Bad teachers

It’s time to talk honestly about bad teachers, writes Andrew Rotherham in Time. “Teachers are not to blame for all that ails our schools,” but firing “some percentage of low performers” would be good for students — and for other teachers.

Charges of  “teacher bashing”  squelch debate, he writes. Nobody wants to be seen as anti-teacher. Yet getting rid of bad teachers would benefit good (and average) teachers.

Over the long run, better pay, improved working conditions, better training and professional development, and greater respect is politically conditional on creating a professional culture more in line with other fields. Neither the public nor the political class will go for it otherwise. A focus on instructional quality would also help defuse the bubble of enthusiasm among those who now see technology as a cure-all.

Stanford economist Eric Hanushek predicts that removing even the lowest five percent of performers — one or two teachers per school — could “boost overall student achievement substantially.”

“How do we figure out which teachers should go?” Rotherham asks. He thinks teacher evaluations and value-added methods, though imperfect, are good enough to identify the bottom five percent. Our schools  still would have plenty of problems, but it’s a start.

I think everyone concedes that there are some bad teachers, but the trust level in public education is very, very low. There are a lot of bad principals who teachers think don’t know Mr. Chips from Freddy Krueger.

About Joanne


  1. Michael E. Lopez says:

    “How do we figure out which teachers should go?”

    I’ve said this at least a hundred times before, and I’ll say it again.

    People — parents, teachers, administrators, and especially students in the upper grades — know who the bad teachers are. It’s like the neighborhood drug dealer. The problem isn’t really one of identification, but rather a combination of proof, procedure, and will.

    And no, getting rid of bad teachers won’t magically fix everything. They’re not “THE problem”, as I’ve said elsewhere. But the bad teachers do ruin school for a lot of students.

  2. Obi-Wandreas says:

    With any large bureaucracy, there are two choices in this matter of identifying these teachers

    1) Allow for flexibility and judgement calls, thus opening up the possibility of abuse, for or against the teacher

    2) Make a stringent set of rules, thus making it nearly impossible to get rid of anyone.

    Each way is flawed. Given the unqualified failure of method 2, however, it’s probably time to start trying #1.

  3. tim-10-ber says:

    But to dismiss any under performing or poorly performing employee the employer MUST document the behavior issue warnings continue to document put on probation continue to document and then dismiss. In the corporate world this can happen in a relatively short period of time plus we generally give 4 evaluations a year and more if an associate is struggling, on probation, etc.

    In education because teachers are rarely if ever evaluated (once every five years is not an evaluation) this is next to impossible to do. Therefore the critical need for the regular evaluations/observations (3 – 4 times a year) plus looking at test scores over some period of time must be incorporated into the teacher’s evaluation. Sadly, teachers are still allowed (in TN) two years to improve. This is just destroying more and more kids ability to gain the foothold they need to succeed in school…some how or another there needs to be a quicker way to dismiss the poor teacher.

    One place to start is never to let them in the classroom, to counsel them out of ed school and to have better qualifications for even entering ed school…

    Question on principals…how are they evaluated? Do teachers get to give input? (I am sure I know the answer.) What if the problem is the principal and not the teachers? How does this get handled? Right now all fingers are pointed solely at the teachers. I don’t believe that is right either.

  4. Again, let me say, in 36 years of teaching and 17 years of being a parent, I haven’t seen many bad teachers.

    At work, I’ve seen a couple of teachers struggle in their first year, but they soon developed into fine teachers.

    In high school, my son has had several mediocre teachers, but none that were bad.

    Administrators? Now, that’s different. Over half of the administrators I’ve had did more harm than good.

    • You’ve been lucky. My oldest had a senile 4th-grade teacher who didn’t reliably know the names of her ~25 kids at the end of the year. They spent most of the year helping her to find her glasses. Since she was close to her max retirement point, admin did nothing (~$600k to fire a teacher, plus years). The same kid had a HS honors English teacher who was obsessed with dreams (her own and the kids’) and was mentally unstable; one day she fled the classroom (gone all day) at the sight of a cup of horse chestnuts. She was “highly qualified”; MAT and a wall-full of meaningless workshop certificates. Did she teach English? No. My next-youngest had a 7th-grade science teacher who not only was catastrophically ignorant of her subject, but routinely screamed at the kids and told them she hated them and wished they’d all die. The admin had started documenting as soon as she arrived (T had her in her third year), but a minority female science teacher was almost bulletproof. This was in “high-performing” schools in an highly-educated, affluent suburb. Most of the teachers were good and many were outstanding (especially at HS level) but these three would have been out the door of a private school, post-haste.

