Education Opinion

Bad Teachers

By Walt Gardner — October 16, 2013 1 min read
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The existence of bad teachers has long plagued the profession. It’s undeniable that some teachers do not belong in the classroom. The debate is over the best way of identifying them and then removing them (“Getting rid of bad teachers,” Los Angeles Times, Oct. 15).

As things now stand in most states, it’s extremely difficult to fire bad teachers outright. Nevertheless, Gov. Jerry Brown of California recently vetoed a bill that would have streamlined the process because he said it was an “imperfect solution.” However, there will never be a perfect solution. The goal should be to devise a fair system.

The first step in doing so is to define a bad teacher. I’m not talking now about egregious conduct, such as abusing students because that is criminal. Instead, I’m referring strictly to evidence regarding learning. The problem is that if reformers have their way standardized test scores will be the overwhelming determinant of effectiveness.

With that criterion, all teachers will be vulnerable to dismissal. For example, tenured teachers in New Jersey who rack up two unsatisfactory evaluations can now be terminated under a new state law. Teachers who wish to challenge their dismissal must do so through binding arbitration, with stipulated limits on the length and time of the process. So if teachers there happen to inherit a class of miscreants and slackers two years in a row, their careers are in jeopardy even though they have engaged in exemplary pedagogy for many years.

Reformers will argue that I exaggerate the threat. I argue that they deny the threat. Let’s not forget that once rules are in place, teachers cannot rely on goodwill or common sense to prevail. Everything becomes strictly procedural. It’s like a court of law. Cases are often won or lost on what seems absurd to lay people. Why would binding arbitration be any different? Once the ground rules have been established, there will be no place for teachers to appeal.

It’s time to finally acknowledge that good teaching is an art. And as in all artistic endeavors, it’s extremely difficult to evaluate quality. I have no objection to using test scores as one factor. But I urge extreme caution in implementing a strategy that downplays other non-quantifiable factors. Let’s not forget that everything that counts cannot always be counted.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.