Should we fire bad teachers?

Newsweek ran a story last week titled Why we must fire bad teachers. It makes some good points, but also evades most of the conversation that needs to occur before real education reform occurs.

First, I agree that we need to fire bad teachers. I am generally pro-teacher, due to the fact that they have a difficult job that is extremely important. Most work long hours for a small pay check, and the work conditions can be pretty stressful. However, I am more pro-student than I am pro-teacher, and this is why I agree that we should fire bad teachers.

However, the article made no mention as to how to determine which teachers are “good” and which are “bad.” I spent three years evaluating college teachers, and I did not make much progress in determining what makes a good teacher—the best I could do is rely on a gut feeling, or to paraphrase Potter Stewart: “I know bad teaching when I see it.”

Some would argue that we should indirectly measure teacher effectiveness by using student test scores. However, I have seen very little evidence that these scores mean anything. This is largely because I rarely hear discussion about our goals. If we decide that our goal is for students to know as many facts and one-step algorithms as possible, I would believe that these test scores could accurately measure that. If our goal is to create students who are creative, caring, diligent, and thoughtful, I am very skeptical. In fact, there are trade-offs involved: the more time you spend on facts and simple algorithms, the less time you spend on having students be creative and thoughtful. If this is the case, using test scores to determine teachers’ competence levels could have the effect that we fire the good teachers who are nurturing creativity and thoughtfulness.

Until someone convinces me that we have a way of measuring our educational goals correctly (also, they should tell me what the goals are for their school district), I am going to be very wary of firing teachers.

The article also makes a huge assumption, which is: the educational system is mostly good. If this is the case, I would agree that we should focus our energy on only having good teachers. However, “good” means “good within the context of the current education system.” Education is currently much more about obedience and compliance than creativity and thoughtfulness. Again, we need to decide if these are the goals we want (note: you can probably tell, especially if you have read previous posts, is that I think that we should have different educational goals that what we are actually teaching).

Note that there is no reason to believe that the skills required of a teacher whose main goal is compliance would be the same as if the main goal were thoughtfulness (although I think that there is still a large amount of overlap). For this reason, I would suggest that we reform all of education first according to our actual goals, and then sort teachers into “good” and “bad” piles based on the criteria of the system we want rather than the system we currently have.

I appreciate this article. I wish that the mainstream media would discuss education more. However, articles like these serve more to preserve the status quo than to effect change, and I know of very few people who are satisfied with the state of public education.

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7 Responses to “Should we fire bad teachers?”

  1. Kim Says:

    Thanks for writing about this! I read the same article and had a varied response, from appreciate to the concept of getting rid of those who ought not teach to continued frustration with the entire system. As you pointed out, the system is broken and fails our students. How do bad teachers receive tenure in the first place? The licensure standards are low, the training process for teachers is frustrating (at best), and the expectations for teachers and students both fall short.

    • bretbenesh Says:

      Hi Kim,

      Thanks for the comment. If you are the Kim I think you are, then you have already gone a portion of this process.

      My best answer for why bad teachers receive tenure is a two-part answer. First, we have come to the point where tenure is expected to be granted to almost everyone. I would suspect that the teacher unions played a larger role in this (which is, of course, their job). I think that we could relatively easily redefine tenure, although this would likely take years of negotiations with the teacher unions.

      The second reason is that I do not think that we know how to recognize a “bad” teacher when they come up for their tenure review. We can spot the worst of the worst, but we have not come up with a way of meaningfully evaluating a teacher’s ability (since tenure comes after three years—I think—we should probably have a way of evaluating “potential,” too). So it seems likely to me that a lot of bad teachers get tenure because they are indistinguishable from good teachers to the tenure committees.

      Do you have an opinion about what can be done to improve the situation?

  2. Kim Says:

    Hi Bret,
    My experiences are based on listening to friends who have become teachers.

    I was pleased to read what Obama had proposed as a replacement for NCLB. Most significant was noting that teachers would be evaluated on student success in a different manner. Instead of comparing the students to the rest of the country, it would finally be based on individual progress.

    I do believe that tenure should be redefined and that a teacher’s tenure should be regularly (every x years) be reviewed.

    I also believe that elementary teachers ought to have a better understanding of all subjects, since they are typically expected to teach all of the subjects.

    Furthermore, I like what China has done with enrollment. Parents receive vouchers and get to choose where to enroll their student(s). Schools receive funding based on that. It puts more pressure on the schools to compete for the students. It also addressing what the schools are trying to teach to a degree.

    Looking forward to reading your thoughts on this!

  3. bretbenesh Says:


    Thanks for providing some of the details for “Race to the Top.” I haven’t been able to read about how RttT would evaluate based on individual progress, but this is a step in the right direction.

    I am, however, concerned about “common standards and evaluations.” It is unclear to me that it is wise to expect that a student from rural Montana should have the same standards (and evaluations) as a student from Manhattan. For that matter, it is unclear to me that it is wise for two different students in rural Montana to have the same standards. I am currently thinking that we should move away from a one-size-fits-all model toward a system that nutures and supports individual characteristics.

    I will note that if tenure is regularly reviewed, I do not think that teachers would consider that to be tenure. It might be most honest to just give this a new name. Like “Benure.”

    One thing that I like about tenure is that it removes pressure from the teacher. Psychology shows that people do not perform well if they know that they are playing for high stakes, and that they are less likely to take risks. Ideally, I would like to have a system that accurately predicts who will be a good teacher (so would everyone else), but then keep the tenure process mostly in place. At least, these are my thoughts for today…for an ideal world. I am too tired to think about the fact that we will never have a system that accurately predicts who is going to be a good teacher.

    I agree that teachers need to know a whole lot of everything. Do you have an idea on how to accomplish that?

    Finally, China’s enrollment strategy is interesting. Again, I would be concerned about stagnation in education. Any school that wants to experiment with a new idea in teaching could face severe consequences. Since we do not know how to best educate students right now, it seems like we should encourage experimentation. China’s program would not kill experimentation, but I would imagine that most schools would not want to stand out too much unless they get desperate for more enrollment (at which time it might be hard to make ANY educational experiment succeed.

  4. Erica Says:

    Have you read the book What the Best College Teachers Do? It might offer some insight as to what good teaching is, though perhaps not as much as you’d like. I’d be interested to hear what you think, and can lend you a copy if you want.

    • bretbenesh Says:

      Hi Erica,

      That book was one of the first presents I bought for Christy. I have not read it, however. Fortunately, I tend to binge on reading during vacations, and we have one coming up this weekend. This will be on my list!


  5. 2010 in review « Solvable by Radicals Says:

    […] Should we fire bad teachers? March 20106 comments 3 […]

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