Weak teachers fail in New Haven, but not many

New Haven’s unionized teachers gave up job security for better pay and benefits, writes New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof.

With a stronger evaluation system, tenure no longer mattered and weak teachers could be pushed out.

Roughly half of a teacher’s evaluation would depend on the performance of his or her students — including on standardized tests and other measures of learning.

Teachers were protected by a transparent process, and by accountability for principals. But if outside evaluators agreed with administrators that a teacher was failing, the teacher would be out at the end of the school year.

Last year, the school district pushed out 34 teachers, about 2 percent of the total in the district. The union not only didn’t object, but acknowledged that many of them didn’t really belong in the classroom.

Fifty more teachers out of 1,800 in the district have been warned their teaching must improve or they’ll be fired.

Mayor John DeStefano Jr. of New Haven says that the breakthrough isn’t so much that poor teachers are being eased out, but that feedback is making everyone perform better — principals included. “Most everybody picked up their game in the district,” he said.

Two percent of teachers were fired. That doesn’t sound like a very tough system. Maybe over time it will make a difference. Am I too bloodthirsty?

Update: Kristof fell for the latest edu-fad, writes Rick Hess, who’s seen many miracles turn out to be not so miraculous after all.

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  1. “Not many”?

    How many are presumed to be horrible?

  2. Yes, you are too bloodthirsty.

    • Why would a “stronger evaluation system” mean that tenure no longer matters???? Tenure protects teachers’ freedom to speak freely and assures that they cannot be fired without cause.

      How they are evaluated is another issue.

  3. What percentage of administrators and other district level personnel were pushed out for poor performance?

  4. Peace Corps says:

    Every profession has a small percentage of people that don’t perform well. As long a there is a system to identfy and deal with them it doesn’t matter what the percent is.

    I agree with Paul. Do they have a system to deal with bad or underperforming adminstrators?

  5. Let me get this straight. There is no scandal, no hint that the teachers in this district have done anything wrong, and in a single year 5% of them are either fired or put on notice. This is not harsh enough for you? Would you be willing to do this to other professions? Would you be willing to randomly pick a hospital and demand that 5% of their nurses be either fired or put on notice? Would you support a similar policy for policemen or firefighters? This is teacher bashing.

    • Michael E. Lopez says:

      If there were new hires waiting in the wings, sure. If there’s a genuine applicant shortage in a particular area (either geographic or subject matter), then of course you don’t want to fire people. You need every warm body you have. But if you do have a replacement pool, 5% attrition at the bottom sounds like a good number to me. (2% might even be a little on the lean side.)

      Think about it. That means you can hire new teachers to replace the fired 5% each year who are actually worse on average than the teachers you have, and still end up improving. The new hires just have to be better than the ones you got rid of.

      Allowing some time to learn the ropes, if the new hires are, on average, better than the fired 5%, then the process will result in continuous improvement until we reach an equilibrium where the new hires are, on average, just as good as the bottom 5%.

      Of course, that might not happen because you’re going to suffer periodic downticks as your best teachers retire, so average teacher quality will probably settle into something like a stable oscillation.

      • You ignored my central point. Would you confine this kind of treatment to teachers, or are you really willing to extend it to all Americans? Are you really willing to pick a random hospital and demand that 5% of their staff be either fired or put on notice?

        • Mark Roulo says:

          (1) New Haven wasn’t picked at random.
          (2) They didn’t start with a 5% target.

          I’ll also note that firing/RIFing 2% of a workforce annually would be an *improvement* for large chunks of the American workforce. As an example, the company for which I work is fairly well run and one of the larger companies in its industry. Due to a very nasty industry downturn a number of years ago, the company laid off roughly 33% of the workforce over three years(*). This was a larger percentage than is usual for industry downturns, but we do suffer from downturns every 3-4 years.

          The auto industry goes through cycles, too. I expect that 2% would be better than most US auto manufacturers have seen over the last 10 years or so.

          Law firm associates in large firms experience about 20% annual attrition (I don’t know how much is voluntary). Management consulting firms (e.g. Bain) are structured the same way, but I don’t know the percentages. I’m pretty sure that 2% would be considered low.

          Under Jack Welch, the goal was to eliminate the bottom 10% each year.

          Sometimes things look much better at a given company. IBM, for example, pretty much had a ‘no layoffs’ policy. Right up until the early 1990s when it reported $8+B in losses. Over a ten year period, IBM shed 1/2 its workforce … some by attrition, many by layoffs. A company with a no layoffs policy is sometimes just building up to a very large layoff.

          So we don’t have to extend this to all Americans. Many are already there.

          -Mark Roulo

          (*) Yes, management did lots of other things, first. We had forced time off (one week per quarter). Salaries were frozen (I think senior management took reductions).

          • That 2% figure is not overall turnover.

            It does not count non-tenured teachers who were let go.

            It does not count teachers who left without being pushed out — particularly frequent for non-tenured teachers.

            This is tenured teachers removed for perfomrance reasons. That means that this is teachers with years of a experience as evaluations as satisfactory performers. Comparisons to other fields must keep this in mind.

        • Hospitals are regularly evaluated on a whole array of measures, like number of hospital-acquired infections, and those are traced by physician, patient care unit and other staff. I have known staff who have been fired or lost their privileges because of their performance. Hospitals and clinics are also rated, by various agencies and private entities. Above all, patients can choose – at least theoretically – which hospital they use. I know many people who travel significant distances to a preferred hospital. Choice is limited by their insurance plans, where their physician has privileges and other factors, but it still exists – at least, for now. That is the HUGE difference; families cannot choose the public school their kid attends or the teacher he has.

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            Many families do indirectly choose the schools their kids attend by where they choose to live. As any real estate person will tell you, schools make a big difference in what people are willing to pay.

        • Michael E. Lopez says:

          Are you really willing to pick a random hospital and demand that 5% of their staff be either fired or put on notice?

          It would be stupid to demand that every hospital fire 5% of their staff.

          It would be even stupider to tell the hospital administrators that they couldn’t.

          Any other questions?

  6. As Robert at Core Knowledge blog pointed out recently, the whole reform narrative is wrong. Lay people like Kristof latch on to the very plausible idea that bad teachers must be the cause of low achievement. This is especially palatable to white liberals because it allows them to preserve their precious sanctified view of minorities and, above all, children. But anyone who’s spent much time teaching in those types of schools sees that the real problem is the tsunami of dysfunctionality that the kids bring with them (that, and, less-obviously, weak curriculum and wrong-headed Teacher College pedagogy). Even the smartest and hardest-working teachers are failing –and will continue to fail until a more honest and comprehensive analysis of low-achievement gains currency. It is truly unfair –and borders on sadism –to keep up the drumbeat for more harrowing evaluations for these teachers when their lives are incredibly harrowing already. Many of these teachers are literally on the verge of a nervous breakdown because of wolf-pack type group dynamics that take root among the students. I know one fifty-something NYC teacher who really has been psychologically ruined by his travails. What these teachers need from their fellow adults is support, not additional psychological assault.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      Alas, support would mean separating those young people who don’t want academics from the rest of the high school population and helping them do something productive. Since most educators believe that it is impossible for people to be very productive unless they have successfully completed an academic curriculum, and since we have a legal system that encourages employers to sh*t on people without high school diplomas, I don’t see that happening.

      • Roger, yes!! What you say is so long over due! It is past time for tracking, evaluating full mainstreaming (stopping it actually) and stopping the foolishness that keeps those that want to learn be it an academic, voc-tech or some other productie track from truly learning and accomplishing their goals. As it is the government monopoly of education at all levels keeps saying it needs more and more money yet continues to spend it outside of the classroom, benefiting providers and other adults and not students. The system is busted…don’t think it will ever be fixed. Just hope my kids will be able to afford private school or home school whenever they have kids…very very sad…

    • Oh, lay people haven’t latch onto the idea that lousy teachers are the reason for low achievement. Lay people have latched onto the idea that lousy teachers are a reason for low achievement.

      To whatever degree lousy teachers contribute to low achievement what conceivable reason could there be to employ them? They’re not good at what they’re being paid to do. Whether their contribution to low achievement is small or large they ought to get the boot since they likelihood is that they’ll be replaced with someone better.

