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.