by Whitney Tilson
Board member of KIPP charter schools in NYC, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and Democrats for Education Reform
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With dozens of states and cities facing budget crises, layoffs of public sector employees have already begun — and are likely to continue. Teachers are part of these layoffs, which come at a time when our country is facing the twin challenges of an increasingly competitive world and, at home, widening wealth and income gaps. Thus, our K-12 educational system is more important than it’s ever been — and good teachers are at the heart of this system. Every day, 3.5 million public school teachers go to work, and most do their job well, setting high expectations and helping students learn so that they can achieve their potential.
Parents are, of course, most important in shaping their children’s lives, but teachers are critically important as well. Who among us doesn’t look back on a few great teachers who inspired us, opened up new worlds, and helped make us who we are? Numerous studies confirm that teachers are the single most important factor within school buildings in determining student achievement, and it’s been proven again and again that great teachers can educate even the most disadvantaged children to a high level.
So teacher layoffs will have terrible long-term consequences for our schools, students and, ultimately, our nation, right? Not so fast… The answer to that question depends on which teachers are laid off. I believe our schools will actually get better if layoffs are done carefully, such that only the very worst teachers are let go. Yet it is the law in 14 states, representing 40 percent of U.S. teachers, that layoffs must be done strictly by seniority (and only three states and the District of Columbia explicitly require teacher performance to be a major factor in layoff decisions). These so-called “last in, first out” policies result in great teachers — in many cases, literally Teachers of the Year — being let go, and disproportionately affect schools serving the most disadvantaged children, as documented by this new report by The New Teacher Project, The Case Against Quality-Blind Layoffs. The report concludes: “It should not be illegal for schools to try to keep great teachers during tough economic times.”
Doing layoffs solely by seniority is obviously utter insanity, but the unions defend it by arguing that, while this method might not be perfect, it’s the only fair alternative in light of the fact that the teacher evaluation systems in most districts are weak or nonexistent. This would be a valid point if we were trying to distinguish between slightly above average teachers and slight below average ones — but layoffs are only affecting a few percent of teachers, so all we have to do is identify the handful at the very bottom.
Let me be clear: most educators (such as my parents) are dedicated and effective. I love and celebrate good teachers, and it’s critical that we do more to identify them and keep them happy and motivated. Equally importantly, however, we need to identify weak teachers and help them improve — or counsel them out of the profession so that they can find another career at which they might succeed. It is in this area that our educational system is failing miserably. There are far too many ineffective teachers and, in particular, far too many truly terrible teachers who are harming children and poisoning the system.
It’s important to differentiate between teachers who are merely ineffective and those who are truly terrible. Many of the former are good people who are trying hard and simply lack experience, so are likely to get better over time. (Ask any great teacher how they did in their first year or two and most will admit that they were embarrassingly bad.) I’m not talking about these teachers, but rather the small minority who are really doing damage to children — the ones who hit, curse at and belittle children, or who have given up on them and just show movies in class most days.
These teachers poison the system in three ways: first and most obviously, they hurt children; second, they drag down to their level many other teachers, who see that there are no consequences for bad behavior; and finally, as my friend describes below, they drive out other teachers, especially the best ones, who can’t stand to work with such colleagues.
Surely, you must be thinking, such teachers are one in a million, and any teacher who behaved like this would quickly be fired, right? HA! I challenge you to ask any teacher or principal, especially in big-city schools, about this, as I have for more than 21 years since I helped Wendy Kopp start Teach for America. They will fill your ears with stories of notorious teachers who, despite everyone knowing who they are, are impossible to fire due to union protections. Below, I share four stories about this.
Ah, but perhaps this is just the tyranny of the anecdote. In reality, how many truly terrible teachers are there? I’d guess fewer than 1 percent of the teachers in this country — but that’s still 35,000 teachers, and they’re not spread out evenly. As I document on pages 70-75 of my presentation entitled A Right Denied: The Critical Need for Genuine School Reform, low income and minority students are much more likely to be victimized by the very worst teachers. To try to get some idea of how widespread the problem is in inner-city schools, in mid-2009 I sent out a survey to my school reform email list, asking the following question:
Based on your experience working in a traditional public school serving primarily low-income and/or minority students, what percentage of the teachers you worked with were:A) Good/great (you would be happy to have your child in the class);
B) Fair, but improvement is possible (you would have reservations having your child in the class); or
C) Horrible and unlikely to ever improve (you would NEVER permit your child to be in the class).
Forty-eight people, half of whom had taught in New York City and 81 percent of whom were Teach for America corps members or alumni, replied with the following average percentages: 20 percent good/great, 35 percent fair, and a shocking 45 percent horrible. Of course this is a small, nonrandom survey and the respondents were teaching in the very toughest schools, but I think the results are indicative of the teacher quality problem that exists in our inner-city schools.