      • Deirdre Mundy says:

        I think part of the “documentation’ problem is that it turns into he said -she said. “Well, the students say you’re unable to read or do simple word problems (My fifth grade teacher, in a LOW performing school in the same school system Mom Of 4 lives in.)” “They’re just prejudiced because I’m the only black teacher at this school.” etc. etc. ‘They say you kiss boys as punishment.” “Well, that’s just ridiculous, isn’t it?” There’s no way for parents and kids to get through to the administrations

        And even atrocious teachers can usually pull it together for an occasional evaluation.

        Perhaps we should just videotape every classroom, all the time, so when parents and students had complaints, the administration could just check the tape.

        My fifth grade teacher was the only TRULY atrocious teacher I had. I had some other bad ones, and some that were unable to meet my particular needs…well, and that AP teacher who spent half of every class in the closet eating his lunch, and the one REALLY CREEPY male teacher that none of the other teachers ever left alone with a female student (I don’t think he ever crossed the line into criminal behavior, but I think that’s because the other teachers didn’t give him the CHANCE to cross the line…)

    • Christina Lordeman says:

      If you never get out of the suburbs, you might never see one. Spend some time in poor inner-city schools and you’ll see incompetence at a level you won’t believe. I had to do a ton of observations in different schools as a graduate student and was truly shocked at how many bad teachers there were in New York City.

      • What percentage of teachers you observed in NYC did you believe could be objectively classified as incompetent? 5%? 10%? 50%?

        • Christina Lordeman says:

          It differed from elementary to high school. I only saw one truly outstanding elementary teacher (ironically, she was a TFA alumna), two that could definitely be classified as incompetent, and another 3 who gave me the impression they were incompetent. (I wasn’t in their classrooms as long as the others.) At the middle and high school level I mostly saw very mediocre teachers. What really shocked me was how often I saw teachers teach things wrong, like a 5th-grade teacher who hadn’t mastered the four types of sentences (declarative, exclamatory, imperative and interrogatory) and a 10th-grade earth science teacher who thought the earth magically shifted to zero tilt just on the equinoxes. Don’t even get me started on English teachers who can’t write.

  5. tim-10-ber,

    I am not sure where you are getting your information regarding how often a teacher is evaluated. In my district, we are formally observed twice a year by an administrator. The observations are each followed by a conference where we are grilled as to what we did well and what we need to improve. we also have to develop a self improvement plan every year. finally, the administrators will often drop by the classroom for informal observations. So this idea of only getting evaluated every five years is something I have never heard of or seen in my 15 years of teaching.

    • Swede,
      Under our contract, a tenured teacher has the choice of doing one formal observation each year or an “alternative” assessment, which commonly is redesigning a unit and documenting why the changes were made. We have teachers who have not been observed for more than 10 years (when the alternative evaluations were added to the contract).
      That being said, I have also heard of urban districts that are unable to even observe their untenured teachers consistently.

  6. Robert Wright, on the other side of the equation, i have seen many bad teachers over the last fifteen years at my school. They are impossible to get rid of and they linger for years until they decide to move or take another job. We need a way to get rid of bad teachers but we also need to understand that most teachers work hard and do their jobs well. We need to get rid of this trend of either canonizing teachers or vilifying them. They are people, just like anybody else.

  7. Michael E. Lopez says:

    In 12 years of K-12 schooling I had 5 teachers I’d say were actually bad. Three were too ignorant to teach their subjects, and three were not only grossly unfair but were utterly uninterested in being fair. Two were essentially out to lunch. One wanted overmuch to be our friend, and one was probably a decent teacher in some parallel universe, but was teaching an utterly inappropriate age group for her skill set. (3+3+2+1+1=5)

    A teacher in the modern classroom (and by modern, I mean “compulsory, supervised” classroom) needs four things for minimum competence, I think: a modicum of intelligence and learning, a sort of de minimis interest in either the material or the students (or both), a desire to see justice done as an authority figure, and a sense of self-worth that is not tied to student opinions.

    Those aren’t a guaranteed recipe for excellence: they’re necessary, not sufficient conditions for avoiding suckitude. If you don’t have all four of these things, you will never be a good teacher. If you lack two or more of them, you’re almost certainly going to be a disaster the likes of which survives as the focus of ill will and resentment twenty, twenty-five, thirty years after you’ve finished wasting your students’ time.

    Also, DM saith:

    Perhaps we should just videotape every classroom, all the time, so when parents and students had complaints, the administration could just check the tape.

    This is actually an excellent idea. I’ve toyed with the idea of recording all my classes anyway — but I’m out of the teaching business for at least a year while I work on my dissertation. If

  8. The main problem is there are some schools in the inner city where you’d have to fire half the staff and there are some schools in the suburbs where nobody would loose a job.

    • Not a problem if the inner-city district is committed to attracting and hiring effective teachers. Unfortunately, the bureaucracy in these districts often works against that purpose.

      • There aren’t enough good teachers who are willing to teach in chaotic, often dangerous, schools. They are likely to have graduated from private or flagship-level public colleges and have the option to teach in Fairfax or Montgomery County, where they can live in safe areas with good schools, so most won’t choose to teach in SE DC or Anacostia. None of the young teachers I’ve known – my kids’ contemporaries and their classmates- have done so.

        The latter areas are likely to have teachers who are themselves grads of the weaker high schools and colleges. Take a look at the data for UDC’s ed school – pretty dismal – and I’m guessing that most of their grads teach in DC. A former DCPS Superintendent had been the Superintendent in Montgomery County and he stated that MoCo had its pick of A-level teachers, while DC had to settle for C-level teachers and he wanted to change the situation – that was almost 20 years ago and I don’t think much has changed.

        • Momof4, the issue is also that there’s no incentive to teach in poorly performing, violent, or socioeconomically disadvantaged schools. Given equal salaries and the choice between a high-performing and low-performing school, the choice is pretty simple. And you can’t rely on good will or good samaritanship to carry a teacher through the stress, hostility and potential violence of an inner-city school. That good will last maybe a year, which is when burnout will kick in.

    • Christina Lordeman says:

      You’re right. That’s why I really think we need some sort of external evaluation system, so that we really do get rid of the worst 5% in each state rather than the worst 5% in each school.

      Momof4 makes a good point about teachers in low-income schools being graduates of low-performing schools and colleges themselves. It’s frustrating because sometimes these teachers can connect with students in a way that white teachers from the suburbs can’t, but they just don’t have the same level of competence. They are evidence of a failed system – and unfortunately not able to be part of the solution as they imagine themselves being.

  9. Exactly Nana! That is the bane of teaching industry- the socialist nature of the compensation system (note please that I am not intending to use “socialist” here in the modern manner of tarring everybody and everything one doesn’t like as “socialsit” or “communist” just because they are powerful terms- I am using it here accurately as this is how public education is set up, in a socialist way). If we incentivized education the way private companies do, we would see some solid results.

  10. Christina Lordeman says:

    Thanks, Joanne, for sharing this piece! Obviously I loved it.

    I know I’m not the first to say it, but bad principals are an even bigger problem than bad teachers. We need to get of them ASAP – unfortunately they’re even harder to get rid of than bad teachers.

  11. Just for the record,

    it would be terrible to get rid of not-so-bad teachers because …why? If a few non-terribles were misidentified and fired, that would be a problem for whom?

    Competent people can find new jobs. Losing one for being considered not great is not the end of the world if you have any other skill. Is the claim that such people would have no other skill?

    Or is this a kneejerk response of “but it’s not fair!” emotional thinking?

    • There’s going to be an emotional aspect to telling competent workers that they stand a good chance of being wrongfully identified as incompetent and fired, sure, but you’re missing the logic behind objecting to bad measures.

      Let’s say we devise a measure that’s 80% accurate at identifying incompetent teachers, and apply it in a school district in which 5% of the teachers are incompetent. The test identifies 4% of the incompetent teachers, which is good, but also misidentifies 19% (20% of 95%) of the competent teachers as incompetent. So you fire 23% of your teachers to get rid of that 4%?

      Even if you have different measures for overinclusion and underinclusion, similar issues apply. If the test identifies 80% of the incompetent teachers while giving false positives for only 5% of competent teachers, you still end up firing more than 4% of the competent teachers to get rid of that incompetent 4%. Having fewer incompetent teachers only worsens the ratio.

      It’s also important to consider how such a measure would affect recruiting. “We have a test that has a significant probability of misidentifying you as incompetent, resulting in your being fired on that basis, but don’t worry – despite having that dark blot on your résumé if you’re competent surely you can get a job in some other school district, perhaps on the janitorial staff.” Um, no thank you.

      • Mark Roulo says:

        And yet, somehow, private industry and the workers at those companies soldier on.

        In my industry, we don’t really even have the theoretical option of just not firing anyone … the industry is so cyclic that we have layoffs every 2-4 years and *SOMEONE* winds up on the bottom of the stacking list.

        Why can non-government companies make this work, but it would be a total disaster for public school teachers?

