Central Falls, R.I., where an entire high school teaching staff was recently fired, is the latest example of a growing trend: no-nonsense superintendents attempting to improve their schools by firing teachers perceived to be incompetent to secure a bigger share of federal education dollars. But this “cleaning house” approach, encouraged and supported by the Obama administration, betrays a lack of appreciation for the value of teacher experience, a myopic view of accountability, and a flawed understanding of how substantive change occurs in public schools.
Let me first establish my credentials for making these claims. As a young high school principal 30 years ago, and later as a superintendent, I embraced the strategy of clearing out the “deadwood” to improve schools. I did not attempt wholesale firings, but I did develop a systematic approach to confronting teacher incompetence that involved increasing pressure and sanctions, culminating in dismissal if no improvement was forthcoming. (See my article “Inducing Incompetent Teachers to Resign,” Phi Delta Kappan, January 1985.) The facts are that I had success with this approach: The schools improved.
But the Obama-Central Falls approach confuses the whole with the part. In my three decades of school administration, I never saw a school where every teacher was incompetent. Firing an entire teaching staff cuts out the wheat along with the chaff. It instantly eliminates decades of teaching skill and experience, some of which may certainly not have been good, but much of which probably was. As all those years of valuable experience and know-how walk out the door, who is going to fill the void? We’d like to think that bright, young college graduates, perhaps on the Teach For America model, can step in and do a better job. But the mixed results from that program suggest that the skills and experiences that lead to success in teaching often extend far beyond the capacities of even the brightest and most promising 22-year-old.
A second problem with a wholesale-firing policy is that it reinforces a narrow and shortsighted view of accountability. When a school fails, the education system, the parents, and the community must share blame. Accountability cannot be laid only at the door of teachers. States and districts have to provide the resources—human capital as well as money—to enable success. Communities have to support the work of schools with programs that enable students to be school-ready. Parents have to set clear expectations and consistently provide the support kids need to be motivated and successful. In my public school career, I never saw a student in any school—from advantaged suburban to disadvantaged urban—achieve outstanding success in academics, sports, or the arts who did not have a parent or some significant adult right behind him or her.
What’s the answer then? We should pay attention to what a quarter-century of research on successful school change has taught us. Children’s learning will improve if a teacher does something different and better in the classroom. I rarely met a teacher who was intentionally doing a bad job. As my understanding evolved, I realized that the issue was less teachers’ willingness than their ability to meet the daunting challenges they faced. So my strategy also evolved: from just clearing out the deadwood, to developing the skills and capacities of the vast majority of teachers who wanted to do a good job but needed help.
Being successful with this strategy has several requirements. First, superintendents and boards of education must talk with teachers about what they think they need to succeed. If staff development does not begin with their perceived needs, it will not work. Second, school leaders must invest in proven staff-development programs—ones that over the years have had demonstrated success. Third, they have to deliver the staff development in a way that is consistent with what research tells us: It needs to occur as close to the actual work as possible.
Most important, these school leaders have to sustain the commitment of money, time, and enthusiasm for these programs long enough to be successful. The kind of development of teaching and administrative practice needed to improve student learning does not, contrary to current thinking, happen overnight.
A version of this article appeared in the March 31, 2010 edition of Education Week as Is Firing Teachers the Answer?