How Trying to Get Rid of Bad Teachers Has Demoralized Our Best

Posted on 19 February 2013

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By Mark Naison

Every time I have a discussion with someone who claims to be passionately committed to improving schools, they bring up the subject of the "bad teacher." They see public schools as zones of cultural and economic stagnation in an otherwise dynamic society, saddled with a smug and incompetent teaching force that prevents schools from playing their assigned roles of creating a competitive global workforce and elevating people out of poverty.

They feel that the American educational system can only be transformed into an asset in the global marketplace if schools have the power to remove bad teachers, and if that means undermining or circumventing teachers unions, so be it, whether by giving preference to non-union charter schools, or developing teacher and school evaluation systems that are based on hard data derived from student test scores.

There are many problematic features of this analysis. Among them, the irrationality of singling out schools over other institutions (for example banks and financial institutions!) as a cause of the nation's economic difficulties and of singling out teachers as the cause of poor educational performance in high poverty schools when research shows out-of-school factors are responsible for between 60 and 80 percent of the determinants of student achievement.

But the most damaging of all is how this worldview leads to teachers being excluded from policy discussions at the highest level and being deprived of agency and autonomy in the classroom. When you take two propositions as a given - first, that teachers have enormous power over student performance and the functioning of entire school systems and, second, that our public school system is a dismal failure - the logical response is to do everything you can to take power away from the existing teaching force and put people from other walks of life in charge of schools.

This is what has been done at the national, state and local level. When presidents, or governors, or mayors create educational policy or school reform commissions, they make sure that business leaders and foundation heads have the determining voice, with lifetime educators - especially teachers - often entirely excluded. Not surprisingly, the policy recommendations coming out of these bodies usually involving weakening or eliminating teacher tenure. They involve scripting classroom learning, through continuous testing and observation, to such an extent that teachers have little power to determine what goes on in their classrooms.

I am sure reformers would like to say that these measures have shaken up a stagnant system and led to improved instruction, especially for high-needs students, but there is little evidence of such improvement in terms of graduation rates, or scores on global tests. What these measures have done is reduce teacher morale to its lowest level on record and lead to an exodus of talented people out of the teaching profession.

I see this every day in my communication with teachers, both in the Bronx, where I have developed close ties to many schools, and nationally, where my reputation as a teacher advocate has brought me in contact with both veteran and young teachers. Not only do teachers everywhere feel the sting of being excluded from policy discussions and attacked almost daily in the media by politicians and school reform advocates, their classroom experience has been poisoned by protocols which require them to drill students to pass standardized tests to the exclusion of all else, and by continuous invasion by administrators and evaluators who scrutinize their every move.

It is hard to put in words how difficult it is to work in a profession that is "under suspicion," where you are regarded as a potential danger to the children you work with, and where everything that goes on in your classroom is being shaped by people far away, be they in the offices of test companies, or the programs developed by management consulting firms hired by the school systems.

From Bill Gates, to Michelle Rhee, to Arne Duncan, education reform advocates constantly emphasize the need to improve the quality of the nation's teaching force. Ironically, the policies they have pushed for, and that are being implemented in every state and every community, insure that exactly the opposite will happen.

Mark Naison is a Professor of African-American Studies and History at Fordham University and Director of Fordham's Urban Studies Program. He is the author of White Boy: A Memoir (2002, Temple UP). This article originally appeared at L.A. Progressive.

The author finely dissects many of the problems with education..and he's right on most of them.Everyone wants to get rid of "bad" teachers-- above all teachers themselves. But what is a "bad" teacher is difficult to determine unless there are some overt detrimental actions that can be proved. The main problem is that it seems to be onerous and complicated to fire teahers; All other accused criminal get to have proper defense and a court.No one says that that is "onerous and complicated," The reason some "bad" teachers are not fired, is because the school administration does not know how to prove its case. I know of some really bad teachers--and they are bad--but the school district keeps on giving them good evaluations and doesn't offer any help to the teacher in order to improve.All of a sudden they realize that they should fire. They go to court and the teacher's lawyer shows the judge all of the past good evaluations. The judge usually throws the case out of court.