The idea that there are indisputably horrible teachers, doing harm to children, in our schools right now, protected by their union, is unconscionable. This is a crime of the highest order, which is made real to me every time I talk to students at inner-city schools. Most of them are really good kids, trying so hard to overcome the many enormous obstacles they face in their lives, but to have any chance of escaping the tough circumstances they were born into, they need a quality education. They’re willing to work hard, but can’t do it by themselves — and they’re not getting much help (and often face hindrances) at home, so it’s up to their schools to give them, at the very least, decent teachers, ideally with a few great ones as well (such as my friends, discussed below).
So what are they getting instead? At best, mediocre schools and teachers — and often chronically failing ones. If these were isolated instances, I might understand, but they’re not. It’s systematic, to the point where two factors, the color of your skin and your zip code, are almost entirely determinative of the quality of public education this nation provides. This is deeply and profoundly wrong, and contrary to everything this nation stands for. I, for one, won’t rest until it changes. As a first step, let’s immediately end the seniority-based layoff policies, wherever they exist.
Here are the four stories about the very worst teachers and how our school systems protect them:
1) One that always gets to me is in the documentary, Making Schools Work, where a little girl said that when she told a teacher at her former school that she wanted to become a doctor someday, the teacher laughed at her and said, “you’re dumber than a bump on a log.” Saying something so cruel to a young child is far more damaging than a physical assault and is grounds for immediate termination in my book.
2) There’s a video clip in Waiting for “Superman” in which a student snuck a video camera into a Milwaukee school and documented teachers sleeping in class while students played dice on the floor. Howard Fuller, the Superintendent at that time, fired the teacher — and then was forced to rehire him after the union filed a grievance.
3) A friend, who was until recently an urban school teacher (and an absolute superstar), quit after nearly a decade primarily because of two other teachers at his school. The first is the teacher in the previous grade level who is, according to my friend, “complacent and ineffective. Barely 1 percent of his students finish the year having adequately learned the material he’s supposed to be teaching. But rather than take the time and energy necessary to meet our students’ unique challenges, he prefers to play the excuse game and refuses to adapt to today’s kids or spend any uncompensated time to bridge the gap with them.” Thus, nearly all of this teacher’s students enter my friend’s class unprepared, so the burden falls on him to catch them up. All of the extra hours on weekends and vacations is burning him out.
The second teacher, from the room across the hall, has missed more than 30 days this year, usually without notice, so there’s often no substitute, meaning that his students mill around in the hall, creating chaos, disrupting other classes and, on a few occasions, throwing things at my friend. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back: when he feared for his own safety. (Exacerbating the problem of his colleague who didn’t show up for work were the security guards who, thanks to their own union’s protections, were often asleep on the sofa in the teachers’ lounge, and the principal who, rather than dealing with the problem, just told my friend to lock his classroom door.)
My friend complained about these two teachers, to no avail. The union representative in the building laughed in his face, and the principal pointed to a big stack of paperwork she’s compiled to try to remove some of these teachers, but said that it takes years to document a case, and if she failed to dot one “I” or cross one “T”, then it would all be thrown out, so she’d given up trying.
4) Finally, here’s one last story another superstar teacher told me about his experience as a new teacher in the South Bronx a number of years ago (I’ve posted his entire story here):
I was first reminded of the art teacher in our school. She was truly a caricature of bad teaching. Like something out of the movies. She spent almost every minute of every day screaming at the top of her lungs in the faces of 5 to 8-year-olds who had done horrible things like coloring outside the lines. The ART teacher! Screaming so loud you could hear her two to three floors away in a decades old, solid brick building. When she heard I was looking for an apartment, she sent me to an apartment broker friend of hers. I told the friend I wanted to live in Washington Heights. “Your mother would be very upset with me if I let you go live with THOSE PEOPLE. We fought with bricks and bats and bottles to keep them out of our neighborhoods. Do you see what they have done to this place?”This same attitude could be heard in the art teacher’s screams, the administration’s ambivalence towards the kids we were supposed to be educating and the sometimes overt racism of the people in charge. The assistant principal (who could not, as far as I could tell, do fourth grade math, but offered me stop-in math professional development for a few minutes every few months with gems like “these numbers you see here to the left of the zero are negative numbers. Like when it is very cold outside.”) once told me “I call them God’s stupidest people” referring to a Puerto Rican woman who was blocking our way as we drove to another school. She also once told me I needed to put together a bulletin board in the hallway about Veterans Day. I told her we were in the middle of assembling an encyclopedia on great Dominican, Puerto Rican and Black leaders (all of my students were Dominican, Black or Puerto Rican). “Mr. ____, we had Cin-co de May-o, and Black History Month, and all that other stuff. It is time for the AMERICAN Americans.”
Not everyone in the school was a racist. There were many hard working teachers of all ethnicities who did not reflect this attitude at all. But the fact that the leadership of the school and a number of the most senior teachers were either utterly disdainful of the students they taught, or had completely given up on the educability of the kids, had a terrible effect on overall staff motivation. And many of the well-meaning teachers were extremely poorly prepared to make a dent in the needs of the students even if they had been well led. The principal told more than one teacher there that “as long as they are quiet and in their seats, I don’t care what else you do.” This was on the day this person was HIRED. This was their first and probably last instruction. He never gave me a single instruction. Ever.