Thursday, March 25, 2010

Firing Bad Teachers and Promoting Good Ones

I teach a statistics class as an adjunct faculty at a college in California. The other day, a student came up to me, almost in tears. He was having a terrible time in his economics class. He wants to major in business. Economics and statistics are two core requirements that he must fulfill before transferring to a university.

“I am getting nothing out of my economics class,” he lamented. “The teacher never explains anything. He just scribbles furiously on the board. The other day he drew many graphs and many equations on demand and supply theory. When a student asked him to explain the theory in simpler terms, he humiliated him in front of the whole class. None of us are learning any economics. Do you have any advice for me?”

“Is he full-time?”

“Yes, and tenured.”

Well, that probably explains it. All I could tell him was to team up with a few like-minded students and see if learning from each other helps. I am a big believer in peer-to-peer learning. I have encouraged this among my own students. When a student has difficulty, for instance, looking up the binomial probability distribution table, I ask another student who has mastered the task to help him. It works beautifully.

But the larger issue is what to do with the rogue teachers who are blind to the needs of their students and fear no consequences. They are untouchable. The underlying “principle” is that the Teachers’ Union will defend them against any threat to their job security. Everyone knows it. The dean of the department knows it. The rogue teacher’s peers know it. Yet nothing happens and students continue to suffer year after year, at a terrible cost to them and to society.

Another student who took an elementary algebra class from me had to sign up for intermediate algebra in the summer from another teacher. She told me about the hell she had to endure from this tenured professor.

Each chapter in the algebra text has about 7-8 sections. I had barely enough time to cover a single section in an hour. This teacher (summer classes are usually 3hours long in this college) bulldozed his way through almost two full chapters per class. That’s about 14-16 sections in one sitting!

“I lost weight,” the student told me. “I was so stressed and exhausted that I became a machine. That’s how I survived. I learned nothing. He never entertained any question. Our homework and tests were graded by the publisher’s online setup. He never checked our homework or tests or quizzes himself. He always seemed angry and gave the impression that we were wasting his time. I never had such a miserable experience in my life.”

A recent cover story in Newsweek (March 15, 2010) boldly claimed that the key to saving American education was startlingly simple: “We must fire bad teachers.” Almost all recent data and educational reports suggest that teacher quality is the most important factor in the success of our education system. A talented teacher can unlock the potential of a student while a bad teacher can stifle it and even doom the student’s future. Parents will happily go along with a class of 40 students taught by a great teacher than a class of 10 taught by a bad one. The influence of an inspiring and demanding teacher can last a lifetime. Unfortunately, so can the influence of a mediocre and unimaginative one.

Charter schools like KIPP and Teach for America use rigorous methods for selecting their teachers and subject them to frequent evaluations. The success of teachers in these schools is entwined with the success of their students. If students do not show improvement, the failing teachers are replaced. But charter schools represent only 3% of America’s public school students. It is not clear that charter schools can scale well.

At the community college level, firing bad teachers often lead to legal battles that can drag on for years. It can also lead to trouble for students who dare to report. Yet I have found in private conversations that many teachers themselves strongly support firing the incompetent ones among them. They also seem to know who they are. These rogue teachers tarnish the image of the teaching profession and bring bad name to entire departments. It is the case of one rotten apple spoiling the whole barrel.

What compounds the problem is that when a budget crisis forces layoffs, and California is now going through its severest budget crisis in decades, it is often the young teachers who are laid off first. Yet they are the ones who are often best able to connect with students because of their facility with technology and current issues and their passion for teaching. In reality, though, the longer a teacher has worked in the school system, the more secure he is, no matter how atrocious he may be as a teacher. This quality-blind law and last-in, first-out model has been a disaster for our schools. Seniority can never be the basis for who gets to shape the minds of our students.

Teachers themselves have suggested three criteria to judge their own effectiveness: classroom management skills, attendance and a rigorous, objective annual performance evaluation rating. The three add up to one final criterion: the performance of students.

The sooner this type of quality-based system is put into practice, the better off we will be as a nation. While such practices are the norm in schools such as KIPP and Teach for America, public schools and colleges are still mired in politics and endless debates about repealing quality-blind laws. But the status quo cannot continue because the future of our nation is at stake.

About my statistics student, I have decided that I will personally take him to my dean and together, we will make a formal protest against the economics professor. If necessary, I will add other students who will be willing to stick their necks out. It is likely that I will be relieved of my teaching duties for being a “troublemaker.” That’s okay. The satisfaction that my students have already given me over the years with their evaluations will last me a lifetime. But perhaps this protest will have a ripple effect and at least a few of the teachers who are no longer passionate about their craft will retire voluntarily, to make room for those with a gift for teaching. If that happens, there is nothing I can think of that will bring me more happiness.

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