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Conflating Teacher Incompetence and Redundancy: Management Mistake and/or Ploy?

May 02, 2008 6 min read

In her post “Why You Should Read the Fine Print in the New Teacher Project Report,” eduwonkette suggests that the study of New York public school teachers has been spun by its authors, their allies, and the media so as to suggest that most of the staff made redundant by administrative decisions about teacher positions are also incompetent. Eduwonkette points to several reasons why that might not be the best interpretation, including that fact that 81 percent of excess teachers have never received an unsatisfactory rating.

It is entirely possible that administrators have made some number of incompetent teachers excess baggage rather than going through the performance review process. For all I know most are incompetent. On the other hand, redundancy may also be a way of handling disloyalty to management or managers. What I do fear is that excess and incompetent are becoming interchangeable concepts and, to the extent my fears are justified, this has to be called poor management.

The matter comes down to some simple questions with no easy answers:
• Can and will those responsible for the governance of school systems separate the problem of excess teachers from the problem of incompetents?

• Can and will school system managers get serious about using the due process procedures now required to remove incompetents, or will they try to move in NTP founder, now DC Public Schools Chancellor, Michelle Rhee’s direction of making school system staff employees at-will?

In the District of Columbia, where Rhee was able to turn central office staff into at-will employees without due process rights, staff reductions have been explained by the administration both as a means of removing incompetents and a way to eliminate redundancies. It seems likely that at least some employees were let go because they were not entirely loyal to the new regime.

Aside from the question of fundamental fairness, the problem for released employees is that they were not informed which camp they fell into. Potential employers are likely to assume the worst.

In the face of significant opposition from members, the head of the DC teachers union has agreed to give Rhee the power to control reassignment of teachers in the dozens of schools scheduled for closure. The criteria she will apply to make those decisions have not been specified, and so appear to be no less arbitrary than those applied to central office staff.

The problem of excess teachers is the interaction between managements’ reasonable desire to control staff deployment and unions’ understandable desire to protect senior members through collective bargaining agreements. It’s complicated tangle, but arose from managements’ decision in the 1970’s to give unions more control over hours and working conditions, when the ability to offer higher wages was constrained by stagflation. It was a short-sighted decision.

The responsibility for individual competence lies with each teacher; the responsibility for incompetence at scale rests with school management. Administrators - from principals to superintendents - have failed to put up the resources required to pursue staff termination on performance grounds. (I suspect they have also failed to do an adequate job of screening candidates up front, or providing support to “improvable” staff.) The firing process itself isn’t incredibly complicated, but it does take time and effort to put together a credible record that will support termination. In this regard, school systems are no different from any large organization; line managers are not incentivized to spend the time required to coach, counsel out or end the careers of poor employees - or punished for failing to do so, and so they don’t.

Conflating redundancy and incompetence may be the most convenient strategy for district administrators to regain control over deployment lost in 30 years of collective bargaining and redress management’s own decades-old failure to remove what may well be a large backlog of incompetent staff. It’s a move quite consistent with the idea of using value-added data to assess teacher performance discussed elsewhere in this blog. Management wants to simplify its management problem; it wants to make life easier for management. In short, school district management is human, which is to say prone to a self-centered view of problems and solutions.

I’d like to remove incompetent teachers quickly. I think management needs more power to deploy staff as it sees fit. I believe we need to incorporate
the value-added concept into teacher evaluation. But as I’ve written before, I think the mad dash towards the solutions proposed by district management and on its behalf will create a new set of problems that will make it much harder to achieve any of these goals. I don’t want more powerful management per se (or weaker unions), I want better decisions, leading to better outcomes.

What’s implicit in the ideas coming out of the Chancellors’ offices in New York and DC is the philosophy of the man (and woman) on the white horse. In desperate times we want to embrace the person holding themselves out as the singular leader, trust in their judgment, and offer them absolute power. Maybe he or she is the philosopher king, but the same power goes to their successors. Eventually we get a whole new kind of corruption that gets in the way of teaching and learning. And because every person riding in on the white horse is flawed, we get that corruption from the start.

The right way to fix the dysfunctional district human resource systems is to terminate poor performers based on due process, recognizing that some should not be teachers, others were not well supported but could be turned around, and realizing that arbitrary procedures are likely to remove good teachers for reasons unrelated to performance. (And given what I hear from across the political spectrum about the scarcity of good teachers, I think I’d be happy for a system that protected one of them for every three incompetents that it failed to terminate.) This is will take resources, but together with better recruiting and support systems, will probably assure a higher quality teaching force over the long term.

Where teachers now bargain collectively, the right way to fix the problem of staff allocation and deployment is either through the collective bargaining process, or by narrowing the scope of areas subject to bargaining by law. It’s not likely to work quickly, which is one reason why school districts and states need to nurture live options such as charter schools, contract schools, and even the threat of vouchers, to pursue as best alternatives to a negotiated agreement with the unions. Its tough, but deal arrived at through agreement are likely to hold. Good, bad or indifferent, policies enacted arbitrarily by the man or woman on the white horse hold sway only as long as the man or woman stays on the horse.

It seems hard for many pro-management school reformers to square their belief that American public education must improve significantly, quickly and at scale with the obvious corollary - this is simply not possible without the overwhelming support of teachers, and for better or worse that means the teachers unions. This doesn’t mean that what the unions say goes, but it does mean that if management expects any policy to achieve its intended role in improving student performance it must have genuine teacher buy in.

So much school reform practice today amounts to a raw struggle for power based on beliefs that reinforce self-interest rather than analysis. The parties are all so certain they are right, and enlist evaluation in their just cause. In New York and Washington, management is having some success scratching back power lost over the years. But the more analysis we do, the more we learn that every party with a stake in public school outcomes can deny every other party victory in pursuit of its plan - even, and maybe especially, a good plan. I wonder what will happen when or if education policy wonks of all persuasions come to this realization.

Marc Dean Millot is the editor of School Improvement Industry Week and K-12 Leads and Youth Service Markets Report. His firm provides independent information and advisory services to business, government and research organizations in public education.

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The opinions expressed in edbizbuzz 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.

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