Is firing (a lot of) teachers the only way to improve public schools?

The search for better economic policy.
Aug. 11 2010 1:38 PM

Clean Out Your Desk

Is firing (a lot of) teachers the only way to improve public schools?

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

In 1983, a presidential commission issued the landmark report "A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform." The report warned that despite an increase in spending, the public education system was at risk of failure "If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today," the report declared, "we might well have viewed it as an act of war."

New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein often quotes the commission before discussing how U.S. schools have fared since it issued its report. Despite nearly doubling per capita spending on education over the past few decades, American 15-year olds fared dismally in standardized math tests given in 2000, placing 18th out of 27 member countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Six years later, the U.S. had slipped to 25th out of 30. If we've been fighting against mediocrity in education since 1983, it's been a losing battle.

What could turn things around? At a recent event that I organized at the Columbia Business School, Klein opened with his harsh assessment of the situation, and researchers offered some stark options for getting American education back on track. We could find drastically better ways of training teachers or improve our hiring practices so we're bringing aboard better teachers in the first place. Barring these improvements, the only option left is firing low-performing teachers—who have traditionally had lifetime tenure—en masse.

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The emphasis on better teachers—through training, selection, or dismissal—comes from the very consistent finding that improving faculty is one of the best, most reliable ways to improve schools. If the person standing at the front of the classroom has raised the test scores of students he's taught before, he's likely to do so again.  

But how do you get good teachers in the classroom? Unfortunately, it turns out that most evidence points toward great instructors being born, not made. National board certification may help a bit, a master's degree in education not at all. It's also difficult to pick out the best teachers based on a résumé or even a sample lesson. It takes a year or so before evaluators (and even teachers themselves) know who is really good at getting kids to learn, and few qualifications are at all correlated with teaching ability. Candidates with degrees from prestigious colleges—the type where Teach for America does much of its recruiting—do a bit better, but not much.

The only option left on the table is getting rid of bad teachers once they're already teaching—perhaps by firing low-performing instructors after a probationary period of a couple of years. How many teachers would school reformers have to fire in order to get American schools performing at their best? That's the question researchers Doug Staiger and Jonah Rockoff set out to answer in a study they presented at the Columbia conference.

The researchers went through a simulation exercise, building on prior findings about the impact that great teachers have on their students, the fraction of incoming teachers who turn out to be strong performers in the classroom, and the "signal-to-noise" ratio in a teacher's performance during her first couple of years (i.e., how hard it is to tell whether a teacher is bad or just unlucky).

When they ran the numbers, the answer their computer spat out had them reviewing their work looking for programming errors. The optimal rate of firing produced by the simulation simply seemed too high: Maximizing teacher performance required that 80 percent of new teachers be fired after two years' probation.

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