Why Fire Teachers?

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asks Megan McArdle of the Atlantic. Looking through her lens of economics, business, and systems management, McArdle makes a trenchant argument that the typical union/tenure/civil service legislation that protect teachers from getting fired is frivolous when juxtaposed with the educational needs of poor and underprivileged students. And while “high turnover is not desired in any profession, including teaching,”

I doubt that the lowest possible turnover rate is compatible with the best possible education. Turnover has costs, but it also has benefits: fresh blood, lower burnout rates, and an incentive for teachers to keep performing. The whole idea of hiring someone in their early twenties and employing them forever seems like an unhealthy organizational structure to me–in the military and old-school law firms as well as teaching, though the military and law firms do more to weed out the number along the way. It breeds an organization that is insular–resistant to new ideas, suspicious of outsiders, resentful of its nominal clients. We should be looking for ways to make teaching more open to part-timers and people in second, third, or eighth career cycles, and to make it easier for teachers to move around between schools and districts, and between teaching and other industries.

McArdle’s argument that a higher turnover rate for teachers is not such a bad bargain for kids and our educational system in general is interesting in light of the assault by union stakeholders on proposed reforms in NJ like conditional tenure or merit pay. Much of the wattage expends itself on worry beads devoted to the tragedy inherent in sacking a high-performing teacher or the current state of value-added models not being precise enough so a great teacher ends up with a mediocre evaluation or not giving seniority its due deference.

For example, one of the great concerns of those in the anti-reform camp is that making tenure a “what have you done lately for me?” kind of thing (i.e., two years of ineffective teaching means a teacher loses job security, according to Comm. Cerf’s proposal) will drive districts to fire senior teachers so that they can save money by hiring junior and cheaper staff members. McArdle’s argument brings us to “so what?” All the research shows that after two or three or five years (depending on your report) teacher proficiency plateaus. However, salary goes up. Isn’t it better for kids, especially needy ones, to replace an expensive teachers with an equally proficient but less expensive model (sorry) so that more funds are available for other educationally sound programs?

The social or moral implications of firing someone who may or may not be proficient pales besides the consequences of keeping an ineffective teacher. Will we lose some good teachers? Sure. But, says McArdle,

I just can’t prioritize making teachers’ work environments fair, interesting, or pleasant for them–not if there’s any potential conflict with the goal of providing the best possible education for kids. Particularly disadvantaged kids, since I basically assume that educated and competent parents are going to ensure that their offspring are educated and competent. But where there are needy kids, my entire focus is on them. I want to make teachers’ lives pleasant only insofar as this advances the goal of helping kids who need a lot of help.

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