Firing Teachers: Readers vs. Me

By Jay Mathews
Friday, October 3, 2008; 6:15 AM

The Internet arrived late in my career. Its annoyances are far outweighed by its joys. One of the best things about the new era is that I can converse with far more readers and at much greater depth than I ever could with just a phone and a typewriter.

One example is the energetic response to my column Monday on the second page of The Post's Metro section. The headline summed it up well: "For Kids' Sake, Power to Fire Teachers Crucial."

I explained why I thought D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee was right to try to find the best possible principals, who understand great teaching because they were once great teachers themselves, and give them the power to hire and fire the people who work for them. My prime example was the success of the KIPP DC: KEY Academy, a public charter school in the District. I described how that school's principal, Sarah Hayes, removed quickly two teachers who failed to respond to her efforts to train them, and how that saved their students from months, and perhaps years, of mediocre teaching.

Here is a sample of online comments on the column, identified by their sign-on names, and also e-mails to me, with my thoughts on each. I plan to do more columns like this. I think conversations with smart readers are essential in helping us all understand what we are talking about:

* * *

Mr. Mathews' article is purposely misleading, revealing a level of professional dishonesty that is troubling. As informed as he purports to be, I am certain that Mr. Mathews is familiar with the 90-day plan that has existed in the Washington Teachers' Union contract for the last four years. Teachers can be placed on a 90-day plan after an observation, several of which may occur prior to the winter break, and can be out of a DCPS school within the school year. The reason why this plan has been miserably underutilized is because principals and assistant principals have failed in their professional responsibility to conduct evaluations. Therefore, they could not place anyone on a 90-day plan, not because the union was preventing it, but because they as administrators were not doing their jobs. Mr. Mathews knows this. If he doesn't, he isn't the expert he claims to be. If he does know it, and is perpetuating the falsehood that the WTU protects bad teachers, then his journalistic license should be revoked. The WTU doesn't protect bad teachers. Bad administrators do and always have.

-- vscribe

I was aware of it and would have mentioned it if I had more space. Your analysis is exactly right. As I said in the column, "Staffing rules, tenure agreements and low expectations tend to favor weak teachers unless they do something awful." If I left the impression that I am blaming just the union, forgive me. This is a cultural problem that affects everyone -- unions, school boards, superintendents, principals and even us media types. There is a widespread feeling of hopelessness and apathy that tends to keep us from doing more to get the best possible teachers in the classroom in urban and rural schools.

You said: "Unless principals are given the power to hire and fire teachers based on demonstrated skill and improved learning in class." And what demonstrates "improved learning"? A single class's score on standardized tests, so a particularly trying year could spell dismissal for a teacher? Value added scoring tracking students through the grades, though how do we know if a good or bad year is because of foundational teaching the student received years before? Would we want to use standardized test scores at all, which may result in teachers teaching to the test and focusing on test-taking skills rather than critical thinking skills that are harder to measure in Scantron format? This article wisely sidesteps what those standards would be because it is very difficult to set up standards that would be reliable and verifiable, and fair to students and teachers. Accountability is well and good, but you cannot divorce that from the test writing and tutoring industries. Heck, you'd think math never changes, but it undergoes a new curriculum revolution every year. How can we all agree on reasonable standards in that environment? Until there is more transparency and more planning, I'm not willing to set up firing (or refusing graduation/promotion for students) standards. Let's talk about the building blocks, first.

-- potmeetkettle

This is an excellent point. I think standardized tests are one good measure, as long as we are looking not at how good the scores are, but how much each child improves during the school year. Even more important is having a principal who was a successful teacher and knows other good teachers when she sees them. I cannot emphasize too much the importance of having the right person in that job before we grant principals the power to hire and fire. And as an ultimate assessment, we have to make clear to those principals that they will be fired if their schools do not show improvement. I would not do this for all schools. Middle-class schools in the suburbs are doing fine because the parents make sure their children are on course, and politically the way KIPP runs its schools would never fly with those parents. But schools full of impoverished children need something more, a system that is absolutely focused on raising student achievement.

Common sense and all the available data demonstrate that schools that try to serve all students are equally effective as schools that seek to serve only some students. Whatever differences exist in school results between charter schools (privately operated) and public schools (and overall they are not significant) can be explained by self-selection. That is, the more committed, more interested parents tend to send their children to charter schools. There is no real evidence that the methods, organization, hiring methods or whatever of charter schools are significantly superior to those of public schools.

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