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Fixing What’s Broken Without Breaking Everything Else

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My adrenaline was still surging after joining thousands in my town demonstrating against the lay-offs of some of our best teachers at last Thursday's Day of Action to Defend Public Education. My spirits took a dive, however, when I opened my Sunday New York Times a mere three days later, and was reminded of another lay-off controversy turned lay-off melee in Central Falls, RI, where 93 high school teachers and staff were fired en masse by school officials last month. The two sides had been unable to reach agreement on a plan to turn around the failing school (they have since made some progress). Both Education Secretary Arne Duncan and President Barack Obama weighed in to support the Central Falls school officials, much to the fury of the local teachers union and just about every other union in the state. Talk about a downer.

What do you do when every teacher lay-off isn't about the sacking of honest, hard-working stewards of the learning process in order to meet the bottom line? Rather, when it's about ending years of woeful, sub-par performance by teachers who seem unable or unwilling to help pull their classrooms out of the rut? What to do when teachers' rights clash with students' rights to a decent education?

I don't have the answer, and anyone who tells you it's simple and not painful, isn't telling the truth. But I do know that if we, as citizens, parents, and teachers don't take bold systemic action to turn around chronic school failure, the problem will bleed out farther and farther into the system.

I also believe you can't be afraid to lay people off. You can't shrink from saying to some teachers, whose record of consistently missing opportunities to teach kids is beyond dispute, the time has come to step down from the classroom. The trick is, when is the fair and equitable time to force the issue? Or, far better, what is the fair, equitable and affordable combination of training and expanded hours spent with students that teachers should agree to, in order to improve their performance?

To that question, came something of a tangential answer from another Times report, last Sunday's cover story in the New York Times Magazine: "Building A Better Teacher." The subtext or sub-query of the article is how can educators be educated to educate better? Some suggest that perhaps they can't be, that there is a special sauce that makes a good teacher. That it has more to do with an innate ability to direct and to listen and to command attention, than anything you can learn. In other words, becoming a truly good teacher stems from a certain psychological and social aptitude one is born with and/or develops long before entering the profession.

Fortunately, Times reporter Elizabeth Green unearths other more optimistic researchers, including former teacher, principal and charter school founder, Doug Lemov of Albany, NY. Lemov believes you can help teachers teach better, and has written a book about it. Slated for release next month, it's called "Teach Like A Champion: The 40 Techniques that Put Students on the Path to College."

In a similar vein, check out Edutopia's Seven Super Teacher Traits quiz from our "Schools That Work" series -- it's based on lessons learned by educators at Houston's YES Prep school.

One last note: You may have read recently about the highly esteemed education historian Diane Ravitch, former Assistant Secretary of Education under President George H.W. Bush and advocate of No Child Left Behind, charter schools, standardized testing, and using the free market to improve schools. Last week she executed a startling about face, and admitted she now believes she was wrong about most of what she once advocated. A major brouhaha has ensured. Read the analysis at

Join the Edutopia discussion about it in the Education Headline News group

And read the specifics of Ravitch's turnaround in her new book "The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education."

-- David Markus, Editorial Director, Edutopia

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Peggy Stein's picture

I agree when you say that the issue isn't simple-- I actually believe nothing about education is simple. I also liked when you wrote,"But I do know that if we, as citizens, parents, and teachers don't take bold systemic action to turn around chronic school failure, the problem will bleed out farther and farther into the system. I also believe you can't be afraid to lay people off." What we're talking about here though, is FIRING teachers, not laying them off, which when necessary should be done whether there is a budget crisis or not. If a teacher is bad for children, inept or ineffective, then he or she should be fired. For over 20 years I worked at 6 elementary schools in low performing inner city schools and coached many struggling teachers at several more, and I believe that many of them (about 20-25% of the teaching staff)shouldn't be teaching. I'm talking about folks who have had many years of experience and the opportunity to improve. They need to find other work and get out of the way of educational progress. Unfortunately the union defends their right to a job no matter what. I don't understand "the clash between teachers' rights and the students' right to a decent education". What are we about? Who are we supposed to be serving? To even pose that question says a lot about where we are as a profession. We need to stop being so defensive if we are going to find real solutions to this mess we're in. Another article I would recommend just came out in the March 15 Newsweek at

David Markus's picture
David Markus
Former Editorial Director of Edutopia; dad of 4 (3 kids in public school)

Thanks, Peggy. I get your point about the over-riding importance of what teachers are serving--the interests of young people. But I do think that employees in any profession have certain rights and protections (though clearly some of the teachers union contracts have exceeded excess on this front). And so firing teachers should never be something undertaken without having the case in favor methodically stated and proven out by the facts. And, of course, never be undertaken with anything that smacks of mob sentiment.

Dr. Mike Todd's picture
Dr. Mike Todd
Chief Learning Officer

Teacher evaluations in the educational field have long been SO subjective. The evaluation of a teacher would depend on the beliefs of good teaching an administrator holds. Use of performance data is a way to get out of the tug-a-war between opinion and fact. Student data may be one piece, but how about quanitfying stakeholder perception data from one year to the next or the number of times a teacher utilizes the effective strategy learned in a workshop. Also, some districts work with administrators on the use of a scoring rubric to help in reliability of scores.

Mike Morgan's picture

People choose education as a career. They look at all the options....lots of money in the financial sector....lots of fun times in the fields of tourism and recreation......lots of freedom in a variety of entrepreneurial opportunities. And they look at education as a nice balance of all things. They don't sign away their lives for the "good of the children". They agree to serve the public by educating their children for an agreed upon compensation and then they are expected to do the job. But let's be clear in WHO hired them and HOW LONG they had to prove whether they they could do the job. Let's avoid the argument of unions just protecting bad teachers because that's ignorant. If a person shouldn't be in the classroom, then why do so many teachers in their first 3 years see so little support and observations?? The administration generally has that period of time to remove them with no real just cause. Why not actually try and do that? After 3 years they can tell whether someone gets it or not.

Some people may be 100% dedicated to saving the world and spend all their time with the students. Forget their own children. Forget their own lives. That's their choice. Others may be completely skeptical of "saving the world". They want to come in, do their jobs well (as it has been identified) and go home. I have known many teachers who can do this and they should not be scowled upon because they want to just do the job well and move on.

There's no easily identified package a good teacher comes in. Those who are very good are often very humble. It seems the system lacks an appropriate means to identify effective and ineffective teachers, offer them guidance to improve and remove them before they've established their tenure. But tenure was created for a reason and IT is not the guilty party. How many "good" teachers would lose their jobs without tenure just because they like to express their opinions. Ever known an administrator who was poor at their job and would not take advice? Should they have the right to cut a 20year veteran lose just because that person spoke out?

I personally would support the unions taking a 4 year hiatus with no involvement just so they could finally say "See, we told you WE weren't the problem".

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