Poll: Fire bad teachers and raise pay

The public wants to make it easier to fire bad teachers — and to raise the pay of good ones, according to an Associated Press-Stanford University poll.  Seventy-eight percent wanted to fire low-performing teachers; 71 percent said it should be easier to fire principals of low-performing schools. Yet 57  percent say teachers are paid too little.

Carmen Williams, 53, an office manager from Yates City, Ill., said the issue is simple: Pay teachers more and get rid of the bad ones.

“Good teachers are hard to find, and one of the reasons they are hard to find is because they’re not paid enough to support themselves, especially if they have a family,” she said.

Half of those surveyed want to base teachers’ salaries on their students’ performance on statewide tests and on administrators’ evaluations.

A majority blame parents and federal, state and local education officials for education problems; 45 percent blame teachers’ unions.

By the way, Waiting for Superman, which argued that school quality is determined by teacher quality, wasn’t a box-office smash, reports Rick Hess. It didn’t even do well compared to other documentaries. He makes fun of Waiting’s simple-minded insistence that “we know what works,” and that it’s “great teachers.” Guggenheim told us, “It’s not some magic; it’s about having a commitment to making great teachers in this country.”

Glad we got THAT settled.

Great teachers and a chicken in every pot!

About Joanne


  1. While there are definitely poor teachers out there that should be fired, under what evaluation system is a very tricky issue. Administrators are trained in a broad overview for curriculum, teacher relevance and leadership – but most come from one or two backgrounds (a level – either primary or secondary, and a specialty – english, history, etc). How is this person to be held responsible for evaluating and determining if EVERY teacher in their building is teaching EVERY curriculum to the highest standards? The difficulty with this whole process is that it needs to be a conversation between teachers, administrators and parents. It’s the simple idea of building a community in which all stakeholders are involved.

  2. Michael E. Lopez says:

    If this represents a genuine shift of public opinion, I’m going to go ahead and say I told you all so.

    Because I did.

    Glad to have you all on board.

  3. It also needs to be easier to fire bad administrators, and to reward excellent ones. Performance standards need to apply at all levels.

    As an analogy: In business, it would make no sense to pay your sales reps on a highly-leveraged commission plan, with rapid termination for those who miss their targets, combined with civil-service-like tenure for the sales managers.

  4. There are a lot of bad teachers that need to be fired. — myth

    Because of tenure, it’s very difficult to fire a bad teacher. — myth

    Do a lot of people buy into these myths? Sadly, they do, and why, I don’t know. Perhaps because they’re repeated so often.

    Detrimentally, it takes the focus off the changes that need to be made.

    The problems need to be tackled. These aren’t the problems, just oft repeated myths.

  5. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Mr. Wright,

    I have to take issue with your assertion that there are not a lot of bad teachers who need to be fired. Now, “Bad” is a fuzzy word most of the time, and there can be some give and take about what’s bad and what’s not. Certainly it’s not the case that there are a lot of teachers beating and molesting their students. And certainly it’s not the case that there are a lot of teachers without a credential. (Well,maybe there are, but that’s another way you could define “bad”.)
    My own definition of bad is someone who takes a student and some curricular content, and then over the course of the school year makes the relationship between the student and the content worse, whether this is through misrepresentation of the material (the student learns false things), an inability to teach the material coherently (the student learns that “math is confusing” or some claptrap), a failure to understand the material (the student learns that there’s no point in learning the content), or simply because the teacher hates what they are doing (the student learns to hate school).

    In other words, a “bad” teacher is someone about whom one can say “You know, the kid probably would have been better off being locked in the room alone with the textbook.”

    I was but a single student attending a fairly decent mixed-economics high school between 1988 and 1992. I had some very good teachers. I also had two teachers that were disasters in the classroom, who killed whatever interest students might have had in their subjects, and who were among the dimmer human beings it has ever been my unfortunate lot in life to meet. Both had tenure. Both are still working in the district.

