Firing teachers, and hiring them

Yes, it ought to be easier to fire bad teachers. But that won’t do much good unless there are better teachers to replace them. That’s going to cost money.

Kevin Drum has the one thing public policy and management professors most want their students to develop: the capacity to think about public problems concretely, rather than through the lens of slogans. Having supervised and fired people, he asks a reasonable question: If we make it easier for principals to fire teachers, will they have enough information to be able to fire the right ones? After all, teachers do most of their work out of the sight of other grown-ups, and there aren’t really good, accurate, real-time measures of teaching performance.

I think he’s right to be concerned. There’s a non-trivial risk that some principals will fire teachers for reasons other than classroom performance. One the other hand, there are teachers whose performance is transparently substandard, people who have retired in place.

But here’s a partial fix for that: when a principal bounces a teacher, the teacher should have the right to transfer to any other school in the district with an opening. If bounced a second time, the teacher should still be able to transfer to any school with an opening and whose principal will accept the transfer. Getting rid of a teacher should be made somewhat painful for the principal by always replacing a fired teacher with a rookie. If a teacher bounces twice and can’t find a new home, there’s a reasonable probability that the world is being deprived of a shoe-store clerk.

Yes, it’s possible, especially in a small district, that a perfectly good teacher could be victimized by an old-boys’ network among principals. And you’d want to figure out a way to prevent a superintendent or School Board member from pressuring a principal to fire a teacher for being a “troublemaker.” But there’s no perfect system, anywhere, and the existing problem of retired-in-place teachers is bad enough to warrant fixing, even at some cost in fairness.

But that discussion leaves out what seems to me the most important fact: For current wages and under current working conditions, there’s no ready supply of good teachers to replace those who would be fired if we made firing teachers easier. The California Basic Educational Standards Test, required to receive a California teaching credential, requires a tenth-grade reading score. And California is so short of teachers that it has to give emergency credentials to some applicants who flunked the C-BEST. (Part of the problem there is that pay-by-seniority means that teaching isn’t competitive for the services of fiftysomething and sixtysomething professionals who want to or have to leave their current jobs but aren’t ready to retire; they’d wind up getting paid the pittance kids fresh out of ed. school get paid.)

Most teachers “burn out”: i.e., teacher performance, on the crude measures we have, improves for about the first ten years, plateaus, and then declines on average after fifteen years on the job. So a sensible design for a school system would encourage people to teach for a spell, but not for a lifetime. We do that with police work and the military, with generous pensions payable after twenty years’ service.

But the brute fact is that we’re not currently paying teachers enough to attract an adequate number of high-quality teachers. The only way to fix that is by raising wages for the kind of people we want to attract. Without that, making firing easier is mostly a matter of rearranging the deck chairs on a sinking ship. It’s still worth doing for the incentive effect; you can’t really hold a principal accountable for the performance of an organization whose composition he or she can’t change. But to divorce that discussion from the salary problem makes sense only if your goal is union-bashing rather than educational improvement.

Update: A reader reminds me that we’ve already done the experiment of leaving teachers subject to firing at the whim of their superiors.

I am a teacher in a very large school district in metro Atlanta where the superintendent and school board threaten any teacher that tries to move out of her obedient servile position under their feet. We have formed a teachers’ group, The Teachers’ Alliance of Gwinnett, just to have a seat at the table. It is non-union, but still teachers are being harrassed if they are suspected of being part of the group.

I have worked in the public school system in Georgia for 15 years and do plan to leave now. Still, in the South, teachers have no protection already. Our principals are political appointees and yes-men. I think we need a meeting of professionals in open discussion to make the schools better for our children.

No coddling teachers: that must be the reason the South leads the country in educational attainment.

Oh, wait ….

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: