Monday, October 31, 2011

Firing to Finland Farce

As has been said before, I’m sorry, but “you can’t fire your way to Finland.”

I taught for many years in a Japanese high school, one of those “high-performing” countries everyone is so concerned about. What I saw in classrooms was boring lecturing, little discussion, and overall teacher-centered techniques that left students disengaged and often asleep (Japanese teachers rarely woke these students.) The children were so tired because they spent HOURS every night at cram schools with 1:1 tutoring. They could sleep through class because they knew they’d learn it that night. The Japanese don’t succeed because of superman teachers.

In fact, the best teaching I’ve ever seen was from the time when I taught in a “failing” 99% low-income, 100% black elementary school on the south side of Chicago. What I saw in literally EVERY classroom was creative, thoughtful, hard-working teachers trying every possible trick in the book to reach their students. But it was never enough. Behavior problems plagued the school and children had difficulty focusing on learning with all the outside problems that they brought. The poverty that surrounded them created an obstacle that even fantastic teachers could not always overcome (although, there were some exceptions with some students. There are bound to be outliers.)

How do you decide who to fire when everyone is working so hard? Do you fire the fifth grade teacher who took on the inclusion classroom with 10 children with learning or behavior problems? Do you fire the kindergarten teacher whose students had never been to school before? Do you fire the 3rd grade teacher whose students had had a string of subs the entire year before and were completely out of control? Do you fire the special ed teacher whose students do not make progress as quickly as their peers? And what do you do with the 1st year teacher who is still learning her trade, is she to be fired because she hasn’t had time to improve? What about the art teacher? How do you judge her work?

And let’s not forget favoritism. The principal was close friends with one 5th grade teacher. Lo and behold, her classroom had none of the children known to have behavior problems. She had one special education student with a mild disability while the other 5th grade teacher had 10 children with significant disabilities. Classrooms are NOT randomly assigned in schools.

The issue of teacher quality is such a complex and subjective topic. Despite what Bill Gates would have us believe, you cannot easily quantify what “good teaching” is, and people’s definitions vary depending on what you value.

Not only would firing 5-10% of teachers not work, it would damage morale and ultimately the teaching profession. When you have half of all new teachers quit before they have been in the classrooms five years, I think the real question we should be asking is “How do we get teachers to STAY in the classroom long enough to become great?”

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