Why Can’t We Fire Bad Teachers? There’s a More Important Question to Ask Here.

Erstwhile Washington Monthly editor Haley Sweetland Edwards has written a great article about teachers’ unions. I urge you to read it because it’s a balanced and compelling piece that looks seriously about what’s going on in education policy and how the profession is going to change. It was also a highly controversial piece, but largely because of the cover treatment and headline it received from Time, where Haley now works.

It was called “Rotten Apples: it’s nearly impossible to fire a bad teachers.”

There’s nothing wrong with a controversial headline. Headlines get people to read the thing. But what lots of people, particularly teachers, were reacting to, understandably, is the precise words used here.

Because, interestingly enough, one of the things that Haley points out in her piece is that we also can’t tell who they are. Why can’t we fire bad teachers? Well, before we get to that question don’t we need to be able to identify them?

Judging a teacher’s quality can be tricky business. During the Vergara trial [the California case that undermined teacher tenure], one of the plaintiffs described her middle-school teacher as ineffective and undeserving of tenure; that same teacher had been previously named Pasadena’s Teacher of the Year.

And this happens all the time. And those responsible for high achievement on standardized tests, often turn out to be not that good either. Or they’re just cheating.

Washington, D.C., the city whose recent education reform focused very closely on performance evaluation based on standardized tests, recently decided to phase out the tests in its teacher evaluation, at least for a while, because it turned out the tests weren’t really doing a good job improving the city’s education system, and teachers were accused to systematically using the tests to cheat.

This isn’t an incidental problem. This is the whole problem. We just don’t do a good job figuring out who those bad, “grossly ineffective,” teachers are.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu partially determined in Vergara that there was a legal, constitutional problem in California public schools because David Berliner, an emeritus professor at Arizona State and a witness in the trail, testified that 1 to 3 percent of teachers in California probably weren’t very good. But Berliner just made that figure up. There’s no evidence to give us a precise number here.

In theory, I’m a fan of being able to get rid of bad teachers. But if we think that somehow getting rid of bad teachers will result in dramatically higher achievement we should be working really, really hard to on the question of who the bad teachers are, not on how the firing part works.

Because if in an effort to get rid of bad people we only make it easier to fire teachers, and not to actually get good people in, that’s just a straight-up effort to undermine labor rights. And that’s something that progressives, and indeed thinking people in general, should object to, and object to seriously.

As Haley puts it, this is the future of public education in America. Education reform is run,

not by grassroots activists or union leaders but by Silicon Valley business types and billionaires. It is fought not through ballot boxes or on the floors of hamstrung state legislatures but in closed-door meetings and at courthouses. And it will not be won incrementally, through painstaking compromise with multiple stakeholders, but through sweeping decisions—judicial and otherwise—made possible by the tactical application of vast personal fortunes.

Isn’t preventing sweeping decision-making by a few rich people to facilitate their interests the reason we have labor organization and, indeed, democracy in the first place?

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer