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Should Incompetent Teachers Be Protected?

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Over the past decade or so a rising concern about the quality of education in America has generated calls for a great variety of reforms--site-based management, curricular revisions, increased use of technology, cooperative learning, school choice, a longer school year, and national standards, to name a few. Many of these reforms have much to offer. But what about the teachers?

The classroom teacher is the central element in providing formal education below the college level. Yet we've heard amazingly little discussion about practical ways to improve the professional quality of today's teacher force.

School systems try to strengthen teachers by offering them in-service training, encouraging them toward graduate education courses, or by requiring recertification and the like. These measures can be helpful in supporting the professional growth of well-motivated teachers.

But to improve the teacher force in a fundamental way we need to change staffing policies so that schools can regularly weed out their truly ineffective teachers. The admirable work of committed teachers--who wholeheartedly invest their energies, care deeply about their students, continue as lifelong learners, and inspire students by their enthusiasm--should not blind us to the existence of many "minimalists'' working in our classrooms.

Minimalist teachers can be recognized as those who: a.) show minimum knowledge or interest in their subject and have stopped learning; b.) lack energy, enthusiasm, imagination; c.) leave the building right after the last bell, taking no work home; d.) take the full quota of "sick days'' whether sick or not; e.) hold low expectations for their students, treat them with disrespect, basically don't really like kids.

In some cases these are veterans who are simply burned out; but more often the minimalists entered teaching by default, seeing it as a secure, undemanding job with a short working day and lots of vacation time. In either case, minimalists give little to their students and drag down their colleagues and their schools.

Teachers in any large school surely fall into a bell curve in terms of their contribution to student learning and personal development. They range all the way from the dedicated, knowledgeable, and inspiring at one end, through the majority in the middle who do a fairly good job, to the listless, incompetent, and even destructive at the opposite end. So no one can say with any precision how many might be classified as minimalist. But I suggest that the quality of the teaching profession could be significantly improved by annually replacing the minimalist tail of the bell curve--perhaps the weakest 5 percent (although certainly not according to any sort of quota).

Weeding out the minimalist tail of the profession would remove a group who are currently blocking students from learning, in some cases even turning them against education. This will open up teaching positions to a group of energetic young people recently out of college, with fresh ideas and real motivation for teaching. The graying of the teacher force is especially evident in many urban school systems, where few full-time positions are available to newcomers and teachers under the age of 35 are scarce. This age imbalance deprives schools of a needed source of energy and renewal, and there is no doubt that students should be exposed to a mix of older and younger teachers bringing varied experience and perspectives to the classrooms. The shortage of openings discourages capable college students from aiming at careers in teaching.

Currently it is extremely costly, time-consuming, and difficult in most school systems to remove an inadequate teacher for anything less than blatant moral turpitude--some principals say it's next to impossible. This reality promotes complacency and is a powerful disincentive to teachers' becoming the best they can be. A process of weeding out minimalists will reduce complacency.

A policy of culling out something like one poor performer out of 20 teachers does not pose a threat to the great majority of teachers; indeed, it will stimulate those who have been satisfied with a merely adequate performance to raise their sights, and to: a.) try to upgrade both their knowledge of subject and teaching techniques; b.) prepare better for class and to collaborate more professionally with colleagues; c.) take more interest in students and support school efforts to meet extracurricular needs.

Resistance to the idea of weeding out the most incompetent teachers is inevitable, particularly where unions are powerful and large impersonal bureaucracies are entrenched. Teacher unions in the past have fought attempts to fire even their most incompetent members, and in many school systems the centralized authority of multilayered bureaucracies has tended to frustrate reforms at local levels. But as the consequences of a deteriorating educational system become increasingly apparent, the public may conclude that the jobs of minimalist teachers should no longer be protected at the expense of our children. And as more city school systems move toward site-based management, they will recognize that principals must be given more authority in staffing if decentralization is going to produce the desired results.

Great care must be taken in identifying those few teachers who should be weeded out. But gross misjudgments should be rare. In education, as in other professions, it is difficult to make distinctions among the majority of satisfactory teachers in the central part of the bell curve of performance, but a capable principal should have no such problem in identifying the teachers at either extreme of the spectrum.

Might principals cast off teachers for personal or other illegitimate reasons? This is a risk that employees in other walks of life have always faced. There is no need for teachers to be totally insulated from the possibility of unfairness in their employment. Principals who are held to a standard of accountability (as more and more will be) will jeopardize their own jobs if they undermine faculty morale by letting teachers go without clear justification.

Minimalist teachers should indeed feel threatened by this proposal; good teachers will feel supported. They recognize that the minimalists shortchange their students and add to the burdens of the conscientious majority. Teachers want to be respected as professionals; but full job security for obviously ineffective teachers undermines public respect for teaching as a true profession. Most teachers will welcome a fairly conducted weeding-out of incompetents and slackers--in contrast to merit pay, which rewards only a few teachers and engenders discontent and dissension, rather than collegiality, among the unrewarded majority.

Culling out substandard teachers will remove "blockers'' to student progress; it will open up teaching opportunities for energetic and highly motivated newcomers (and thereby encourage capable young people toward teaching careers); and it will spur average teachers toward their best potential. Rightly implemented, it will fundamentally improve the quality of teaching in our public schools. As educators we must insist that it is our children's education and welfare--not job protection--that must command our highest priority. In fairness to the children, teachers must be held to reasonable expectations.

This proposal is made out of respect for and in support of the conscientious majority of hard-working teachers. It does not require increased expenditures by the taxpayers. It is in no way intended as an alternative to other reforms currently being implemented or proposed. Indeed, a teacher force which has shed the weight of the minimalists will be more receptive to worthy reforms and more likely to carry them out successfully.

Frank Eccles is a co-director of the Andover-Dartmouth Urban Math Teachers Institute in Andover, Mass.

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