Those who want to reform public education in America have made one thing abundantly clear: they believe that teachers are the problem. They don’t often come right out and say so, but their actions are unmistakable. They weaken tenure protections because they want districts to more easily be able to dismiss veteran teachers. They end last-in-first-out policies for the same reason. They attack unions because they are the only thing standing between a teacher’s job and an administrator’s desire to give it to someone else. They push for new teacher evaluation systems as a way to identify the bad apples and to legitimize their removal, because who can argue with data? They advocate for more charter schools because charter leaders don’t usually have to deal with pesky unions who make it more difficult to fire substandard educators. They back alternative certification schemes as a way to undermine current professionals. And in perhaps their biggest tell, they pitch an absolute fit when their best-laid plans go to waste because the damn principals still won’t fire teachers!
Reformers believe that America can fire its way to better education. The so-called “5-10 percent solution,” a product of economist Eric Hanushek, is often cited by reformers. As you probably gathered, it posits that American education would improve if we consistently fired the worst 5-10 percent of teachers.
This is the driving belief behind nearly every reform effort. But it’s yet to be put to the test because the people who would have to do the firing aren’t economists. They don’t work for think tanks. They actually have skin in the game. School administrators, unlike most reformers, operate in the real education world, and in that world, there are some very real consequences to letting even struggling teachers go. Consequently, very few principals give their teachers poor ratings.
A simple explanation for the high ratings might be that principals know best. They’re right there working next to the teachers all year, so perhaps we should take their ratings at face value; maybe most teachers really are effective.
The problem is that research suggests that principals’ evaluations don’t always reflect their honest opinions about the teachers in their buildings. Survey data from one urban district showed that evaluators perceived more than three times as many teachers in their schools to be below proficient than they rated as such. The authors of another study wrote:
“We find that principals’ evaluations of teachers are quite positive whether the stakes are high or low, but the low-stakes evaluations show substantially more use of lower rating categories, and many teachers rated ineffective on the low-stakes assessment receive “effective” or “highly effective” high-stakes ratings.”https://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/full/10.1162/EDFP_a_00210
So why do principals inflate teachers’ evaluations? Why are they reluctant to rate even obviously struggling teachers poorly? Given the power that many districts now have, why don’t more of them do what reformers want them to do and fire more teachers?
They have their reasons. Here are seven.
They probably won’t find anyone better.
Here’s a satisfying irony: Reformers’ efforts to make teaching better, a large part of which relies on the dismissal of large numbers of teachers, has resulted in the declining attractiveness of the profession, which has had the consequence of fewer and fewer young people enrolling in teacher preparation programs, thereby making it risky for principals to do the very thing reformers implore them to do: fire teachers. American education has never attracted the country’s highest-performing students and reform efforts have guaranteed that it never will. A principal has to be concerned that he might not find anyone better to replace a teacher he would like to get go.
Of course, this isn’t a universal problem. Some districts do indeed receive hundreds of resumes for open positions and they can choose among several impressive candidates. The problem is that those kinds of districts usually have students who do well no matter who teaches them. When you consider the potential consequences of letting a teacher go, is it really worth it if test scores will likely remain high with a replacement? And if scores are high, can principals even find the data to legitimize a teacher’s dismissal?
Conversely, the districts that reformers would say need the most teacher turnover (the ones with low test scores) are in the worst position to replace poor teachers with better ones because they are unattractive districts. Given that, a principal in a struggling district must weigh the benefits of firing even a struggling teacher against the costs outlined in the rest of this article, a calculus which becomes even more difficult with the knowledge that he’s unlikely to find anyone better.
The Principal’s Guilt
Nearly every principal agrees that the process to remove a teacher is time-consuming. Mahy lament this fact, but there’s a good reason for it. If a principal wants to fire a teacher, the least we should expect of them is to spend a fair amount of time with that teacher and offer some assistance. But because it’s time-consuming, many principals don’t dedicate enough time to helping a struggling educator. They don’t get in the teacher’s classroom often enough. They don’t meet enough. They don’t have conversations, or share best practices, or provide a mentor, or send the teacher to conferences, or provide a decent curriculum, or direct the struggling teacher to resources that might help. And because they don’t do those things they feel guilty. How can they evaluate such a teacher poorly when they would have to admit that, for at least one very important part of their job, they were also ineffective. If a teacher struggles, should not the principal share at least some of the responsibility for not intervening earlier? The guilt principals feel over their failure to adequately support a struggling teacher is one reason many principals don’t want to remove such a teacher. Doing so would be an admission of their own failures.
