There is a better way to improve schools than firing teachers

Ed Moscovitch comments on Frank Bruni’s column in the New York Times on the new book by Joel Klein, former Chancellor of New York City Public Schools

“It’s teacher quality,” former NYC public schools chancellor Joel Klein writes in his new book. Reviewing the book in the New York Times, Frank Bruni highlights Klein’s observation that union contracts and tenure protections make it “virtually impossible to remove a teacher charged with incompetence.”
Asked about improving teaching, the first response from Klein (and other reformers) is to find ways to fire more teachers. Klein’s suggestions also include improving curriculum at education schools, incentives for the best teachers to work in high-poverty schools, and pay for performance.
The obvious step forward NOT on Klein’s list is a comprehensive program to train and mentor teachers already in schools. Klein complains that it costs $300,000 to fire a single New York teacher. For that kind of money, the Bay State Reading Institute, of which I am co-founder (we work with over 40 high-poverty Massachusetts elementary schools), can work with an entire school faculty for 4 years, raise expectations for student performance, and give teachers the tools they need to make dramatic gains in student learning (and test scores).
Why are the education reformers willing to spend that kind of money to get rid of one teacher (whose replacement might not be any better prepared), but not to invest in training for an entire faculty?
An unstated assumption in the Klein approach is that great teachers are born, not made, so there’s no point investing much in training the teachers we’ve got. Another assumption is that there are no negative side effects from an educational assessment system geared more to firing teachers than helping to identify student needs and evaluate the effectiveness of various approaches to meeting those needs.
Both assumptions are badly mistaken. I’m in schools all the time, observing instruction and talking with teachers and principals. The overwhelming majority of teachers care deeply about their students, want to see them succeed, and – if approached by people they like and respect and guided by data in a non-punitive way – will change their instruction. Indeed, our experience is that with the right kind of assistance, many – most – teachers are capable of performing at very high levels.
It’s certainly true, as Klein points out, that few teachers’ colleges prepare young teachers for classrooms of children primarily from disadvantaged homes. In particular, schools cannot be successful if teachers cannot differentiate instruction – if they don’t teach mainly in small groups and make sure that each student is challenged at her own level all day long.
When teachers do know how to do this, the results are magic! First graders in our partner schools are routinely able to differentiate facts from opinions. (Young lawyers learn this in the first year of law school!) Because they are successful, students look forward to coming to school, disruptive classroom behavior all but disappears, and teachers love their jobs.
In the long run, improving education schools makes obvious good sense. But – even if you could make those changes – it would take a decade or more to make a dent in the teaching ranks. Also, working with a whole faculty all at once – and helping the principal to become a strong educational leader– makes a far bigger impact than training one teacher at a time. Once some teachers begin to make gains, others will follow. Nor have we had pushback from the unions; they have no problem with a program that empowers their members and adds to teacher job satisfaction.
Too good to be true? Check out these videos – and let the teachers themselves tell you how much better their students are doing.