Thursday, April 7, 2011

Distracting Everyone With Myths That Distract Policymakers: Part IV

Myth number three in the myths that distract policy makers is possibly the most important myth and probably the loudest myth in the education reform debate. The myth states that “removing incompetent teachers will save our schools.” The refutation is essentially that teachers are better at teaching than we give them credit for.

My primary issue with the refutation is the use of the Teacher Advancement Program as the source of their teacher evaluation data. TAP is a specific program intended to nurture the growth of teachers professionally and has shown promising results. It is not the average situation in urban districts. Also in most TAP schools teachers voted on whether to participate, which creates a pretty serious selection bias to apply their data to all urban teachers.

Nonetheless, I will take the 85% of teachers being evaluated as proficient or better at face value. That means 15% are less than proficient. Every year, when parents put their children in schools they are rolling a dice that their child will get a teacher that won’t damage his or her education. Every time that dice comes up as a six their child loses a year of solid education for a year that may put them behind their peers next year, and the year after, and the year after. That’s 15%. So go ahead and tell me that on average during your child’s elementary school experience he or she will have a teacher that will fail them is “obsessing over a small problem.” I think our expectations here are out of whack by a lot.

Furthermore, ineffective teachers tend to cluster in the schools that need great teachers the most. You know who can overcome a bad teacher? A child with the resources outside of school to keep on learning. So the problem of ineffective teachers is actually magnified for the children least able to cope with ineffective teachers.

Every professional workplace does include some lemons who need to be dismissed. It is a common rule of business. Ideally, your rate of turnover each year is similar to the percentage of ineffective employees you have and ideally most of the turnover comes from your worst employees. Show me a school district that turns over its bottom 10% year and upon year. Turnover rates are indeed high in urban districts but I would venture to guess that a good number of those who leave are the best. Unfortunately, due to a lack of historically strong evaluation systems, there is no longitudinal data that I can find to prove that (Really? 95% excellence on most of these evaluations? That isn’t useful evaluation). So schools are clearly not getting the normal turnover of low performers that one would find in other professional environments. I think we’re obsessing over a notable problem and the idea that it is a small problem is impressively damaging to everyone and an insult to students and good teachers.

I do however agree that the myth is a myth. Replacing ineffective teachers won’t save schools. Anyone who has ever been near an urban district knows there is no silver bullet. This is the truth and reminds me of another. Money doesn’t buy happiness. But it sure does help. Replacing ineffective teachers doesn’t save schools. But it sure does help.

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