Staff Morale Already Sucks
There’s a risk that comes with firing any teacher, but that risk is magnified if such a teacher is popular with peers or if morale in the building is already low. Firing people doesn’t happen in a vacuum. There are reverberations. And when a principal lets a teacher go, she should know that every teacher will react to the news. If the teacher was widely recognized as ineffective, the firing can enhance the reputation of the principal. But if the teacher was well-liked, or if the teacher was perceived as effective with students even though she had other faults, you can bet there will be fallout. A message has been sent, but it is sometimes not the message intended. One problem with matters like these is confidentiality. In the absence of an official explanation, teachers will provide their own about why a teacher was let go, and those reasons can cause a chilling effect, a fearful lurch to conformity and away from risk-taking, or resentment and even animosity toward the building leaders. Firings are often received negatively by the teachers who remain, and principals will struggle to lead without positive relationships with their staffs. Given that morale is often already low in the buildings where reformers would like the see the most teachers fired, principals run a real risk when they decided to double-down on practices that further lower already sucky morale. The culture in education is that teaching is and has always been a secure job. Principals who want to challenge that culture do so at their peril (see Rhee, Michelle) It would be a little like a law firm deciding to no longer charge billable hours.
A Bad Reputation
News travels fast in the education world, especially at the regional level. In the last two weeks, my colleagues were abuzz over two news stories. In one, the district’s Superintendent decided to share surplus money with her teachers. In the other, a large neighboring district decided to significantly boost substitute teacher pay from now until Christmas. In education, word spreads quickly, and bad news moves like lightning. Most principals don’t want to become known as the administrator who fires people. Same for most districts. No one wants to work for the principal who evaluates teachers the harshest, just as no one wants to work for a district that has a reputation for high turnover. You’d be a fool to assume immunity. When you looked at the above graph, what’s the one state you reflexively did not want to teach in? You’re not alone. What’s the likelihood that New Mexico is going to attract great teachers when graphs like that exist? The problem with firing lots of teachers is that it’s hard to see why teachers would want to work in such a place.
Experience and Common Sense
As is so often the case in education (and elsewhere), you can find a study to support just about any contention. Some studies have shown that experience doesn’t matter much. Others show that it does. But even with the best research, people tend to default to their beliefs. And it’s pretty hard to fight the belief that people get better with experience since every teacher and principal will tell you that they’re better at their jobs now than they were in their first year. It’s just common sense, and when common sense runs headlong into a study by some economist you’ve never heard of, you’re going to go with common sense every time. So are principals. Sure, Cheryl might not be the greatest teacher right now, but she’s young. She’ll get better. It’s far easier to justify keeping even a struggling teacher around for another year with this line of thinking than it is to let her go, deal with the fallout, and invest time and money in the hopes you’ll find someone better.
Cost and Time
Hiring news teachers is a hassle. I’ve never done it, but I’ve been on four interview committees. Everyone working in a school is extraordinarily busy. No one is running around with free time, so when principals conduct interviews with new teacher candidates, it takes a large chunk of time out of their day, or, more often, they’re doing it in the summer and they have to beg teachers to come in over their break to sit on the interview team. There are often more rounds that take up even more time of those on the team (and they won’t be real happy to help if they’re pissed over the fact that the principal caused all of this because she fired a colleague they believed didn’t deserve it). Then, if you’re fortunate enough to find someone, there’s a mentor to find and training to provide (assuming you’re doing things the right way). Everything the district invested in the fired teacher is lost and you’re starting over with the new person. Once in the classroom, a new teacher will usually require more principal support. The new hire will need to be brought up to speed on building norms and procedures, a job often left to her experienced colleagues, who may resent the extra work, especially if they saw the firing as unwarranted. That can harm the culture of the building. And this all assumes that the new hire won’t keep interviewing, receive a better offer from a more affluent or geographically closer district and leave you in the lurch and having to go through the whole process all over again.
Determining bad teaching isn’t as easy as it sounds. Teaching isn’t just about test scores. It’s not even just about learning. As I wrote in Why Bad Teachers Are Hard To Find, different students need different things, and the perfect teacher for one student can be a terrible match for another. One teacher may closely reflect the values of one set of parents while holding views that are the antithesis of what other parents value about their child’s educational experience. Different students need different things, and teachers play many roles inside of a school. Teacher A may get great test scores, but her students might grow to hate school. Teacher B’s scores might be lower, but she may foster in students a love of learning that pays dividends down the road.
Part of the benefit of formal schooling is the exposure to different types of “bosses.” We shouldn’t want a monoculture in our schools where every teacher values the same things because we want flexible students who can adapt to changing circumstances and expectations. Principals are right to question whether their opinion should matter as much as it does. Just because a principal values publicly displayed learning goals, quiet classrooms, focused seatwork, and high test scores does not mean she should elevate her values above others. A little humility is called for because there is no one right way to educate children. The self-doubt principals rightly feel about what constitutes good teaching is enough to keep many of them from imposing their values on their staffs and it’s enough to stay their hand when it comes to rating teachers poorly on year-end evaluations.
Given all the potential negatives, it’s not surprising that most principals looking at the big picture opt to retain even struggling teachers. Until reformers start running schools full of actual teachers, they are unlikely to understand all the factors principals consider when making the difficult decision to rate their teachers poorly or take steps toward their dismissal.