Monday, March 8, 2010

Let's fire the teachers
by David Gilfix

Here’s a way to fix our broken educational system:  Let’s fire all the teachers.

That’s what the school board decided last month in Central Falls, Rhode Island – they fired the entire high school faculty (no, that’s not a misprint).  In brief, Central Falls is an immigrant town of 19,000, with a 13.8 percent unemployment rate, where 61 percent of students receive free or subsidized lunch.  Less than 50 percent of the students graduate, and by 11th grade, only 7 percent of the students earn proficient math scores.   Clearly, this is not a thriving academic environment.

So they fired all the teachers.

Of course, it’s more complicated than that.   The school board fired the faculty because the teachers refused to implement certain remedies.  Supposedly.  However this is all spin.  The teachers never explicitly refused the school board’s directives, rather they pointed out that these new responsibilities were extensive, time consuming, and not required in their contract – hence the need for negotiations.
Then they fired the teachers.

So the teachers weren’t fired because of low student academic performance but because of teacher insubordination.  Supposedly.  But insubordination usually involves a refusal to abide by responsibilities that are delineated in a contract.  In this case, the new directives involved duties either missing or not clearly stated in the teachers’ contract, depending on which side you believe.  Either way, the situation should have been resolved through negotiations – that is, unless the school board wanted an excuse to terminate the faculty.

Firing teachers and support staff is a wonderfully dramatic way to demonstrate anger and frustration with our educational system.  Conservative columnists and talk show hosts who make their living being wonderfully dramatic and frustrated are jumping on the Central Falls School Board Committee bandwagon and praising its members for supporting the students against the evil teachers’ unions.  Yet, the conservatives are not alone; even President Obama has defended the decision, saying, “If a school continues to fail its students year after year, if it doesn’t show signs of improvement, then there’s got to be a sense of accountability.”

On the surface, President Obama’s comments make sense, don’t they?  But if the teachers have truly failed, at the very least we should be able to identify how – a task made simple since columnists and talk show hosts seem to have already identified the teachers’ shortcomings both in Central Falls and nationally.  All we need do is investigate the charges to determine which ones are accurate.

So let’s begin.

The Charge:
The teachers are lazy.

The Reality: 
Some are.  However, by all reputable accounts, most teachers work very hard.  This writer is curious about where and how these columnists gathered their data about teacher laziness (or if they were too lazy to do any real research themselves).  In the Central Falls Schools example, even the school committee doesn’t deny reports that many teachers went beyond the call of duty, arriving early and staying quite late on a daily basis to provide students with remedial help.

This writer became better aware of the misperceptions of the teaching profession when his sister-in-law, a former lawyer, became a public school French teacher, and his brother, who works at a major corporation, was shocked at how she devoted almost every evening and weekend to class preparation and student grading.  Apparently, many people think that a teacher’s workday ends when the students leave.   It simply does not.  For most teachers, it continues many hours after student dismissal and lasts long into the evening.

More pointedly, if our educational problems were somehow related to teacher laziness as some of these radio talk show hosts believe, then the worst performing schools would employ the laziest teachers, and the best performing schools would employ those who are hardest working.  But there is absolutely no evidence that either of those statements is correct.

The Charge
The teachers are stupid and incompetent.

The Reality
Some are.   Like most professionals including doctors, politicians, journalists, and those in the business field, you will find most teachers to be competent, a few incompetent, and a few to be exceedingly sharp.  Students certainly learn more from an outstanding teacher than from a poor teacher – that is a truism.  However, it doesn’t logically follow that since we know students learn more from an outstanding teacher than from a poor teacher, poor students must have learned from poor teachers and outstanding students must have studied from outstanding teachers.

At the Central Falls High School, non-teacher related conditions that could have influenced learning include the economy (85 percent of the students were classified as financially disadvantaged); parental involvement; academic background of the parents; English proficiency (22 percent were designated to have “limited” English proficiency); available resources for students with significant learning challenges and behavioral issues (23 percent were on Individualized Educational Plans, “IEP”s); class size (probably large); violence in the school and neighborhood; and school resources (apparently the school had run out of pencils).

The Charge
If the students aren’t learning then the school has failed.  Period.  The teachers’ job is to make sure the students overcome their environmental challenges.

The Reality
Some well-intentioned people including President Obama support this charge.  They refuse to accept the probability that students in certain schools might be less likely to succeed academically, which is admirable.  However, their solution confuses an arbitrary job definition - that it is the teachers’ responsibility is to make sure students overcome environmental conditions - for an education policy.   Saying it doesn’t make it true.  What if the job definition is contradicted by our best understanding of teachers’ true influence?

Consider this:  A global study of identical twins, undertaken by The University of New England in Australia, suggests that teachers only have a minor role in how well students learn.  The 10-year study tracked identical twins in Australia, the United States, and other countries, and compared early learning of twins who shared the same teacher versus twins who had different teachers. 

Since identical twins, of course, share the same genetics and environmental influences (parents, home, and neighborhood), the study provided a unique method of voiding the impact of environmental conditions (which were extremely similar) in order to determine the influence of different teachers.  The results were quite revealing.  As reported by Andrew Leigh, professor of the Research School of Economics, Australia, the study suggests that only 8 percent of the variation in students’ early acquisition of literacy and spelling skills could be attributed to the “teacher effect.”  Further, the study also shows that differences in schools have little effect on children literacy levels. 

According to Professor Byrne who spearheaded the research, the findings contradict claims by some people that “teacher quality could account for a variance of 40 percent in a child’s learning outcome.”

Concordant with the Twin study, many a not-lazy teacher has noticed a similar pattern among students when teachers switch jobs from high performing schools to low performing schools, or vice-versa.  If the students in the low performing school were the victims of bad teaching (from stupid and incompetent teachers) and the students in the high performing schools were the beneficiaries of excellent teaching (from smart, competent teachers) then logically the performance of students would reverse when the teachers switched jobs.   Yet, there doesn’t seem to be much evidence that this happens. 

