Fire Bad Teachers (But Who’s Bad?)
The great teacher gets
Along with the horrid one
The same token raise
The front page story in Newsweek is a piece by Evan Thomas and Pat Wingert. The thesis of their article is that people who are bad at their jobs ought to be fired. Okay, Evan and Pat…that sounds reasonable, but let’s slow down a bit. What sort of occupation are we talking about? Teachers? Okay. Shit…that’s an easy target. Have either of you ever been a teacher? No? Then, for starters, why do you feel particularly qualified or compelled to call for mass firings outside of your own profession?
Anyway…the following post will be designed as a dialogue between Evan and Pat on one side, and myself on the other. They will be in italics. I will be in regular script. PLEASE read their entire article in Newsweek so that you can judge for yourself whether or not I unfairly represent what they say, take things out of context, etc. I’m not a journalist, but who knows?…Maybe they want to fire me from my blog as well.
Here we go:
Mr. Teachbad: How do we even know if good teachers matter? I mean, maybe it’s the parents or poverty or not speaking English as the primary language. All that stuff really seems to impact my students.
Evan and Pat: What really makes a difference, what matters more than the class size or the textbook, the teaching method or the technology, or even the curriculum, is the quality of the teacher.
MTB: Ah-ha. Good. So, how would we know a “good teacher” or “bad teacher” if we saw one? This is important, so we need to be able to clearly distinguish between the two. I’m a little bit nervous, but I’m ready. Lay it on me.
E&P: In any case, the research shows that within about five years, you can generally tell who is a good teacher and who is not.
MTB: Okay…I mean, I think everybody would agree that good teachers are better than bad teachers and good french fries are better than bad french fries. (Should “french” be capitalized here?) But I know what a good french fry is and I know how to tell it from a bad one. A good one is warm or hot, crisp on the outside, soft on the inside, salted to taste, and leaves my finger tips shiny. Yeah…everyone sort of gets that.
A really bad one has none of these qualities.
So, again, how do we tell the good teachers from the bad ones?
E&P: Over time, inner-city schools, in particular, succumbed to a defeatist mindset. The problem is not the teachers, went the thinking—it’s the parents (or absence of parents); it’s society with all its distractions and pathologies; it’s the kids themselves. Although many teachers are caring and selfless, teaching in public schools has not always attracted the best and the brightest.
MTB: So, I’m trying to follow…sorry…I’m a public skool teecher in the sity, so probably not all that bright…I’m sorry…what were we talking about? French fries? Yum…No, wait…it’s coming back. Right…the problem is not the parents or poverty, crappy neighborhoods with crappy neighbors, crappy food in a crappy apartment with no place to study even if you wanted to, or any of that. It’s these crappy teachers. OK.
Well, shit. What should we do? If we, as teachers, have to blame ourselves, then what should we do?
E&P: Generally operating outside of school bureaucracies as charter schools, programs like KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) have produced inner-city schools with high graduation rates (85 percent). KIPP schools don’t cherry-pick—they take anyone who will sign a contract to play by the rules, which require some parental involvement. And they are not one-shot wonders. There are now 82 KIPP schools in 19 states and the District of Columbia, and, routinely, they far outperform the local public schools. KIPP schools are mercifully free of red tape and bureaucratic rules (their motto is “Work hard. Be nice,” which about sums up the classroom requirements). KIPP schools require longer school days and a longer school year, but their greatest advantage is better teaching.
MTB: Oh…My…God. You are such a tease. You cheeky munchkin. I mean, goddamn…are you ever going to tell us what a good teacher is or looks like or does or smells like…or how tall they are or anything. Anything at all. How do we know who to keep and who to fire. GIVE US A SIGN!
E&P: It takes a certain kind of teacher to succeed at a KIPP school or at other successful charter programs, like YES Prep. KIPP teachers carry cell phones so students can call them at any time. The dedication required makes for high burnout rates. It may be that teaching in an inner-city school is a little like going into the Special Forces in the military, a calling for only the chosen few.
MTB: Again…who are these people? How will we know them when we see them? Good teachers give student’s their cell numbers. That’s it? C’mon. That’s the most tired KIPP anecdote there is. If you have ever read one article about KIPP, you already know about the cell phones. So what? (It really took two of you to write this article?) But who’s bad?
And if you are implying that one must be a Navy Seal in order to teach in an American city, then I think you have undermined your own argument. That would seem to suggest that there is something deeply pathological with the neighborhoods, the parents, the kids, etc. such that only those who have undergone simulations of enemy capture and torture as a part of their training might be successful.
E&P: Last year the Los Angeles Times ran a long series documenting the unwillingness of the education bureaucracy to fire bad teachers (like the one who told a student who attempted suicide to “carve deeper next time” and another who kept a stash of pornography and cocaine at school; both are still teaching). The Indianapolis Star reported how Lawrence Township schools had quietly laid off—with generous cash settlements and secrecy agreements—a teacher accused of sexually assaulting a student; another accused of touching students and taking photos of female students; another accused of kissing a high-school student; and a fourth with a 20-year history of complaints about injuring and harassing students, including a 1992 rape allegation. At the time the story ran last summer, all four teachers still held active teaching licenses.
MTB: OMG…so our schools are filled with coke addict, suicide advocate, rapist, and pedophile teachers?!?! Yikes!
E&P: While these horror stories are sensational,
MTB: Hell, yes. I just about crapped my pants. For a minute there I thought you were trying to get me to associate these horrible examples with public school teachers in general. Thanks for clearing that up.
E&P: what’s also disturbing is the immunity enjoyed by the thousands of teachers who let down their students in more ordinary ways. Many more teachers are overworked, underpaid, and underappreciated. Maybe they’d get more respect if the truly bad teachers were let go.
MTB: Again, how are they let down? How can we tell? Why are you qualified to judge this?