Bad Teachers

BAD TEACHERS….Over at, Mickey Kaus and my boss are talking about whether it should be easier to fire bad teachers. Naturally this turns into an argument about union busting (Mickey’s all for it) vs. figuring out a way to work with unions on this (Paul’s position).

Unfortunately, the conversation never really got to the key issue (though it cropped up momentarily): how do you decide who the bad teachers are? My background is all private sector, and it’s certainly true that private sector managers have a lot more freedom than public school principals when it comes to hiring and firing decisions. I couldn’t fire someone just because I felt like it, but neither did I have to produce reams of documented evidence of highly specific transgressions. If someone wasn’t working out, all it took was a written warning and some counseling to try to get them on track. If that didn’t work, they were out.

Needless to say, this can be unfair — as I’m sure some of the people I fired would agree. But the key thing that made it workable is that everyone who worked for me actually worked for me. There may not have been any numerical measures of how they were doing, but they did write reports, solve problems, work with customers, launch new products, put on trade shows, and so forth. These were all concrete work products that could be evaluated on a regular basis. My individual judgment — like any school principal’s — might be suspect, of course, but at least I had plenty of up-close-and-personal interaction on which to base my judgment.

This is the part I’ve never figured out when it comes to teachers. I suppose principals can visit classrooms occasionally to observe teachers, but that’s sporadic and inconclusive. There are test scores, but those are problematic even on a long-term basis, let alone as the evidence for a short-term work evaluation. What else is there? Parent complaints? Peer review? It’s pretty thin stuff. The fact is that principals simply aren’t in close contact with their teachers on a regular basis.

But I’m curious to hear comments about this. Is this wrong? Do principals know more than I’m giving them credit for? Are there reasonable metrics for judging performance even without the advantage of daily supervision and concrete work products? Bottom line: if bad teachers really are a big problem, how do we identify them? How do we decide who the bad teachers are?