When Firing Bad Teachers Isn’t an Option, Train Them Instead

Is firing under-performing teachers the best path to improving student achievement? That seems to be the conclusion of many education reformers who insist that the teachers unions’ reluctance to give way when it comes to making firing teachers easier is one of the main hurdles to improving academic quality of America’s schools. But as Ray Fisman, writing for Slate.com explains, the low rate of dismissal of teachers might have less to do with union intransigence and more to do with simple reality of the instructional job market: if your district happens to be outside large urban areas like New York, Washington, Boston or Los Angeles, firing a bad teacher doesn’t mean that the class will get a better teacher, but that the class might have to go without a teacher at all.

Firing teachers isn’t a simple option in localities where replacing them is difficult. So, some are now turning to alternatives like working on ways to turn under-performing teachers in to well-performing ones.

If we take firing off the table, what else can be done to resolve America’s education crisis? The findings of several recent studies by psychologists, economists, and educators show that—despite many reformers’ claims to the contrary—it may be possible to make low-performing teachers better, instead of firing them. If these studies can be replicated throughout entire school systems and across the country, we may be at the beginning of a revolution that will build a better educational system for America.

The point of view that there’s little districts can do to improve the quality of their current instructional staff is due to the research that has shown that no current methods of teacher training and career development has shown any significant improvement in their students’ academic outcomes. The results are similar when studying the benefits accrued via an education degree, or via increasing teacher salaries. But the fact that no methods currently tried have had any impact, isn’t proof of the fact that there are no methods out there that would.

But there’s a big difference between saying that we have yet to find an approach that has been shown to have a measurable impact on a teacher performance and claiming that none exists. Indeed, the Gates Foundation and others are making big bets that the secret to teacher improvement can be found, and there’s reason to hope that they may carry the day. They point to success stories like the Harlem Children’s Zone and the Knowledge Is Power Program charter schools, which consistently improve the test scores of students randomized into their classrooms through lotteries. Pedagogy gurus like Norm Atkins, meanwhile, have developed teacher-training curricula that they believe can make anyone teach better.

One strong indicator that an effective approach to improving teacher quality exists is the Teacher Evaluation System that has been in place in the Cincinnati Public School system since 2000. The district’s teachers submit to several class performance evaluations by master teachers who also review and critique lesson plans and study materials. Eric Taylor of Stanford and John Tyler of Brown studied the TES as it was being evaluated, comparing the results of teachers in the schools that adopted the TES early as opposed to those who adopted it late.

The results of the study suggest that TES-style feedback and coaching holds promise—Taylor and Tyler estimate that participating in TES has an effect on students’ standardized math test scores that is equivalent to taking a teacher that is worse than three-quarters of his peers and making him about average.