    I only had 17 teachers in high school (I returned often to the productive, interesting wells of knowledge). That means, what…. 11%, 10.5% were total crap? Now, maybe my sample size was too small to be useful. But then I worked at an elementary school, too. There were, as I recall, 14 teachers who brought their classes into my library. Two of them were not only dim and able to destroy the love of learning in a single bound, but affirmatively anti-intellectual. They liked kids, not learning, and they were willing to go through the curricular motions page by page until they got themselves a fresh batch in September. They were vampires, parasites sucking the youthful vigor from their charges and leaving them as dessicated, unmotivated husks. (Well, one of them was. The other was more of a Renfield-type, I suppose.) They might, at some point, have made good kindergarten teachers, I suppose, but someone had moved them up well past their competence to a post that actually required reading a book.

    That’s what… 14%?

    Let’s say the “Crap Rating” of these two schools was exceptionally high. Let’s say that the average CR is 8%. Or even just 5%. That’s still “a lot” of bad teachers, and if you replaced the worst with something significantly better, that raises the average considerably.

    You also get reversed network effects if you fire them and find a decent replacement: one really bad teacher often drags down those around him or her, but replacing the bad teacher with a good teacher will often make the others somewhat better. Teaching doesn’t happen in complete isolation, after all.

    So maybe there aren’t a lot of bad teachers who need to be fired. But that all depends on what you think we “need” to do, which in turn, I suppose, depends on what you think schools are for.

  6. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Mr. Wright,

    I should add that this isn’t to say that you’re not right in spirit — people do wave the “bad teacher” flag overbroadly at times rather than bearing down and figuring out what’s really going on. It can become a bit of a distraction, a way of finding scapegoats.

    But that doesn’t make it a myth.

  7. Michael,

    I am saddened by your account of those weakly performing elementary teachers. As the parent of an elementary school child and a secondary public school teacher, I know exactly the type of teacher you’re talking about.

    The question I’ve often pondered, though, is once those weaker (or bad – whatever) teachers are gone, who will replace them? I don’t see a long line of Harvard or Yale graduates banging down the door of my local inner-city school, clamoring at a chance to save the kids. And even though I work in a high-scoring suburban district, there are times when our hiring choices have been between So-so, Bad, and Worse. Our special education department, which is pretty decent, has teachers leave every year. The applicant pool is fairly dismal.

    Teaching is stressful work, and I’m not saying that to complain. The demands and expectations placed upon teachers are as they should be. And we *should* be held accountable for effective teaching practice, and – if I dare say it – inspiring and motivating kids to learn. But I don’t see a crest of exhilarating new teachers pushing their way into schools, and it’s very easy to burn out after five years of beating your head against absenteeism, suspensions, or student apathy.

    There’s no excuse for poor teaching practice. And there’s also no excuse for not making teaching a more rigorous and more lucrative career choice.

  8. Nana….seems to me that recruitment of good new teachers could be greatly added by:

    1)Make it much easier for teachers to throw disruptive students out of class
    2)Get rid of the requirement for an “education” degree for teaching; substitute a substantive degree, added to which would be a semester or so of practical advice from experienced teachers
    3)Link pay, promotion, and retention to performance
    4)Impose high performance standards on administrators, and replace those who repeatedly fail
    5)Reduce the emphasis on methodological and technological fad-following

  9. David Foster for president!

    Michael, I’ll read over what you wrote a few times and give it some more thought and I’ll get back to you. It could be my unscientific sampling of teachers has been flukey. But let me think some more about that.

  10. Teachers are an easy target, so we get targeted. Everyone who has any real world experience will tell you the true problem in education today is popular culture and the complete lack of motivation among many students.

    I teach English Languge Development in a Californian city. My students see no reason to take school seriously. They wear expensive clothes, have tats and piercings, have phones and ipods, game consoles and big screen tvs at home, and go out partying every weekend. Life couldn’t get any better for them, and they expect it to go on forever.

  11. This link will get you to the cut scores for National Merit Scholarship semifinalists state by state. The number for each state is the 98th percentile score on the PSAT.


    As you can see, the highest scores are in strong union states (notably Massachusetts and New Jersey); the lowest tend to correlate with the states with right-to-work laws and thus no job protection for teachers. To restate, the states in which teachers can be fired at will with no job protection tend to have the lowest academic achievement, as demonstrated by these PSAT scores. The states in which teachers have the strongest union protection tend to have the highest academic achievement, as demonstrated by these PSAT scores.

