Thursday, November 15

DOE to principals: Fire more teachers!

The DOE initiative of the day is to fire more teachers, the Times reports. The city has hired top-notch lawyers to help principals build cases against tenured teachers and is encouraging principals to fire more teachers before they get tenure. UFT head Randi Weingarten is naturally upset, linking the new initiative to the progress reports and saying, “Basically, it’s signaling to principals that rather than working to support teachers, the school system is going to give you a way to try to get rid of teachers.”

A few thoughts: No one wants bad teachers to stick around, but the tone of the DOE's program is just mean. Hiring a former district attorney to supervise the firings? Now being a weak teacher is a crime. Under this system the same people assigned to help struggling teachers are also charged with building the case against them. Will teachers be less likely to seek out help when they are having trouble if needing help can be perceived as a sign of weakness? None of the DOE reforms can succeed without strong teachers who are happy to helm New York City classrooms. Making teachers terrified and suspicious of their supervisors can't be good for morale. And bad morale is bad for kids.

I'd also love to know what the DOE's projections are for how many teachers deserve to be fired each year under the new initiative. Right now about 10-15 tenured teachers are fired each year for "incompetence" and about 65 probationary teachers are not given tenure, the Times reports. How many do the number-crunchers at Tweed think need to be fired? Is it 100? 200? A thousand? I'm sure there are projections. Will principals be held accountable for meeting a purge quota? Will community superintendents? It sounds unsavory but in the data-driven DOE I wouldn't be surprised if school leaders were required to meet some kind of firing-to-student performance ratio.

Finally, we should think about how this push will actually affect the teaching corps in schools. After all, the city does have a hard time finding qualified teachers, especially in math, science, and special education. How many principals will really use the new resources to fire new teachers before they are tenured? I'm guessing that principals in high-turnover schools would often rather take a chance that a struggling new teacher will improve over time than go through the rigmarole of removing him and finding a replacement. So I think we will be more likely to see teachers terminated before they get tenure in more functional schools, where they have a higher chance of getting the resources they would need to improve. (On the other hand, preventing bad teachers who leave good schools from becoming bad teachers at weak schools does need to happen — at the Research Partnership conference I attended in October, one paper showed that that is the typical trajectory for struggling teachers. The paper said that bad teachers, as judged in value-added assessments of student performance, in weak schools were more likely to leave teaching altogether.)

But it's in less functional schools — schools where the principal and his teaching staff might not see eye to eye — that I think we will see more tenured teachers being pursued under the new initiative. I can't tell you how many principals have told me that their school's inability to help students is the fault of experienced teachers who refuse to adopt new programs. I'm sure it's a real problem in breeding a unified teaching staff. But refusing to get with the program du jour is not the same as incompetence and I am concerned that this initiative will allow principals to conflate the two issues. If they are permitted to do so, this could result in even larger numbers of inexperienced but impressionable teachers staffing the most difficult schools with the principals least likely to want to develop them.

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