Teacher ineffectiveness is hard to establish

As hard as it is to believe, 29 states do not allow teachers to be fired if they can’t teach (“Most State Laws Silent on Dismissing Teachers Who Simply Cannot Teach,” National Council on Teacher Quality, Nov. 1.)   It’s this omission that undermines respect for the profession. I can understand why.

Yet the issue is not quite as simple as it initially appears.  So much of the success of teachers is the direct result of the students they happen to be assigned.  Inept teachers can be made to look good if they inherit a class of Talmudic scholars. In other words, the students shine in spite of the teacher, rather than because of the teacher. The reverse is also true.  Exemplary teachers can look bad if they are given a class of future felons.

If all teachers in a school were assigned students strictly at random, then valid inferences could be drawn about their competence.  But I doubt that will ever happen.  Principals have their favorite teachers whom they reward by giving them the easiest-to-teach students.  Conversely, principals punish those teachers they dislike for one reason or another by assigning them the hardest-to-teach students.  It’s not fair, of course, but it happens more than most people know.

Teachers who consistently demonstrate their ineffectiveness regardless of the students they inherit are a completely different story. They need to be given support to improve within a stipulated time frame.  If they can’t, they should be fired.

(To post a comment, click on the title of this blog.)

2 Replies to “Teacher ineffectiveness is hard to establish”

  1. The main — and rarely, if ever, noted — obstacle to identifying/removing poorly-performing teachers is the fact that teachers rarely have first-line supervisors.

    It is virtually impossible to fairly/accurately evaluate the quality/quantity of a professional employee’s work by measuring only the output (i.e., in the case of teachers, students’ standardized test scores). There will be too many variables impacting the measured output that are beyond the professional employee’s control.

    In most situations where an employer employs a large number of professional employees, those professional employees are supervised by first-line supervisors who are themselves experienced professionals. The supervisor works closely the employee and therefore can knowledgeably consider the variables impacting the employee’s performance. Also, the employer usually holds the supervisor responsible — to some degree — for the quality/quantity of the employee’s work product, so the supervisor has a personal interest in monitoring and assisting the employee.

    Teachers do not have such a first-line supervisor. Instead, teachers have a second-line manager — the principal or asst principal — who rarely, if ever, works closely with the employee and accordingly has only the vaguest awareness of the variables impacting the employee’s performance.

    Given the long-established one-teacher-in-each-classroom model, it would be relatively expensive and politically impossible to create first-line supervisors for all the teachers (although it would probably be a good idea, at least as a pilot project). The next best approach is something like the approach used in Montgomery County, MD (a large DC suburb). The program — called PAR — provides first-line supervisor teachers for most new teachers and for more experienced teachers where the principal has reason to believe the teacher may be performing poorly. The supervisor-teachers are selected and assigned by central admin, not by the involved principal. The supervisor teacher works with the teacher for an extended period and submits a report with a recommendation (OK, further supervision, or discharge). A committee of other supervisor teachers and principals (again, not including the involved principals) make the final decision re OK, further supervision, or discharge). PAR has been functioning for over 10 years and has resulted in the discharge or resignation-in-lieu-of-discharge of over 500 teachers. The union strongly supports the system. There have been very few challenges to the discharges. And, the system provides a check on irrational or vindictive principals going after good teachers.


  2. Labor Lawyer: You are correct. Principals not only are far removed from the classroom, but most often are not certified in the subject being taught by the teacher they observe. It’s altogether possible for a teacher to be teaching erroneously the subject but still get a good rating because nobody knows the difference.


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