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Bruno: Education Trust's Narrow Focus On Ineffective Teachers

4175299981_614e7d9dc5The Education Trust has a report out criticizing school districts in Michigan for rating 99% of their teachers "effective." Their complaint is that by failing to label more teachers as ineffective, districts are lowering expectations for its teachers and therefore lowering teacher quality.

The truth is that there's probably less to this story than meets the eye. There's no correct percentage for ineffective teachers.  And the problems of teaching have as much or more to do with supply than with demand.

For one thing, Stephen Sawchuk rightly points out that there's not an objectively "correct" proportion of teachers to label "ineffective," since the criteria for each label necessarily involve some subjective judgment.  The Education Trust might still doubt that 99% of Michigan's teachers are really "good enough," but the fact remains that if you do try to pin down an exact number you're either going to come up with something highly controversial or something not that different from what we see in the report.

A more fundamental issue is that while education reformers are right to treat teacher quality as an important problem, it's probably a mistake to think of it as primarily a demand problem. The Education Trust seems to believe that Michigan's new 4-tier teacher rating system should be used by districts to create demand for "effective" or "highly effective" teachers by identifying them properly.

By their own admission, this seems not to have worked. Why not? Administrators have many good reasons not to start labeling their teachers as "ineffective". This might be because they're basically satisfied with the quality of their staff, or at least don't like the odds of being able to hire better replacements. It might also be because even if administrators are unhappy with the quality of their staff, they don't think giving them official negative labels is a promising way to develop their talent or maintain staff morale.

My guess, in other words, is that whatever teacher quality problem we have is mostly a supply problem. Administrators mostly know which teachers on staff they want (or don't), but doubt they can find better replacements. This supply problem is worsened by the fact that helping individual teachers improve is difficult to do.

Importantly, Michigan's teacher effectiveness rating system doesn't obviously help with either the supply problem or the teacher development problem. If anything, it plausibly exacerbates both if negative labels hurt morale or the prospect of such a label discourages applicants. Such teacher rating schemes seem likely to do as much harm as good. - PB (@MrPABruno) (image source)


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You are absolutely correct, helping individual teachers improve is a difficult task to tackle, but it could be the solution. Administrators need prioritize better, I say let the staff's morale go down a bit... it's too high as it is!

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