Other than bad (real or imaginary) teachers, there are many other things wrong with our educational system:#1 insufficent funding;#2 lay school boards with many members ignorant of what education is all about;#3 layers upon layers of admnistration: e.g., federal, state, county, local. (Efforts have been made to streamline this. On the federal level--get rid of the Department of Education and just send the money to the states.How many people do you need to write 50 checks??

On the county level, county offies of education, with its county superintendent and board, are an anachronism from the early 1900s when there were no local school districts, and the county ran all of the schools.In the 20th century most counties have local districts, but the county system is well and alive in all 58 counties (budget of over $5 billion a year).

#4 teachers have little control over the curriclum;

#5 too much non-academic acitivties (e.g, sports) which impinges on the learning process.

Every person who works has to satisfy someone. If you don't cut it, you get laid off. Or, if you are the owner and you can't satisfy your customers, you go bankrupt. This is true in every sphere of our economy except the government.

Why should teachers be different? Why should they be given a pass?

Teachers should be given a pass because your fruitless efforts to try and get rid of the "bad" teachers are making it more and more difficult for good teachers to do their job. Nearly all teachers get into the job for the right reasons. Sure some wind up not being the best teacher on the staff. A few of those are "bad" teachers. A few of those "bad" teachers will get better. Some won't (the current climate in schools is not helping). Some of a student's greatest lessons can be learned from "bad" teachers. 1. Life is not fair. 2. There are poor employees in every profession. 3. Learning to deal with poor employees is part of life. 4. If you can learn from/in spite of a "bad" teacher you will do better in life. 5. You will have at least one "bad" professor in college. 6. You will have a "bad" co-worker eventually. 7. Life is not fair get used to it.

This tired old mule gets trotted out every time someone is hating the fact that some people work as public employees and are paid out of tax dollars. At least, in government employment, most of the time there are pretty strict rules, regulations, guidelines, and specific job descriptions. And whistle blower protections. And due process.

In the private sector, more often that not, whoever sucks up to the boss the hardest, regardless of how well or poorly they serve the true customer, those are the employees who get kept on or promoted. It's the one who has the better idea than the boss who gets fired.

Please also do a Google search on "too big to fail" or even, "top ten reasons why businesses fail" for some evidence that refutes your claim that failing to satisfy customers causes businesses to go bankrupt.

You are so eloquently expressing my concerns and frustrations with our educational system! It is so depressing being a teacher right now, especially in Louisiana, where teacher attacks are front and center.

The reasons put forward for education reform are not the real reasons. The "reformers" don't care a fig for bad teachers, but they know it's a simplistic sound-bite that no one can really argue against- who says we should keep bad teachers on the payroll? Anyone? Anyone?

It's a cat's paw for busting the teachers unions. And, it really has nothing to do with education. The far right want to bust the teachers unions because they consistently support progressive candidates and causes. Fact is, bad teachers are NOT THAT HARD to get rid of- what's hard is finding administrators capable of doing the WORK required to verify, document, follow up, and finalize according to due process.

You could line up all of the current "reform" buzz words that are coming out of Florida and Texas, and trace them all back to their roots in the win-at-any-price bare knuckle strategy straight out of the Rove & Norquist playbook.

Charter schools = get the for profit foot in the door, leading to the privatization and corporatization of education
School choice = a newer version of "white flight" to also include segregation from the poor in addition to colored
High stakes testing = preparing the new generation of obedient slaves, since there's no time to teach critical thinking
Online educ = a scheme to suck money out of public budgets and into corporations like KIPP, Rocketship, Cengage, Kaplan, these are like massive for profit charter schools
Bad teachers = de-professionalize those closest to the work, because not only do their unions support progressives, they will also object to all these other "reforms"