I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

"If We Just Get Rid Of The 'Bad' Teachers..."

Ezra Klein, who is a very smart guy and one of the few reasons left to ever look at the Washington Post, wades into the teacher quality debate:
Here's an example of what he means: State budgets are in worse shape than Charlie Sheen. With federal aid running out and local economies still struggling, the next few years will require deep cuts in spending. And where do states spend much of their money? On education - which is to say, on teachers. 
The prospect of firing tens of thousands of teachers is bad enough. But, as a chilling report from the New Teacher Project explains, about 40 percent of the nation's teachers work in states where their contracts don't allow administrators to take performance into account when making layoffs. That is to say, they cannot try to lay off the bad teachers while saving the good ones. Instead, they're forced to use the "last-hired-first-fired" mechanism. The newest teachers get the pink slip, no matter how good they are. This will turn a crisis into a catastrophe. And let's be clear, it's the fault of the teachers unions.
OK, stop right there. Why oh why, Ezra, are you prepared to say deep cuts are "required"? You, of all people, know how regressive state and local taxes are. You know how rampant income inequity is. Yet you, one of the smartest liberals out there, buys immediately into the premise that we can never, ever consider raising needed revenue by taxing the rich. Why?

Next - the New Teacher Project is a joke. The fact that it was founded by serial exaggerator liar Michelle Rhee should be enough to discount it from serious discussions. You need to be more discriminating in your education research, Ezra.

But, even if what NTP is pushing is true, it has to be seen in the context of anywhere between 1/3 and 1/2 of teachers leaving the profession in the first five years. Add that to the gauntlet of actually getting tenure - degree, certification, three years (in NJ) where you can be fired for no reason - and there's a good case to be made that teaching is a largely self-policing career.

Further: as Bruce Baker (who else) says, those like Ezra who are convinced that seniority-based layoffs are worse than "quality-based" layoffs have yet to make their case:
Am I saying seniority layoffs are great?
No. Clearly seniority layoffs are imperfect and arguably there is no perfect answer to layoff policies. Layoffs suck and sometimes that sucky option has to be implemented. Sometimes that that sucky option has to be implemented with a blunt and convenient instrument and one that is easily defined, such as years of service. It is foolish to argue that teaching is the only profession where those who’ve been around for a while – those who’ve done their time – have greater protection when the axe comes down. Might I suggest that paying one’s dues even plays a significant role in many private sector jobs? Really? And it is equally foolish to argue that every other profession EXCEPT TEACHING necessarily makes precise quality decisions regarding employees when that axe comes down.
The tradeoff being made in this case is a tradeoff  NOT between “keeping quality teachers” versus “keeping old, dead wood” as Petrilli, Roza and others would argue, but rather the tradeoff between laying off teachers on the unfortunately crude basis of seniority only, versus laying off teachers on a marginally-better-than-random, roll-of-the-dice basis. I would argue the latter may actually be more problematic for the future quality of the teaching workforce!  Yes, pundits seem to think that destabilizing the teaching workforce can only make it better. How could it possibly get worse, they argue? Substantially increasing the uncertainty of career earnings for teachers can certainly make it worse.
We've been over and over this issue on this blog: there is no reason to trust the use of other methods of evaluating teacher quality to make decisions on layoffs. And the damage to the profession by using any system that is even somewhat arbitrary will haunt public education for years.

Ezra continues:
If unions are to not just survive, but to actually flourish again, they need to create an identity beyond being a protection service for people who aren't very good at their jobs. For too long they've been defending individuals at the expense of the collective. Every time an incompetent teacher or overly aggressive cop hides behind a union, unions in general become a bit less attractive to everyone else. Next year, when a slew of beloved and decorated teachers are fired not because they were worse than the teachers who kept their jobs but because they were younger, good people everywhere will find themselves that much less sympathetic toward organized labor. [emphasis mine]
"Beloved" by whom? The students? The parents? The school boards? Is that how we determine "quality"? Ezra stumbles onto the crux of the very problem he is trying to address: what makes a good teacher? Higher test scores? Happier parents? Placated administrators?

The teachers out there reading this know exactly what I'm talking about. Sometime the teacher who is the biggest pain in the ass to everyone around them is the teacher who makes the biggest difference in the lives of their students.

Again - fire the bad teachers because they are bad. I have no issue with that. Tighten the dismissal process. Free administrators from the bureaucratic nonsense that consumes them so they can focus on supervising teachers. Implement real peer review.

But get rid of teachers because they are bad - not because we "just don't have the money." And don't change the system to further drive more enthusiastic young people from even considering the profession.

One more thing: I keep asking for the solid, peer-reviewed research that shows that we have significant numbers of "bad" teachers with tenure holding down students. I'm still waiting.

ADDING: Shankerblog has more.

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