Teachers Agree: Fire a Third of Us
By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Judging by the enthusiastic response, my first ever guest columnist, Lancaster (Calif.) High School chemistry teacher Richard Chapleau, captured nicely the grievances of many of his fellow educators, as well as a significant number of parents and others worried about public schools.
In his June 8 column, "If I Were Emperor of Education," he dreamed of a day when incompetent instructors would be swiftly dismissed, teachers would be evaluated by other teachers who knew them well and parents would take more responsibility for their children's lack of familiarity with the written English language.
What surprised Chapleau, and me, was that he got almost no hate mail. I thought his plan to fire a third of the teachers now in schools would, in particular, deeply aggravate many readers and get a lot of attention, which is why I suggested that washingtonpost.com make that the column headline on the home page.
"I can't tell you how nervous I was at putting my thoughts out there across the nation," Chapleau told me. "I expected to receive almost all negative responses from people who felt threatened."
Instead, as he said, "almost no one took issue with me." Those that did -- I will quote a few samples in a moment -- were not hostile but thoughtful, which is pretty much the standard for responses to this column except on those occasions when I float ideas that are absolutely batty.
There was considerable support for weeding out burned out or bumbling teachers, even among educators. Chris Teater, an English teacher at a Florida high school, said each of her own four children "experienced the pleasure and motivation of a highly interested teacher, a teacher who was in education for love of the kids and who also had a commanding grasp of the subject to be taught," but they have also "had multiple experiences with bored, unfriendly, and intellectually suffocating teachers who not only turned them off to the subject, but also, in some cases, to school -- at least temporarily."
Dana Camp-Farber, a first grade teacher, said, "I would get rid of the incompetent teachers who don't care about kids and are serving as bureaucratic employees. Teaching is not just a job. It is a calling and a mission." Marie Szczurowski, who is researching education policy while tutoring in an inner city school, says "Some of the teachers have given up completely on these kids." Yvonne M. Bakker, junior and senior kindergarten teacher at St. Columban's School, West, in Cornwall, Ontario, said, "We all know teachers who should no longer be teaching or who should never have begun in the first place."
Kirt Marsh of Tacoma, Wash., said his mother, a veteran teacher, thought the solution might be replacing teacher tenure with five-year contracts. "What if you eliminated tenure, but raised all teacher salaries significantly?" he said. "It would attract more talented people to teaching, and weed out those unfit to be in a classroom."
More predictably, many teachers thanked Chapleau for pointing out that parents bear some responsibility for failing to instill a love of reading in their children or even helping them become familiar with books. Chapleau said if he were emperor of education he would require a promise never to whine from any parent who, when hearing the words "One Fish, Two Fish," did not immediately reply "Red Fish, Blue Fish," indicating that they and their children were familiar with the Dr. Seuss book in which those colorful creatures swam.
The only dissenter was Michael Melcher of Highland Park, Ill., whom I quote only to comfort those of us who at some point in our parentage started skipping pages of "Green Eggs and Ham" in order to preserve our sanity. "Don't misunderstand," Melcher told Chapleau. "I love to read and I taught my daughter to read before she ever got to school." His only problem was, "I detest Dr. Seuss. Frankly, I think the man should have been shot for the mindless crap he put out."
I thought some of the most interesting rejoinders to Chapleau's piece were on that very issue, the role of parents. If they haven't bothered to read to their children, are their kids doomed? Kenneth Bernstein, who teaches social studies at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt, said: "Yes, we fight a battle when we lack the appropriate support from parents at home, but we can and do overcome that. Sometimes it is the child we inspire, sometimes the parent, sometimes both, but it does not create a situation of irreversible damage."
A Maryland parent, Carolyn Stepnitz, said she would have passed the Red Fish, Blue Fish test, and has been very active in his children's schools, but thinks blaming bad parents "is the most simplistic and paralyzing roadblock to any improvement in education." What if the parents are functionally illiterate? "Thirteen years later, or less if they drop out," Stepnitz said, "will you return those children to the community unable or unmotivated to read any better than their parents? And then ask for more funding to repeat this for another generation while complaining that parents don't read to their kids?"
Two veteran thinkers about education saw problems in both the quick removal of classroom incompetents and making teachers rather than administrators the principal evaluators of teachers. Mike Martin, research analyst for the Arizona School Boards Association, quoted Chapleau's statement that "unions were not designed to protect the incompetent workers, but instead were designed to protect workers from incompetent bosses," then suggested designating, and paying, master teachers to bridge the gaps both between isolated teachers and between teachers and what Chapleau called "criminally overworked administrators."
"Any time, in any program, when you describe one-third of the participants as failures, you can be fairly certain you have a system problem, not a personnel problem," Martin said.
Robert Wendel, who has been principal of three different schools in California, made a similar point from another direction. He thinks bad teachers should be removed, although he estimates they make up no more than 10 percent of the total. To have teachers decide who should be removed and who should not, however, leaves the principal without an essential tool in moving a school forward.
"When a team loses too often, who gets fired?" Wendel asked. "The coach. Why? Because it's the coach that sets the tempo, decides who starts or sits, when the subs should be sent into the game. The coach controls much."
"It's the same with the principal. If he or she has a well-articulated vision of what can happen if everyone pulls together, and there is a team feeling, if the teaching staff believes that the principal has the best interests of the kids at heart, clearly identifies areas that need improvement, lays out a doable plan, and provides the necessary support and resources to get to where it is the school needs to go, teachers will follow."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
_____About the Author_____
Jay Mathews, a Washington Post education reporter, writes a weekly Class Struggle column exclusively for washingtonpost.com. He also covers school issues in a quarterly column for The Post Magazine. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.