What the school reform debate misses about teachers

By Joel Klein
Sunday, March 13, 2011

As the debate rages over public unions and, in particular, over their role in school reform, an unfortunate dichotomy about America's teachers has emerged. On one side, unions and many teachers say that teachers are unfairly vilified, that they work incredibly hard under difficult circumstances and that they are underpaid. Critics, meanwhile, say that our education system is broken and that to fix it we need better teachers. They say that teachers today have protections and benefits not seen in the private sector - such as life tenure, lifetime pension and health benefits, and short workdays and workyears.

Both sides are right.

Teaching is incredibly hard, especially when dealing with children in high-poverty communities who come to school with enormous challenges. Many teachers work long hours, staying at school past 6 p.m., and then working at home grading papers and preparing lessons. Some teachers get outstanding results, even with our most challenged students. These are America's heroes, and they should be recognized as such. Sadly, they aren't.

On the other hand, there are also many teachers who work by the clock - they show up a minute before 8:30 and leave a minute after 3; when in school, they do the barest minimum. They get dreadful results with students and, if you spend time in their classrooms, as I have over the past eight years, it's painfully obvious that they belong in another line of work.

The problem is that our discussion too often fails to distinguish between these very different types of teachers, treating them all the same. This "group-think" not only pollutes the current public debate - either you're for or against teachers - it is also killing our opportunity to fix our schools. Any reform worth its name must start by recognizing that teachers are our most important educational asset. That's why we need to treat teaching as a profession, by supporting excellence, striving for constant improvement and ridding the system of poor performers.

Alas, we do none of this. Whether you are good or bad, work hard or don't, teach in a shortage area (such as math) or work in a highly challenged school, you get treated precisely the same: You have life tenure and generous lifetime health and pension benefits, and you get paid more money next year simply because of seniority.

Consider the fight over teacher layoffs. In many states, you must lay teachers off solely based on reverse seniority - last in, first out. That's nuts. Do you know anyone who would say "I want the most senior surgeon" rather than "I want the best surgeon"? Sure, experience matters. That's why, in baseball, the rookie of the year is almost never the most valuable player. But the rookie of the year is better than a whole lot of 10-year veterans, and every baseball team takes this into account when deciding its roster.

From the day I became chancellor of New York City's schools, the thing that shocked me most was that the entire system eschewed distinctions based on merit. The unions, in particular, well understood that once we began to differentiate based on merit, the public would be forced to deal with these clearly spelled out differences and would demand that consequences result from these differences. No one wants a low-performing teacher teaching her child.

Critics argue that we cannot fairly evaluate teacher performance, so the current lock-step system is the best we can do. That's ridiculous. Is there anyone who doesn't think that some of his own teachers were great and some terrible?

While there are no perfect evaluation systems, a reasonable, merit-based system is entirely achievable. First, we should look at how much student progress each teacher gets by comparing teachers with similar challenges - e.g., those who start mainly with low-performing kids would be compared only to one another. Many researchers have done precisely this and found huge differences in results. Stanford economist Eric Hanushek, for example, has shown that some teachers get 1.5 years' worth of progress with their students in a single year, while others get only a half-year's worth, even when the students start at the same levels. Think what those differences amount to over 13 years of schooling.

Other, more traditional methods of evaluation could also be applied, such as adopting a set of criteria that can be evaluated by principals and/or master teachers. We could take into account things such as a teacher's contributions to the school community, by, say, staying late to coach a math team.

Whatever the criteria, the key point is that we must evaluate and differentiate - with consequences. We do teachers an enormous disservice by perpetuating the myth that we can't evaluate their performance and that, consequently, neither excellence nor poor performance matters. Teachers are far too important to our students and the future of our country to treat them as interchangeable cogs or widgets.

The writer, a former chancellor of New York public schools, is chief executive of News Corp.'s educational division.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company