Monday, January 28, 2008

Firing Teachers At Underperforming Schools

We had a rich discussion at lunch today, one that is a great tie-in to the article linked below.

A colleague was lamenting the fact that all attempts to improve student learning focus on the schools. "What about the families? What about the community?" I told her that while I agree with the underlying thought process of school improvement, it's often sold in a horrible way--"You teachers suck and need to do a better job." A more positive and realistic way to sell such a program would be something like this: "It's true that there are societal and family issues that cause some children not to do as well as others, or as well as they should. Still, that isn't reason for us not to do everything we can to improve our instruction and other practices. Who here would say they're doing 100% of everything they could reasonably do to help students? We can't wait for the parents to do what they should do before we do what we can do--the kids deserve better. So what can we do to improve that over which we have control?" She certainly agreed that a program presented in that manner would seem much more reasonable than one presented in the manner of "You're not doing your job and need to do better," which often seems to be the tone when school improvement is discussed.

So imagine this story out of Chicago:

In a dramatic proposal to reform eight chronically under-performing schools, Chicago Public Schools could fire hundreds of teachers and their principals next fall, replacing them with better-trained or better-performing educators, school officials said.

This leads me to question: are they being fired from the district, or just from these particular schools? It's important to note that the schools in question had already been "reconstituted", where all staff members had to reapply for their positions (and presumably "bad" ones were forced to take jobs at other schools). Here's what happened back then:

Of the 167 teachers deemed the worst of the lot among those seven schools and ousted by the board, more than half ended up back in Chicago public schools, including some targeted for improvement.

So are they really going to be fired this time? Looks like it.

Though teaching positions in low-performing schools can be tough to fill, Duncan said there is "a huge amount of interest" among educators who are excited about getting in on the ground floor of reformed schools' future success. He said the district is interested in the best talent, including nationally board-certified and Golden Apple teachers.

As extra incentive, the district is offering annual performance bonuses of up to $10,000 to principals and master teachers.

In some cases, good teachers will have the chance to be hired back, but the vast majority will be fired, Duncan said.

Why were these so-called bad teachers not fired before now? Does the school situation really have to become apocalyptic before incompetent teachers are fired? Who's to blame for this sad state of affairs? You know who I'm going to point fingers at--school/district administration and the teachers union.

One thing the district is doing that might bear some fruit is they're changing all the schools in a neighborhood, rather than just the high school.

"The simple premise is you can't fix the high school without also fixing the elementary school," Duncan said. "By doing this by neighborhood, we have a chance in a very short amount of time to dramatically impact the educational opportunities for children in that community."

Left unsaid is where they're going to get all the teachers needed to fill the slots of those let go. And if some of that dead wood is a tenured teacher with, say, 15 or 20 years of experience, is that teacher really going to be fired?

This will make for a fun story to watch--especially if you like Chicago-style politics :-)


Dr Pezz said...

I'm not sure how the contracts are written in Chicago (or where you are), but here the teachers' union definitely fights for the teacher; however, if the administrator follows the procedures laid out in the contract then the teacher has little recourse. Of course, it's quite the rare occurrence when the administrator follows the proper procedures out here.

While I do believe the teacher has quite a bit of (if not the most ) power in raising student achievement, I wonder how much of the responsibility is placed on the teacher, the administration, the parents, and ultimately the student.

Eric W. said...

It seems to me that they're firing them just so it looks like they're doing something about the problem. "Hey, look, we're getting rid of everything bad and it'll all by good now! Yay! Praise us!"

allen said...

This is well-worn terrain for me but the problem lies not with our stars parents or teachers. The problem lies in the way public education's structured and the inevitable outcome of that structure.

More directly though, the absence of a measurement of educational efficacy means there's no importance placed on teaching skill.

Eric, you are correct. If substantive change is politically infeasible then some meaningless razzle-dazzle is the fall back when doing nothing is no longer acceptable.

Anonymous said...

So, let's say they move their "best" teachers (not sure what criteria they use to decide who is the "best") to the underperforming schools and/or hire new and "improved" teachers, and these teachers fail to bring the test scores/performance level up. Do they run the risk of getting fired in a year or two? I certainly wouldn't voluntarily put my neck on the chopping block. I can bring all of my years of experience, my energy, my love of what I teach, my teaching strategies honed through a master's program in teaching and many workshops, etc, but if the students don't buy in--if they don't participate, care, etc, it really isn't going to mean much.

DADvocate said...

In Cincinnati, the entire staff (teachers, principal, etc.) are being fired at the end of the school year. Cincinnati Public Schools are sub par in general and this smacks of grandstanding to make an impression.

I believe that the primary problem is the families the school system serves. Many middle class and higher families send their kids to one of the excellent Catholic schools or other private schools. Others move to one of the surrounding communities with better school systems. This leaves Cincinnati with a high percentage of kids from broken families with lower incomes and poorly educated parents. Obviously this makes the school system's job much harder.

allen said...

> I believe that the primary problem is the families the school system serves.

I disagree and as support I point to the rotten urban schools that for varying lengths of time blossom into good schools under the driving force of a self-motivated principal.

It's not a very common phenomenon but it happens with sufficient frequency to undermine the premise that the primary problem afflicting school systems is families that don't measure up.

The problem is a system which is intrinsically indifferent to professional excellence.

Not averse to professional excellence but indifferent and not even uniformly indifferent.

The demand for excellence, where it can't be ignored, is isolated in "magnet schools" and similar contrivances. The specialty schools siphon off trouble-making parents who will be a continuing thorn in the side of the school board if their demands aren't met. For many parents some foot-dragging, stone-walling and shoulder-shrugging suffice. Engendering despair and apathy may not seem like a worthy goal but it works well in public education.