      • Gotcha Aaron.

        If lousy teachers aren’t winnowed out the education system will get better and better and if lousy teachers are booted the education system will get worse and worse.

        • If by “gotcha” you mean, “I’m going to make a dismissive statement that demonstrates that I didn’t understand a word of what you wrote,” boy did you “get” me.

          Your snipe is completely non-responsive to my post.

        • By “gotcha” I was making it clear that I understood you are completely uninterested in kicking lousy teachers out of the profession.

          Roger identified the deliberate failure built into your silly “assessment” methodology which is that it’s essentially random beyond discriminating, with an unreasonably and unacceptably high error rate, between good enough and not good enough.

          A more realistic, and honest, assessment methodology would assign some value to the varying levels of skill which neatly avoids the shortcoming you’ve built into what you purport to be a typical assessment scheme.

          That means my “snipe” was dead on the mark, you know it and that’s why you’d rather not examine the proposition any more closely then you can avoid.

          • If that was intended to be your point you are once again confirming that you either didn’t read what I wrote or didn’t understand it. Insulting me doesn’t redeem you.

      • Roger Sweeny says:

        Aaron, your math works if the assessment measure has an equal chance of misidentifying everyone–and if the measure gives a simple good enough/not good enough result. However, things change if the measure isn’t like that.

        For example, teachers know that each test they give is not a perfect measure of what students have learned. It is possible for a person who has a “70% knowledge” to get a failing 60 on a test while someone who has a “60% knowledge” gets a passing 70. However, it is extremely unlikely that a person with a “90% knowledge” is going to get a 60. Indeed, by the end of the year, that 60%er is likely to have also gotten some too low marks and the 70%er some too high marks. Some of the inaccuracy will wash out.

        However, it is certainly true that K-12 teaching has attracted people who are or have become very risk averse. Many would take it very hard if they were fired. And since nowadays teachers are rarely fired after the third year, it would carry quite a stigma at first. Perhaps in time, it would evolve more like Mark Roulo’s industry, where everyone expects to be let go several times over the course of a career and it doesn’t signal a lack of skill. But that would take quite a lot of time.

        • Roger, the math works because it’s math.

          We can make all sorts of assumptions about how good or how bad any given measure of teacher quality will be, but there is nothing close to a consensus on how to measure competence.

          I welcome anybody to prove me wrong – that is, to identify a test of competence that has anything close to broad support, and to point to reliable data of its rates of over- and under-inclusion.

          Out of curiosity, how many times have you been fired over the course of your career? If your boss called you into his office tomorrow, declared you incompetent and fired you, would you take it personally?

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            The answers are “once” and “yes, I would take it personally.”

            Any math works if it’s done correctly. The question is whether it’s relevant. My assertion is that any reasonable competency measure would unjustly fire some so-so teachers and unjustly keep some not-quite good enough teachers–but would be unlikely to keep many really bad teachers or get rid of many really good ones.

            You are absolutely right that there is “nothing close to a consensus on how to measure competence” and as to any test of competence there is no “reliable data of its rates of over- and under-inclusion.” This is true of every “test of competence” including the one that everyone legally has to use: enrollment in and passing of an approved teacher training program. No matter how good a teacher people may think you are, if you don’t have those pieces of paper, you’ll be out on your ass.

          • If we assume that school administrators will only use reasonable measures of competency, and further assume that on the whole the application of those standards will do more good then harm, we’re assuming ourselves out of any need to look at the evidence. To me, that sounds like a recipe for what Joanne described in a more recent posts, with “A+-rated” schools becoming “C-rated” schools with what amounts to the stroke of the pen. I prefer not to assume.

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            Aaron, I’m curious. Department heads and principals now use various measures of competency to decide whether to rehire teachers during their first three (in most states) years and then whether to give them tenure at the end of (in most states) their third year. Do you believe those measures of competency are reasonable? Do you think they do more harm than good?

          • I have not investigated them. Have you?

            I again welcome you, or anybody else, to identify a test of competence that has anything close to broad support, and to point to reliable data of its rates of over- and under-inclusion.

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            Not in any depth, no.

            Any study that attempts to discover over- or under-inclusion is going to run into a catch-22. In order to tell if a test incorrectly identifies good and bad teachers, you have to know who the good and bad teachers are in the first place. But if you could do that, you wouldn’t need any other test.

            There are no perfect, or close to perfect, “measures of competency.” It would be convenient if that meant no one ever had to make a decision. Alas, it doesn’t. If a principal gets a hundred applications for a teaching position, he can’t hire a hundred people. Neither can he throw the applications down a flight of stairs and hire the person whose application goes furthest.

