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Ask an Expert: Why is it so hard to get rid of bad teachers?


EdNews Parent Expert Robert “Kim” Herrell responds:

Q. Why is it so difficult to get rid of bad teachers?

A. The short answer is, “It isn’t difficult to get rid of bad teachers!”  Educators get so tired of this question. It implies that there are lots of bad teachers. As a teacher of nearly 30 years, though, I will take the question as a “teachable moment.”

We first need to define what “bad teacher” means.  If by “bad” we mean an individual who breaks the law and endangers children, we simply need to turn them over to the authorities. Teachers who break laws, like any citizen, are prosecuted. If by “bad” we mean “ineffective in the classroom,” then the question becomes, “Based on what?”  Parent satisfaction surveys are conducted, and parents are mostly satisfied with their own child’s instructor, but they have heard others talk of bad teachers. If the district has hired teachers carefully, the evaluation process becomes the key to confirming teacher effectiveness.

So, there must be three things in place for quality teacher evaluation: A quality instruction standard; a quality evaluation system; and a quality evaluator.  If you have all three components, you can retain great teachers, help them grow, reassign a few educators to a better match to their skills, and rarely need to dismiss a teacher.

What is a quality instruction standard? Great instructional practice has been clearly identified by a large body of research, such as the work of Jere Brophy and colleagues.  The way we were taught 30 years ago does not meet today’s instructional standards.  Some methods of our favorite instructors of the past are certainly valid, but we have learned a lot in cognitive science since then (look to the work of Daniel Willingham).

Then the evaluation system needs consideration. Is it a transparent system? Are the expectations clear? Does evaluation allow for and reward growth for all teachers, even the top ones? Does it support the needs of a teacher who is willing to go through remediation? Evaluation should be a partnership between the teacher, the evaluator and the district. It should have a pre-conference, an observation, and a post-conference.

With a quality evaluator, the whole system comes together. Good evaluators care for their teachers like quality teachers care for their students. Each evaluator is trying to build a professional relationship with his/her assigned teachers. The evaluator tries to help the teacher become aware of what he does well and where he needs improvement. When this happens, it is a win-win for the system: A growing, learning teacher helps his or her students do the same.

Often politicians and reporters use an overly simple piece of data to show that the system is broken- the fact that very few teachers are “fired.”  The truth is, though, that teachers who see “firing” coming at them will resign and not show up in the statistics. Teachers resign for many reasons: moving, retirement, new career opportunities, family needs, etc.  Statistics on how many resignations are pre-emptive to dismissal are not/cannot be sorted from the rest.

Colorado has legislated that all districts put in place a quality teacher evaluation system so that no child will have an incompetent teacher. In a time of incredible budget cuts, this is increasingly difficult. Teachers are being asked to teach more classes and more students every day. Assistant principals, often great evaluators, are being cut to save teacher slots. With time-restricted teachers and fewer evaluators, the whole system aimed at improving teacher quality is in jeopardy.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.