrality.
The newest studies on teacher evaluations suggest the fullest picture of an educator emerges when a variety of data and viewpoints are used. For example, Measures of Effective Teaching, a study published by the Gates Foundation, suggests teacher evaluations should include: student progress reports, classroom observations by experienced teachers and administrators, a teacher's content knowledge, student and parent evaluations of the instructional, and teacher reflections on the work.
"We also need evaluations that recognize where a teacher is in his or career," says Mary McConnell, an education consultant who serves on the Deseret News Editorial Advisory Board. Learning to be an effective teacher is a "process that takes time," she says, "which means that new teacher evaluations should focus more on mentoring and identifying areas for improvement than on determining continued employment. As teachers gain experience, however, they should be held to a higher standard."
Though on the whole many teachers agree with these recommendations, some are troubled by the idea of using student performance as part of a measure of their effectiveness as a teacher. Studies show that most of the factors that influence student performance — such as socio-economic background and parental involvement — are beyond teachers' control, says A.J Duffy, president of the United Teachers of Los Angeles, a teachers' union.
Proponents of using student performance as part of a measure of teacher effectiveness suggest it is possible to assuage these concerns just by using more sophisticated mathematical models. The Gates Foundation recommends using value added models. These models are designed to measure not absolute outcomes, but how much students progress over the course of a year. This means that they do not penalize teachers for their students' baseline performance. Rather, the teacher is judged on how a student improves over the course of the school year.
Whatever measure of effectiveness is settled on, it is imperative that teachers are included in the discussion, says Kelley of the Utah Educators Association.
For his part, Osmond wants to include teachers in the conversation. "We want to incorporate feedback from teachers while staying focused on finding ways to improve the effectiveness and timeliness of the (teacher) evaluations."
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