The Charge
Teachers and their unions are greedy.

The Reality
Some are.  Especially if your definition of “greedy” is demanding mostly middle class or slightly above middle class wages for preparing the next generation of decision makers.   One thing is certain, one could only be a greedy teacher if he were also a stupid teacher; a smart person motivated by greed would have chosen a less stressful, less time-consuming, higher paying profession. 

More to the point, if our educational problems were caused by unions, as certain radio talk show hosts assert, then the schools systems with the most effective unions – those that provide the most generous compensation – would be the worst academic performers.  Yet the opposite is the case; schools that provide the best compensation, thanks in part to their so-called greedy unions, also perform the best academically.  Clearly, unions are not the cause of our educational problems.

A Face Saving Compromise
The decision to fire the faculty and staff at Central Falls High School was an act of frustration rather than clear thinking.   As of Wednesday, March 3, The Central Falls School Board had announced a likely compromise that would preserve most of the teachers’ jobs.  The instructors have agreed to longer hours and more rigorous evaluations and training, among other steps.

Requiring teachers to work longer hours might yield some results if it is part of a policy to extend the school day for the students.

The second part of the compromise seems like a face saving measure for the school board.  If the problem were one of inadequate teacher training or inadequate teacher evaluations then we would have to assume that the present and past principals at Central Falls High School were incapable of evaluating and hiring competent teachers (all the teachers who were employed until now must have received relatively positive evaluations in order to have been candidates for the blanket dismissal).  Any principal who hires only incompetent teachers and then gives them positive evaluations must be uniquely unqualified.  Moreover, the Central Falls superintendents and school board members who hired such an incompetent principal must have been uniquely unqualified for making such a poor choice.

Maybe the school board members should fire themselves.

Thinking deeper about education
Many adults evaluate their own education not by the number of teachers with whom they studied but by whether they were fortunate enough to have had even one teacher who exerted a profound positive influence on them.    Teachers matter.  However, the question for policy makers is not whether teachers matter but how to best turn around poor students, poor schools, and overall negative trends in public education.  

Teachers alone cannot solve our educational challenges.   They cannot turn low performing schools into high performing schools; and in general – with some exceptions – they cannot turn individual student performance around.  What the very best teachers can and should do, in the opinion of this writer, is the following:
  1. Help foster a love and respect for learning and thinking.
  2. Help students learn as much as possible for themselves at this time in their lives, given their intellectual talents as well as unique environmental handicaps or advantages.
  3. Be respectful and caring.
Is this enough?  Certainly, there are many educational "experts" who provide excellent advise about how teachers can improve their techniques to get better “output” from students.   While many of their suggestions appear well founded, in the most challenging schools they often ignore realities that trump their own wisdom, such as discipline and behavioral issues, home environment, and economic problems.

Any teacher who can help foster love and respect for learning, help students learn as much as possible in spite of their environmental handicaps or other disadvantages, and can serve as a role model for students of a respectful caring adult is performing a huge service to students and society.   There is little more we can ask of our teachers.

But these steps alone won’t solve our educational challenges.

Sadly, there are no easy answers to our educational challenges. In a Washington Post article by Nick Anderson, Russ Whitehurst, a Brookings Institution Scholar who directed education research under President George Bush, says, "There just is very little evidence in terms of what works in quickly turning around a persistently low-performing school."

Everybody wants to fix our educational system, and there is nothing wrong with that, but nobody seems to know what is broken.

Is it possible that our educational challenges have little to do with the schools at all?


Sensemaker said...

Thanks for another thought-provoking post. I believe the problem lies indeed with the system where education is a government mandate rather than a privilige and an opportunity to get ahead.
I think in a prosperous, civilized society each child should be entitled to an educational opportunity but not a diploma. If teachers were not pressed to forcefully educate the unwilling, the prestige of the profession (and resulting compensations)would be higher. Perhaps, there would be no more need in teachers unions than there is in doctors unions.
In my ideal system, each child would get a fixed-amount voucher acceptable as cash by any school, each school would be required to accept the vouchers as payment-in-full from local students, and schools would be expected (for the sake of others) to fail the underperformers and expell troublemakers. Obviously, not what we see today.
But, today's problem is self correcting even if so painfully. As the quality of mandated free-for-all education universally deteriorates, its perceived value goes down as well. It is not appreciated by failing or truant students nor is it considered meaningful by employers who increasingly look for other metrics and merits. Consequently, mere existence of schools is becoming optional. Come think of it, if 40% of students don't graduate and the remaining 60% are functionally illiterate, who really needs the school (and by extention, its teachers). Sadly, we can expect more closings and faculty dismissals ahead as grade schools, just as colleges already started to, become useless and overpriced. The trend has been satirically reflected in the recent movie called "Idiocracy."

Anonymous said...

I applaud the firings. The school was given over to a non-profit, Green Dot, which has turned around 10 public schools in LA with favorable results. Let them work their magic in Rhode Island. Actually, there's nothing magical about it: Green Dot told the teachers to feel free to reapply (less than half did), but they'd be working in a school with longer hours (open until 5), less students (560 or less), and required interaction with parents. I'm sure the union loved that! Sometimes it takes radical action to effect real change.

Anonymous said...

And just a week after my dire prediction of more closings to come, I came across this news story:
Budget, Quality, Population Issues Lead Cities to Close Schools: Is Yours Next?
Kansas City, Mo., to Cut Nearly Half of Its Public Schools, Officials Cite Drop in Enrollment, Funding

So it is happening and sadly, we are indeed not in "Kansas" anymore.