Firing teachers

The Deseret News recently ran an article about challenges to teacher tenure. Since I was interviewed for – and quoted in – that article, I thought I’d share some further thoughts about an issue that roils the education community. Should we make it easier to fire teachers?

Although the article, correctly, quoted me as saying that when it came to evaluating new teachers we need to focus more on mentoring than firing, I still think that the short answer to this question is yes. This statement will probably get me into trouble, but I truly believe that most teachers would admit – off the record – that some of their colleagues just don’t belong in the classroom, and that current tenure laws make it too time-consuming, painful and costly to fire them.

But I think a focus on new teachers may be misplaced. Even good teachers usually struggle their first couple of years: We don’t want to give up on them too quickly. Moreover, many first and second year teachers who discover they aren’t cut out to be teachers leave quietly . . . just as millions of Americans rethink their career plans every year.

I worry more, frankly, about teachers – sometimes once excellent teachers – who have essentially taken early retirement on the job. That’s the part of Senator Osmond’s proposal that makes sense to me: three to five year contracts for experienced teachers. (By the way, I would favor the same reform for university professors – and I’ve said so repeatedly to my tenured professor husband.)

Maybe I’m nave about abusive principals, but I doubt that shorter-term contracts would lead to widespread firings. Replacing teachers is a major headache for principals, and replacing experienced teachers with newbies is seldom going to improve a school’s educational outcomes.

Still, there are some other big issues that need to be addressed if we are going to rework teacher tenure. How can we improve teacher evaluations so that 90% of all teachers don’t just automatically receive high ratings . . . but also so that we don’t rely on a single set of narrow measurements? How can we get teachers themselves more involved in both evaluating and mentoring colleagues? For that matter, do we need to reevaluate our entire tenure AND pension system to move away from a model that assumes teachers will enter the profession as bright and eager 22-year olds and leave as seasoned 65-year olds?

To quote my favorite education commentator, Rick Hess: “Today’s teaching profession is the product of a mid-20th-century labor model that relied on a captive pool of female workers, assumed educators were largely interchangeable, and counted on male principals and superintendents to micromanage a female teaching workforce. Preparation programs were geared to train generalists who operated with little recourse to data or technology. Teaching has clung to these industrial rhythms while professional norms and the larger labor market have changed. By the 1970s, however, schools could no longer depend on an influx of talented young women, as those who once would have entered teaching began to take jobs in engineering and law. The likelihood that a new teacher was a woman who ranked in the top 10 percent of her high school cohort fell by 50 percent between 1964 and 2000. Meanwhile, policymakers and educators were slow to tap new pools of talent; it was not until the late 1980s that they started tinkering with alternative licensure and midcareer recruitment. Even then, they did little to reconfigure professional development, compensation, or career opportunities accordingly.”

I’ll no doubt talk about some of these issues in the coming year. Meanwhile, as always, I welcome comments.

Here’s a link to the Deseret News article, in case you missed it:

And here’s a link to Rick Hess’s 2009 article, “How to Get the Teachers We Want.”

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