Coping With Incompetent Teachers

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Incompetent teachers represent a relatively small proportion of the teaching force, but the number of students who are being taught by such teachers is substantial. Even if only 5 percent of the teachers in public elementary and secondary schools are incompetent, the number of students being taught by these teachers exceeds the combined public-school enrollments of the 14 smallest states.

Students are not the only ones who are being shortchanged by incompetent teachers. These poor performers tarnish the reputations of the vast majority of teachers who are competent and conscientious professionals.

Quite understandably, the problem of teacher incompetence has captured the attention of education reformers. They have advanced numerous solutions: cleansing the profession by dismissing all incompetent teachers; improving the attractiveness of teaching by raising salaries; restricting entry into the profession by means of competency tests; upgrading the quality of preservice education by adopting competency-based preparation programs; and providing incentives for quality teaching by instituting merit pay.

Although there is no shortage of ideas about what should be done to redress the problem of teacher incompetence, virtually nothing is known about how local school officals are actually dealing with the problem. I have attempted to fill this void by conducting extensive original research that draws on a rich array of sources: interviews with administrators, documents from personnel files, a survey of local school districts, and a case study of a district that deals forthrightly with its poor performers. My aim has been to answer the following questions:

What is the nature of teacher incompetence?

Incompetence is a term without precise technical meaning; moreover, there are no clear-cut standards for determining whether a teacher is incompetent. This ambiguity is especially troublesome for school administrators. Approximately 75 percent of the teaching force has tenure. Tenured teachers may not be dismissed for poor performance unless the administration can prove to a hearing officer, a commission on professional competence, or a judge that the teacher is incompetent.

The lack of clear-cut standards, along with the extensive legal protections afforded tenured teachers, means that proving incompetence is a highly problematical, time-consuming, and costly undertaking for school administrators. As a result, I found, many administrators are inclined to tolerate the poor performer unless he or she is such a blatant failure in the classroom that no one doubts the appropriateness of the label "incompetent." Marginal teachers and teachers who are incompetent but are the target of few parental complaints are apt to be endured, if not ignored.

How do administrators ascertain teacher incompetence?

Recognizing that most of a teacher's activities take place behind closed doors, administrators use a variety of means to identify incompetent teachers. The most common methods, I discovered, are supervisor ratings and observations, complaints from parents or students, complaints from other teachers, and student test results.

Parental complaints play an extremely important role. Such complaints signal that something may be radically wrong in a teacher's classroom and may stimulate a closer look at what is happening. Parental complaints also exert pressure on the administrator to deal with the poor performer. As one administrator put it: "Parent complaints are the most powerful force that we have to deal with. Without parent complaints, we leave the teacher alone."

What are the perceived roots of incompetence?

Most proposals for school reform assume that teacher incompetence is due to a lack of skill or motivation. But the roots of incompetence are much more complex, my research suggests, than reformers have assumed. Rarely is a teacher's poor performance due to a single cause, such as insufficient skill, ability, or effort. More commonly, unsatisfactory performance stems from other sources as well, such as emotional distress, poor health, marital problems, or inadequate supervision.

Under these conditions, improving the performance of an incompetent teacher is a formidable challenge. It is unlikely that something akin to a miracle drug will ever suffice as a cure for teacher incompetence. The extent of an incompetent teacher's difficulties in the classroom and the causes that underlie these difficulties are simply too far-reaching.

How do administrators respond to teacher incompetence?

Once an administrator decides to confront a teacher about his or her poor performance, the administrator's efforts generally fall into two distinct stages. In the first stage, the administrator concentrates on trying to salvage the teacher. My analysis of these salvage attempts indicates that they are seldom successful, especially with a veteran teacher.

As one supervisor described such rescue efforts: "It is a frustrating process for the helper. We may save the teacher's job, but we're never sure whether it's best for the kids. The teacher rarely becomes anything better than low average." Another administrator bluntly stated: "The [incompetent] veteran teacher is near impossible to make a good teacher. I really question whether it's worth the grief and the aggravation." Improvement is limited, in part, because administrators lack the resources and training needed to diagnose and correct poor performance.

If the teacher fails to demonstrate sufficient improvement during the salvage stage, the administrator begins to concentrate on the next stage: getting rid of the teacher. The method of termination is largely determined by the teacher's employment status. Teachers without tenure are dismissed; those with tenure are generally induced to resign or to retire early.

In California, for example, temporary teachers may be dismissed at the expiration of their contracts without cause and without due process. Although temporary teachers constitute less than 7 percent of that state's teaching force, they accounted for approximately 70 percent of the dismissals for incompetence between September 1982 and May 1984. In contrast, tenured teachers are covered by a thick layer of legal protections and accounted for only 5 percent of California's dismissals during the period I studied--even though they make up 80 percent of the teaching force.

Moreover, my research shows that when California's tenured teachers are terminated, they are 20 times more likely to be eased out than to be dismissed. Regardless of the termination method used, few tenured teachers are being weeded out of the profession for incompetence in our most populous state--less than 1 percent of the total tenured force in two years.

Inducing an incompetent teacher to resign or to retire early isn't easy. But it can be done--as I found in a case study of a school district that restored public confidence by inducing 20 percent of its teaching staff to leave during a period of declining enrollments and shrinking resources. These teachers, all tenured, were the weakest ones working in the district.

What is the bottom line in responding to the problem?

The single most important personnel decision a school district makes is the decision to grant a teacher tenure. The tenure decision is the last opportunity a district has to enforce high performance standards. Once teachers acquire tenure, they have to be unmistakable failures before the district can get rid of them. Every time a district makes a mistake in granting tenure, it creates scores of problems.

Teacher-evaluation systems should be redesigned to reflect the importance of the tenure decision. Resources--time, energy, people, money--are limited, and districts should allocate these resources where they are likely to receive the greatest return. With nearly one million new teachers expected to enter the profession over the next five years, districts should concentrate their scarce resources on the selection, evaluation, and development of probationary teachers. Moreover, if the anticipated teacher shortage actually develops, districts should resist the understandable temptation to grant tenure to marginal teachers on the grounds that "the next ones could be even worse."

Better yet, districts should make it as difficult for teachers to obtain tenure as to lose tenure once it has been granted. By adopting more stringent standards for awarding tenure, districts would be able to retain institutional flexibility in dealing with future fluctuations in enrollments and funding. More important, districts would be able to ensure that future generations of students will be taught by competent teachers.

Since there appears to be no cure for teacher incompetence, districts must emphasize preventive measures: more careful selection and substantially higher performance standards for granting tenure.

Vol. 5, Issue 12, Page 24

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