The way teachers are hired and fired is probably the most vexed question in education today. Unions, through collective bargaining agreements, have worked hard to protect their members from the districts where they work. But that makes quality control very, very difficult: It has become exceedingly hard to fire low-performing teachers and replace them with ones who can raise student achievement. Tuesday, a California state judge agreed, ruling that laws concerning teacher employment are unconstitutional.
A principal’s ability to hire and fire teachers and other key personnel is crucial for rapid improvement. But reformers in California should take three lessons from New Orleans, where I worked:
- You can’t fire your way to success.
- It’s not about firing; it’s about hiring.
- Don’t become the devil you despise. Replacing thick rules with thin ones amounts to trading one problem for another.
In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the New Orleans School Board (illegally) fired its 7,500 employees and allowed its collective bargaining agreement with the United Teachers of New Orleans to expire. In 2008, the board also chose not to accept a new agreement, so no citywide agreement is in place to regulate the hiring and firing of teachers.
As a former education leader in that system, I can attest that bulky contracts between unions and districts lessen the ability of site-based managers to remove teachers who are ineffective, insensitive and/or not prepared. In environments where well intended but ill-equipped transplant teachers roam the educational landscape, it’s essential to find the right school/teacher fit. Families need school administrators to make decisions, not policymakers in organizations elsewhere.
On the flip side, teachers do need protection. Without a collective bargaining agreement, the responsibility of hearing their voices and ensuring sufficient working conditions falls heavily upon the shoulders of school leaders. The unspeakable hours of some teachers in New Orleans beg the question: Do we have enough quality and can we hire enough quality teachers at reasonable rates of pay so that teachers can live like professionals?
Because charter schools’ founders often select their own boards, principals are judge and jury. And teachers often leave when they don’t feel a sense of security. But our students’ need for quality instruction trumps the potential of leader abuse. Principals require the maximum ability to find teachers that match their educational philosophy, culture and temperament.
If the ruling holds, my New Orleans experience tells me there will probably be less professional cohesion between teachers throughout the district or city, but greater cohesion within schools themselves. This alone can generate positive gains for students.
Still, firing teachers based on standardized test scores is clearly fraught with problems, because teacher quality is not the only predictor of student achievement. Prior academic work, poverty and parents’ education also make a big difference in how well a student, and consequently a school, perform. Unfortunately, value added systems, which try to account for multiple factors, have not shown to be reliable. We still need ways to see what causes poor performance to assess teachers based on their ability to maximize the cards they are dealt.
There is probably a more difficult problem to solve. Teachers nationwide are enveloped in dysfunctional systems, which minimize their effectiveness. New Orleans’s decentralization efforts have at least enabled individual school leaders to address schooling problems on their own. For instance, Sharon Clark of Sophie B. Wright Charter School and Doris Hicks of Martin Luther King Charter School have essentially the same staffs from their pre-Katrina days, but their academic improvements came with increased levels of self-reliance and autonomy. With independence, school leaders are realizing how to run educationally sound, fiscally efficient schools.
Even if the California decision allows it, principals shouldn’t take a “clean slate” approach. Firing someone doesn’t guarantee you’ll find someone better. Improvement by deletion is bad policy. And good teachers should be hired no matter where they come from — the local community or the graduate program in Seattle — as long as they’re hired for potential effectiveness and proven performance. (Also, diversity makes a difference: If the teachers you fire are completely different than those you hire in terms of race, training and gender, then you’ve probably supporting an ideology rather than using autonomy effectively.)
If the decision holds, school leaders in California must be careful not to use their newfound autonomy to recreate the same bureaucracies that may have contributed to bad outcomes and ineffective teaching in the first place.