      Paul, up the comment list, asks plaintively what percentage of administrators and other district level personnel get put under the same microscope. The answer of course is, none.

      And really, why would anyone who currently enjoys the luxury of not having to demonstrate professional competence want to change that situation? It’s not like there’ll be any professional payoff if you discount continued employment. The whole situation’s highly explosive.

      Think about what happens when teacher evaluations become more widely known and performed. Parents will want their kids to be taught by the good teachers and they’ll make a nuisance of themselves trying to ensure it happens. Then some enterprising parent will cross-reference the good teachers with the schools and generate a list of the best schools. Quick as a wink parents will want their kids in those schools and they’ll do what they can to make it happen.

      Who needs that nonsense?

      Every teacher’s a good teacher and every administrator’s a good administrator. Parents who don’t agree with those truths ought to up stakes and move on. That’s how we deal with annoying parents in these United States.

  7. Are you too bloodthirsty? Maybe.

    It depends on the quality of the current New Haven teachers — and the quality of available replacements.

    And we don’t know how much support the teachers in these schools are getting. Since this is New Haven, I would not be surprised to learn that there are many disruptive students, and that the teachers do not have many ways to deal with them.

    I have known teachers who could be quite good in good schools — where order is usual, and the teachers can count on support — but were ineffective in bad schools.

    That is one of the reasons I would start this kind of thing with principals, and treat them something like coaches: Give them considerable freedom to choose subordinates, textbooks, and so forth — and then fire the principals who don’t produce positive results after three or four years,

  8. Roger Sweeny says:

    I suspect that it is harder to teach “bad” students than it is to teach “good” students. It certainly is for me. Which is why I think that teachers who can actually get results with bad students should get the educational equivalent of “combat pay.” They deserve a significant premium compared to those of us who have it easier.

    Of course, they would actually have to get results. No extra money for taking courses on “Reaching the reluctant learner” or getting a degree or certificate in something similar.

  9. Nurses who make medication errors are fired. Nurses who can’t stand the heat in the ICU transfer to the night shift at a nursing home. Far more than 5% of nurses end up not in bedside care of very sick people.

    And, sorry to say, in some school districts that have been employers of last resort for weaker teachers, 5% is not bloodthirsty. We should be concerned about who will replac them, and Roger Sweeney is right to point out that teachers who are effective in some settings may not be in others; he’s right also to point out the extra challenge of low-income students. But there is no other profession where everyone who gains entrance is guaranteed to be able to hang on the the job of their choice forever.

    • Lightly Seasoned says:

      But there is no other profession where everyone who gains entrance is guaranteed to be able to hang on the the job of their choice forever.

      Which job is that?

  10. And, sorry to say, in some school districts that have been employers of last resort for weaker teachers, 5% is not bloodthirsty.

    Prove it. I mean that literally. Don’t just say it. Don’t just point to test scores. Prove that there are other teachers taking a class of 30 kids who are functionally illiterate and teaching them how to read in a non-charter school without the ability to charge for detention, expel, and all the other crap.

    If there aren’t teachers doing that–and head’s up, there aren’t–then the idea that these teachers are somehow worse may or may not be true, but it’s not proven.

    • I have taught in the Chicago public schools. I have witnessed schools where far more than 5% of the teachers are ineffective. I wish it were not true, but it is.

    • Har! Yeah, “prove it” indeed.

      Since accountability measures are strongly resisted by those who enjoy the largess of the public education system there’s no means of “proving it”.

      The Romans had a neat method of determining which “employees” to “terminate” when a unit of the Roman army was suspected of not performing up to the standards demanded by Rome. They engaged in a practice called “decimation”; literally killing ten percent of the soldiers in a unit without bothering with tedious time-wasters like determining who was a good soldier and who wasn’t. Would that be a bit more to your liking because the days of simply assuming all teachers are too good to can are coming to an end.

      In fact, it might not be too much of a stretch to imply that Roman “decimation” is the extremity to which society has been forced by near-impossibility of firing incompetent teachers. NCLB’s requirement that entire schools be closed, and their staff cast to the winds regardless of ability, isn’t all that far from the Roman practice. Thank you NEA.