            If people really believed that there was no way to determine competence, throwing applications down a flight of stairs would be no worse than any other way of determining who to hire or keep. In fact, it would be fairer, because the administration couldn’t reward favorites and punish those who aren’t part of the in crowd.

          • Michael E. Lopez says:

            This is a really interesting discussion… may I suggest that we take seriously what Roger says about the Catch 22 and forget for the moment about measures of competency.

            Let’s ask instead a more basic question: is there such a thing as “competency” at teaching? And if so, what is it?

            Obviously, I think there is such a thing. I think we’re talking about something real when we’re talking about the difference between good and bad teachers. Just as obviously, I think that competency as a teacher is a “bundle” of skills/qualities/properties. But the more I’ve thought about this, the more I’ve come to suspect — and it’s just a suspicion — that what objective, real qualities count of “competency” are going to change from school to school, from population to population, from subject to subject.

            In other words, I think it’s a little silly to be talking about some sort of “universal” teacher competency except in the most general sense: a good teacher is one from whom/with whom students are able to expand the scope of their abilities in such a way that they become better able to live good, flourishing lives. But beyond that most general definition… we are unlikely to find anything that all good teachers have in common — not even test scores. The devil’s in the details, and I don’t know that it’s possible to work out the details on this issue.

            Now if you want to define teacher competency simply in terms of the measurement, then sure, it’s a universal truth that a “good teacher” is one who raises test scores, or whose teaching videos get the seal of approval, or whatnot. But as Roger ably points out with his invocation of Catch-22, that’s not really what makes for teacher competency; those are just attempts to detect it. (I have made similar arguments about this issue here: )

            I fear that we’re reduced to being Justice Stewart on this issue: we know competence when we see it, just like we know great basketball when we see it, despite the fact that Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Kobe Bryant all play in very, very different ways.

            There are just so many other incentives at work in the identification of good teachers that it’s difficult for us to trust each others’ judgment. And when you are talking about a government-run program that isn’t allowed to collapse in failure, that lack of trust can really hurt the enterprise.

  12. Richard Aubrey says:

    It is theoretically possible that somewhere there exists a school all of whose teachers are superb except for one who is merely excellent.
    In the real world, most schools sport at least one teacher who is agreed by all, parents, admin, colleagues, and students, to be abysmal.
    What if only the last, worst teacher was bounced?
    That would avoid the possibility of looking askance at a teacher who’s gotten a bum class three years running.
    Low-hanging fruit, everybody.

    • If you are wondering why such teachers aren’t being fired under the present system, you need to look at the lazy and/or incompetent administrators who won’t take the necessary steps to fire the teacher. I recognize that lazy and incompetent administrators have spun up a big urban myth about how hard it is to fire incompetent teachers, and that has provided them with significant cover for their laziness and incompetence, but it’s fundamentally about identifying the problem, documenting the problem, assigning corrective actions, documenting the failure, then proceeding with termination. It’s work, it can be tedious, but competent administrators can and will do it.

  13. Ultimately, what will really make a difference in schools is not increased firing but instead more rigorous hiring and tenure procedures.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      Ultimately, what will really make a difference in schools is not increased firing but instead more rigorous hiring and tenure procedures.

      Why does it have to be an either/or?

  14. The identification of “bad” teachers needs to come at the beginning of teacher training, NOT after they’ve been hired.

    For those of you making comparisons to other professions, this is where the difference is really staggering. A truly incompetent engineer will generally fail too many classes during the first semester and never go on to be an engineer in the first place. Plus, during four years of challenging classes it will become apparent even to the most determined that if you can’t hack the classes you might not hack the job either. I think this is true for most professions from carpenter to surgeon.

    With teaching, they take everyone including the village idiot. Actually, they seem to encourage as many people as possible to enter teaching — I had a fellow classmate who stuttered so badly he could barely communicate, yet was never discouraged from continuing — and I’ve never seen anyone fail out of a teaching program. Actually, the state tests for teachers are about the only obstacle would-be teachers face (I’ve known at least one person who couldn’t pass after multiple tries, and was not allowed to teach)

    Many people in teaching insist that you can’t identify who will be a good teacher or a bad one. If this is true, then you can’t identify they when they’re teaching by observation alone since observation is the tool you had all along when they were ed students.

    Other professions make an effort to identify who will make it and who won’t; I don’t see anyone in education making any such effort, and it’s easy to see why: ed departments are cash cows for colleges and they have a financial incentive to graduate as many teachers as possible.