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Thompson: Rebalancing The Teacher Quality Discussion

War-on-teachersJoshua Cowen’s and Marcus Winters' recent Do Charters Retain Teachers Differently? (in the journal Education Finance and Policy, via Shanker Blogfinds no discernible difference in the ability of elementary charter schools in Florida to dismiss poorly performing teachers.

Using a large data base over a six-year period, Cowen and Winters find charter school teachers are more likely to exit than similar teachers in comparable non-charters and low-performing are more likely to leave than higher-performing teachers.

Neither conclusion is surprising.  But, then they discover something that probably should not be surprising. Cowen and Winters thus fail to find evidence that collective bargaining agreements impede the removal of ineffective teachers.

I have no doubt that collective bargaining agreements (CBA) in some districts have made it harder to remove ineffective teachers, but in nearly twenty years, I have never seen a bad teacher retained due to the union.  I have seen plenty of awful teachers.  Every year, in my neighborhood school, I saw principals hiring teachers who had no chance of success in the inner city classroom and, a year later, I saw them awarded tenure.  But, in my experience, principals were no more at fault for this complicated mess than the union.

In the first place, principals had no magic wand that would attract applicants with a chance to be effective in a neighborhood school.  Many applicants were imminently qualified to be "good" teachers, and in lower-poverty schools they would have also been "effective."  In the inner city, however, being a good teacher is not nearly enough to be an effective one.  You have to be outstanding in order to handle all the curveballs, and still get the job done.

Secondly, I've worked with dozens of principals and assistant principals.  Almost every one worked in excess of 80 hours a week.  In neighborhood schools, they all went weeks at a time without having a chance to even think about classroom instruction.  That's why so many evaluations were either cancelled or pushed to the final week of the semester, when Christmas meant that instruction was barely attempted.  

Rookie teachers had no due process rights, but gaining them after a year was only a formality.  Why would a principal dismiss a hapless young teacher when it was very unlikely that a qualified replacement would be available?

So, why did charter advocates believe that after they scaled up their schools they could avoid such a cycle? How could they reduce the rights, pay, and benefits of teachers and think that they could improve the supply of qualified teachers by making their job less attractive?

There is an answer, however.  There is no reason to believe that we have fewer good teachers than in the past. If anything, the 21st century should be able to produce more good teaching candidates.  We need to reorganize schools so that teaching is a team effort.  Being a good teacher should be enough to be an effective teacher - even in poor schools.

Come to think of it, wasn't that the original idea of charters?  Weren't charters supposed to prompt innovation?  How did firing teachers become the be-all, end-all of "reform?"-JT(@drjohnthompson) Image via.   

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