There is an excellent article in “The Atlantic” online, Why Fire Teachers? by Megan McArdle. We’ve pasted a portion below, but we strongly recommend reading the full article Here. It is much longer and a very well written thoughtful piece, full of common sense realities concerning education.
So for me, the only important question is whether making it easier to fire teachers will make it easier, or harder, to educate kids. Here are my basic assumptions:
I doubt that the lowest possible turnover rate is compatible with the best possible education. Turnover has costs, but it also has benefits: fresh blood, lower burnout rates, and an incentive for teachers to keep performing. The whole idea of hiring someone in their early twenties and employing them forever seems like an unhealthy organizational structure to me–in the military and old-school law firms as well as teaching, though the military and law firms do more to weed out the number along the way. It breeds an organization that is insular–resistant to new ideas, suspicious of outsiders, resentful of its nominal clients. We should be looking for ways to make teaching more open to part-timers and people in second, third, or eighth career cycles, and to make it easier for teachers to move around between schools and districts, and between teaching and other industries.
So what are the benefits of making teachers easier to fire?
- We get rid of the worst teachers–the ones who now take years to fire. The kids they’re teaching would be better off with an utter neophyte. As Noah Millman points out in the post I linked above, very bad teachers are not just a problem for their class; the effect spills over to other classrooms when those kids go from period to period, or year to year, degrading the effectiveness of the school as a whole.
- We end the temptation for long-time teachers to phone it in: teach the same lesson plans over and over, give essentially the same tests, etc. Yes, there are many dedicated teachers who keep putting in 110% for decades, but it is ludicrous to suggest that this describes every single teacher in America.
- We shift the selection pool from people who are more interested in decades-long job security to people who are more interested in money. Not everyone who is interested in job security wants to be able to coast–but people who want to be able to coast are likely to be very attracted to job security. Universities mitigate this effect by making it so spectacularly hard to get to the point of being a tenured professor. Primary schools don’t have that option.
- We end up with fewer burned-out teachers still in the classroom. If we make teaching the high-intensity, high reward job it should always be, then we’re going to get people burning out.
- We give teachers an incentive to do what works the best, rather than what is most satisfying for them. I warn you that if you are about to suggest that this never happens, I am going to ask you if you have ever met any human beings, and if so, whether you actually spoke to them. As Ian Ayres points out, boring-but-effective systems like direct instruction have been blocked for years by teachers because it reduces their autonomy. I grant that teachers convince themselves that they are doing this for the children. Journalists also convince themselves that they have a special right not to have their emails read the way they do to everyone else . . . and I assure you, they genuinely believe that this is a principled moral stand.
- People will not invest so much in educational credentials, which are completely useless outside of schools. Since these credentials show zero impact on teacher quality, it would be better for the teachers to be studying literally anything else, including a reality television show from the couch. At least they’d get something out of that.
- Laying off older, more expensive teachers is not good for those teachers . . . but it is good for the schools. It means you can achieve necessary budget cuts by laying off the fewest teachers.
But I also recognize that this is no panacea. At a minimum, making teachers easier to fire needs to be paired with extensive reforms: a move towards defined contribution rather than defined benefit plans (which make a mid-career job loss catastrophic); elimination of seniority and useless credentials as the primary criteria for setting pay; broadening the recruiting base by eliminating a requirement for ed degrees; and a shift towards paying teachers more, especially in math and science. I also think it’s absolutely crucial to set up some sort of Federal bonus to recruit high-performing teachers to the lowest-performing districts–a bonus sizeable enough to attract top teachers, and available only on one-year contracts.