    To be clear for anyone confused: These numbers entirely destroys the notion that “bad teachers” who “can’t be fired” are responsible for low achievement. They demolish, disprove, eliminate that claim. To be further clear: I am not saying that strong union protection LEADS TO high achievement. Rather, it correlates with states with lower poverty and higher education. However, the fact that states where teachers can be fired at will tend to have lower academic achievement conclusively proves that low achievement is due to “bad teachers” who “can’t be fired.”

    So let’s have no more of that bullpucky, people.

  12. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Caroline –

    There’s a small flaw in your argument, but it’s a doozy. The NMS PSAT cutoffs have absolutely nothing to do with how well the state’s school system is functioning, and everything to do with how many super-high achievers there are per capita.

    Example: Washington, D.C., is in a three-way tie for the highest cut-off. Do we really think that’s because the Washington, D.C., public school system is a bastion of quality and goodness? Or even of high scholastic achievement?

    Of course not. The high PSAT cut-off is due to the extraordinary per capita number of wealthy, educated families with children in exclusive private schools.

    Remember: the data you’re citing assumes that 96% of students nationwide are thrown out of consideration right off the top. What you’ve cited is figures for ultra-elite competition, not figures for the general health or robustness of the school system. Even assuming that this top 2% of students really do go to public school (a questionable assumption at best) these are precisely the sorts of students who would be most impervious to the presence of bad teachers. In other words, these are not the students we’re worried about when we talk about the problems caused by bad teachers.

    Also: the differences between a 203 (Mississippi) and a 221 (Mass., D.C., Maryland) might seem really big, but you’re still working with the top 96% or so of students, even across those score differentials. That doesn’t tell us much about anything systemic in the state.

    So I’m afraid that these numbers prove very little of the sweeping pronouncement that you wanted to assert. Perhaps if you had some more generally applicable figures, you might have the beginnings of an argument. But as it stands, I’ll stand by my bullpucky.

  13. Michael E. Lopez says:

    I just read the D.C. schools thread and realized that Caroline would disagree with what I said about D.C. and private schools. Caroline saith:

    In fact, the high National Merit cut scores correlate with the high number of high-wealth, highly educated families living in D.C.

    I’ll grant that. But my point still stands: we’re measuring elites, elites who are by and large impervious to the effects of bad teachers due to their family and socioeconomic factors. Whether they are in the public school system or not, the data do not support Caroline’s counterargument.

  14. D.C. is an outlier. It has an extraordinarily high number of extraordinarily high-wealth, high-clout, highly-educated-parent families — sending their kids to private bastions of exclusivity like Sidwell Friends.

    The PSAT cut level certainly reflects the number of privileged students in a state. But the fact that the states that can fire teachers at will still tend to have the lower PSAT cut scores still decisively disproves the notion that low achievement is due to bad teachers and the inability to fire them.

  15. Michael E. Lopez says:


    You keep using words like “decisively”… but I’m not seeing it, and it can’t be that decisive if I don’t see it. Maybe it’s decisive in your head, but it’s not decisive in your description of it.

    Your argument, I take it, goes something like this:

    1) “At will states” have lower PSAT cut-offs for NMS semifinalists.

    2) If being able to fire bad teachers were a solution to educational problems (you keep painting this problem solely as one of “low achievement” but that’s not at all what is being asserted by me or even by others) then “at will states” would have high achievement.

    3) States with lower PSAT cut-offs for NMS semifinalists do not have high achievement.

    4) Therefore, by 1 and 3, “At will states” do not have high achievement.

    5) By 2 and 4, then, being able to fire bad teachers is not a solution to educational problems.

    Do I have that right? I’m fairly certain I do. Please let me know if I’ve misrepresented your argument in any way.

    My criticism is of your Premise #3: it isn’t obviously true at all and it certainly isn’t decisively true.

    First: the performance of the top 2% of a state’s population doesn’t say much at all about the performance of the rest of the state, except to say that it’s below the top 2%.