  11. And let me add: not all of the schools where I witnessed these ineffective teachers were full of very challenged children. Some were in middle class neighborhoods. There is such a thing as an ineffective teacher. Lightly Seasoned, maybe I should not have said “the job of their choice.” It would be more accurate to say, once in the door and past the 3-year mark, you can stay in this school system forever.

  12. Stats. If the teachers aren’t improving students any more or less than other teachers with the same cognitive ability (as shown in test scores) then you have no basis for declaring that 5% is too low. Or too high, for that matter. You simply don’t know.

  13. Roger Sweeny says:

    Oops, wrong place for the above post. I meant to agree with Cal in his call for value added scores.

  14. (1) I think it would be easier to expel the bottom 10% of the students. There won’t be any problems teaching the rest and all of the teachers’ scores will improve.

    (2) If that seems unpalatable to you, try this idea on for size. Four years ago, my students did better than the state average. Three years ago, worse. Two years ago, slightly better, then worse. Am I really the one changing here?

    Are those scores any reasonable measurement of teacher quality? 32% of the students passed the state test for RI, VT, NH, and ME with a “proficient” rating. Only 3% passed as “Highly proficient”. Roughly a third passed … Either all of the teachers in four states suck or the test is inappropriate.

    There is no way I am putting 10% – 20% of my salary into that kind of lottery bonus system.

    • Like too many teachers, you don’t understand value added. The percentage of your students that passed the state test is not relevant. VAM measures the amount of improvement your students make. There are a number of ways to do this. Some of the early VAM methods were highly unstable. More sophisticated methods do seem to hold up well from year to year and also correlate with positive long term outcomes such as lower teen pregnancy rates and better education and employment as adults.

      I understand your concerns. Value added measures can be a powerful tool for improving education. When they are used in a mindlessly harsh and punitive way, they have negative consequences.

  15. Depends on what you goal is.

    If the goal is to fire bad teachers, then you are NOT too bloodthirsty.

    If the goal is to improve instruction, particularly at the low end, then you are WAY too bloodthirsty.

    There is a real — and unacknowledged — different of motivation out there.

    Many apparently base their policy preferences on the idea that teachers (or schools, or students, or districts, or families) should be punished for poor performance, and that that threat of punishment combined with the exile of poor performers will raise overall performance. They do not concerns themselves with the mechanisms of how the improvement itself actually happens, or what might replace the exiled (and they don’t do not consider what happens to the exiled). That’s step 2, and they are underpants gnomes.

    There are others who are think long and hard about how improvement happens. At times they might even get distressed at how slow improvement can be. Even when not entirely dismissive of threats of punishment, they still spend most of their attention on that next step, working on the mechanisms of the hoped for improvement.

    If you measure the success of policy by the number of teachers fired, you fall into the first group. If you focus on how many fewer classrooms with bad instruction a school has, you are likely to be in the second group.

  16. “More sophisticated methods do seem to hold up well from year to year and also correlate with positive long term outcomes such as lower teen pregnancy rates and better education and employment as adults.”

    And here I thought I was supposed to be teaching math.

    I argue from the perspective of percentage passing because that’s what my state does. I do understand VAM but I don’t believe VA is anything on which to base bonus or termination.

    “Seem to correlate” does not mean “cause” … and that’s for the best measurements. What of all the poor ones? “Some of the early VAM methods were highly unstable” and they still are. Until you can adequately measure it, and no one has able to define IT yet, there is no ethical reason to fire people over it.

    If I have a group of students that improves a lot this year but a different group that doesn’t do as well next year, are we to assume that I’ve been slacking off and just need a goad, a little taste of the whip to perform better or should we assume that my teaching is so variable that I can be bad, then great, then merely good?

    If my students improve from a Level Equivalency of grade 4 to grade 8 in one year (assuming that you can measure such an animal in any accurate way) and my colleague raises his students from grade 10.2 to 11.3, which of us has done a better job? I may have convinced them to work harder at the end of the year but not actually done much teaching.

    If I have a class with “issues” and they only improve from 9.5 to 9.8, that might be a tremendous leap for them but it wouldn’t show that way to the outside observer.

    I find it troubling that we have this blind trust in a standardized testing program to evaluate people who didn’t take that test.