Commentary | Education

Lessons—Some Fair Steps to Take Before Firing Teachers

These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.


Some fair steps to take before firing teachers

By Richard Rothstein

Rockville, Md. — All large organizations have some employees who do not perform well. School districts are no exception, but getting rid of incompetent teachers remains a vexing problem for administrators. When teachers are fired, it is usually for gross misconduct, not inadequate instruction.

Unions are often blamed for making it hard to fire poor teachers. But even without unions, public employees are entitled to due process. This includes consistency: teachers cannot suddenly be dismissed for using previously acceptable techniques that have fallen out of fashion, and they cannot be fired for ineptness that has been tolerated in others.

Due process also means telling tenured teachers what their shortcomings are and helping them improve. Hearing officers will uphold teacher dismissals only after efforts at remediation have failed.

Few districts meet such standards of fairness. One that does is Montgomery County, Md., where teacher firings are weighed by a panel of eight principals and eight union officials. During its two-year existence, the group has approved firing 7 of the system’s 7,300 tenured teachers, and 30 others have resigned or retired when faced with dismissal. Those numbers are far greater than before the joint panel was established.

More important, 39 other teachers who were threatened with dismissal improved enough under an experienced colleague’s tutelage to be retained, sometimes with a requirement for additional training.

Charlene Douglas-Flynn, a fourth-grade teacher, had taught for 19 years before her principal said last spring that she should be discharged. The panel asked Diane Hoffman, a consulting teacher (nominated by the union and appointed by the superintendent), to evaluate Mrs. Flynn.

Mrs. Hoffman observed Mrs. Flynn’s class and agreed that instruction was poor. So she coached Mrs. Flynn through the school year that just ended. She was in her classroom frequently to critique lessons. She recommended workshops for Mrs. Flynn to attend and books to read,especially “The Skillful Teacher” (Research for Better Teaching, 1997) by Jon Saphier and Robert Gower, something of a bible for the county’s consulting teachers.

Mrs. Hoffman observed that Mrs. Flynn was giving vague feedback to pupils, saying, for example, “You did a good job,” rather than “I liked how you related the character in the story to your experience.” So Mrs. Flynn learned to be more specific.

Mrs. Flynn also practiced explaining clearly at the start of a lesson what pupils were expected to learn. For example, she posted a scoring guide for poetry presentations; each pupil received points for memorizing a poem, for maintaining eye contact with the class, and for reciting audibly. Mrs. Flynn said, “The students were excited by the contest but I wouldn’t have done it before I was shown how.”

In the end, Mrs. Hoffman reported that Mrs. Flynn had become a first-class teacher herself, and Mrs. Flynn’s principal agreed. Last month, the panel ended its assistance to Mrs. Flynn. Her tenure is now secure.

But not all experienced teachers improved enough when offered the chance. Last spring, a second year of coaching was mandated for a high school English teacher of 34 years. When he continued his old ways — assigning too little writing, doing too much lecturing — he was told to retire or be fired. He retired.

The Montgomery County program works because the district devotes more effort to correcting poor practice than to punishing it. Consulting teachers are expensive, and each school also has a teacher-trainer whose sole job is to ensure that even good teachers enhance their skills.

Teachers who are fired after a panel recommendation can still appeal, with union representation. But they can’t say they had no chance to improve.

Union leaders support the program because they help run it. With union designees and principals having equal voting power on the panel, teachers do not fear arbitrary treatment. Once that worry is put to rest, teachers themselves want incompetent colleagues removed. Otherwise, ill-prepared students will be passed along to teachers in the next grade.

Now, the biggest impediment to weeding out poor teachers is not obstruction by the union but inadequate supervision by principals. Jerry D.Weast, the district superintendent, surveyed corporate executives and education experts and concluded that about 4 percent of even the best organization’s employees need help. In Montgomery County, that means about 300 tenured teachers may have poor skills. But in the program’s first two years, principals referred fewer than 100.

Although that is more than the number of substandard performers identified before the program, Dr. Weast said it might still not be enough. Principals, he said, need training to recognize poor instruction because in Montgomery County, union rules can no longer be blamed for poor teaching.

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