    Second: If #3 were true, we would expect that the PSAT cut-offs would track the SAT average scores, those scores being something of a more comprehensive proxy for academic achievement. Let’s take a look:

    Top 5 PSAT Cut-Off States:
    1. Maryland
    1. Massachusetts
    1. D.C.
    1. New Jersey
    5. Delaware

    Top 5 SAT Average States: (The most recent figures I could find are 2005)
    1. Iowa
    2. Minnesota
    3. Missouri
    4. North Dakota
    5. South Dakota

    Hmmm. That doesn’t seem right. Let’s look at the bottom.

    Bottom 5 PSAT Cut-Off States:
    5. West Virginia
    5. Mississippi
    5. Arkansas
    1. Nevada
    1. North Dakota

    Hey look! It’s our old friend North Dakota.

    Bottom 5 SAT Average States:
    5. South Carolina
    4. Georgia
    3. Hawaii
    2. Maine
    1. D.C.

    And look! It’s our old friend D.C.!

    Now this doesn’t look right at all: according to premise #3, PSAT cut-offs are supposed to be proxies for high academic achievement. But D.C. and North Dakota’s relative situations are completely reversed when you look at the test results of an entire test-taking population, and there is absolutely no overlap in the top or bottom 5’s.

    But let’s also consider this: not everyone takes the PSAT or the SAT. Large portions of the student population are completely missing from our figures — even our more comprehensive SAT figures. (For instance, the Dakotas have single-digit percentage participation rates.) What’s more, part of how the College Board people determine their PSAT cut-offs is based on participation rate. This is precisely the reason that the trained statisticians at the College Board and the NMS tell you NOT NOT NOT to use the state by state data to compare the various states in terms of their academic achievement.

    All this should suggest to us that Premise #3 is quite problematic, absent some compelling reason for thinking it’s true, which we haven’t seen and you haven’t bothered to provide us.

    Now, if you’ve another reason that we should think that your argument is “decisive”, I’m certainly willing to entertain it. But I don’t “give up” to defeat in the face of someone who doesn’t bother to explain her arguments; indeed, it’s not really a matter of defeat or victory. It’s a matter of truth, and if you’ve got better, actually decisive reasons for saying what you’re saying, then I’ll happily accede to your assertions. But until then, I’m going to continue to explain why your position isn’t as strong as you seem to think it is, because otherwise someone is going to wander on to this site and take your ipse dixit as some sort of authority. And that would be a mistake.

  16. CarolineSF says:

    Logic is the compelling reason for accepting reason No. 3.

    All the info about states’ SAT averages is confounded by the fact that the ACT is more popular in much of the nation and reportedly many college-bound students don’t take the SAT at all. But college-bound students are likely to take the PSAT because of the possibility of winning the National Merit scholarship or one of the levels of commendation, which are assets to college applicants.

    I don’t have those figures, so I’m giving anecdotal information, based on real-life experience and research (I did a college admissions blog while my older child was going through the college search process).

    Frankly, I’m not sure just what the impact would be of the fact that many college-bound students don’t take the SAT at all in much of the nation (it does dominate here in California), but it would certainly be a confounding factor.

  17. Here’s why CarolineSF is wrong, from beginning to end.

    First: Huge selection bias in who takes the SAT. She admits this, finally, but it totally invalidates the whole argument. As every legit scholar knows, that’s why you would never, never, never try to make cross-state comparisons based on college admissions tests. It’s like trying to judge which state is healthier by the amount of time spent surfing. Gee, some states don’t have many surfers, but that is completely irrelevant to their citizens’ health.

    Second: where the cutoff is drawn tells us very little about the quality of the public education system, as Michael has already pointed out.

    Third, she refers to states with “right-to-work laws and thus no job protection for teachers.” This is true only of a couple of states; in other non-union states (such as Mississippi), STATUTORY LAW provides job protection for teachers.

    Fourth, EVEN IF reasons one and two and three weren’t true, CarolineSF’s argument would STILL be completely bogus. In social science, correlation isn’t causation. This is a freshman level principle that seems to totally escape her. Because correlation is not causation, it could STILL be true that giving Mississippi much stronger job protections for bad teachers would make achievement go down even further than before, while getting rid of tenure in New Jersey would make achievement go up.

    I’m actually kind of impressed by someone who manages to convince herself of such a wrong argument — an argument about which nothing is correct, not its premises, not its logic, and not its command of social science.

    A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.