Fire the worst teachers

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Article Highlights

  • While many schools are strong, education reform as a whole has been an ongoing, expensive bust.

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  • Here’s the plan: Fire the worst teachers. That’s it.

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  • We’ve had No Child Left Behind, and Race to the Top, and Common Core — all while avoiding what any decent manager would do in his first day on the job.

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  • Fire-the-worst policy would also save state and local governments billions.

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  • Is education so different that we shouldn’t even attempt to apply the incentives that work in pretty much every other business?

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California judge recently ruled that the state’s tenure, dismissal, and layoff rules for public-school teachers lead to “grossly ineffective teachers” being retained in the classroom, producing instruction so inadequate for poor and minority students as to be considered unconstitutional. Los Angeles County judge Rolf M. Treu’s ruling surely will be contested, and it is an open question how constitutional equal-protection clauses should be applied to school-personnel issues. But the ruling does raise important questions regarding the role that the firing of teachers should play in improving public education.

It’s been 30 years since the landmark report “A Nation at Risk” highlighted the dire state of America’s public schools. Since that time, education has undergone a series of supposed reforms, including massively increased spending, smaller classrooms, and higher pay for teachers with accreditation or master’s degrees. The number of students is barely greater today than it was in 1983, but there’s been a 57 percent increase in the number of school employees and a 40 percent rise in real per-employee compensation. The list of smaller-scale reforms would cover pages.

And what have we achieved? Not a lot: SAT and literacy scores have barely budged, and the U.S. remains a middling performer in international comparisons, despite spending much more than the typical developed country. While many schools are strong, education reform as a whole has been an ongoing, expensive bust. (At times, embarrassingly so: A recent news story points to the graduating class of Chicago’s Paul Robeson High School, whose prom theme, embossed on printed invitations, is “This Is Are Story.”)

Desperate times demand desperate measures. And so I propose an education-reform plan that is simple and achievable, and that peer-reviewed academic research indicates would improve student achievement and future earnings, save government budgets billions from its very first year, and boost long-term economic growth.

Here’s the plan: Fire the worst teachers. That’s it. Terminate their employment. Don’t replace them. Simply reallocate their students to other classrooms. This approach isn’t merely a sign of desperation, although a bit of desperation is hardly unwarranted after decades of unfruitful efforts. The “fire the worst teachers” strategy may in fact be the optimal way to improve education, a first-choice approach rather than a last resort.

Economists Raj Chetty and John Friedman of Harvard and Jonah Rockoff of Columbia University have documented the cost to students of having a poor schoolteacher. Chetty, Friedman, and Rockoff estimate that terminating the worst 5 percent of teachers and reassigning their students to average-performing teachers would increase those students’ lifetime earnings by between $130,000 and $190,000. Put another way, to convince a rational child to willingly accept a poor-performing teacher, you’d have to write that child a check for up to $190,000 on the spot. These figures indicate that eliminating bad teachers may be the quickest way to improve the job prospects of low-income Americans, reduce income inequality, and boost our future economy.

But this fire-the-worst policy could have benefits beyond those calculated by Chetty and his co-authors. Economists Thomas Dee of Stanford and James Wyckoff of the University of Virginia recently analyzed Washington, D.C.’s IMPACT program, which financially rewards the best teachers and threatens the worst with dismissal. Dee and Wyckoff compared teachers who were near the thresholds for bonuses or dismissal threats with teachers who actually crossed the thresholds. They found that the highest-graded teachers performed even better as a result of IMPACT’s bonuses. The lowest-graded teachers who received dismissal threats, by contrast, were more likely to either improve their performance or to quit than nearly-as-poor teachers who weren’t threatened with firing. In other words, the threat of dismissal caused the worst-performing teachers to either shape up or ship out. In either case, the quality of teachers in the classroom improves.

Firing the worst also could restore prestige to teaching by treating public-school teachers as all other professionals are treated. The Albany Times Union found that over a five-year period, New York state schools terminated only 38 teachers out of a workforce of 132,000. Either public schools are extremely good at identifying the best teachers — something for which there is very little evidence — or they are reluctant to fire the worst. But top college graduates simply aren’t attracted to occupations in which it is all but impossible to get fired. Indeed, the best graduates flock to software, law, finance, and other occupations where job security is fleeting. The strongest employees aren’t afraid to be judged on their merits, and they want to be surrounded by co-workers who are equally confident. Simply put, despites teachers’ unions’ calls for teachers to be recognized and lauded as professionals, in almost no other profession is incompetence so difficult to punish. (Really, try to think of one.)

This fire-the-worst policy would also save state and local governments billions. There are around 3.1 million public-school teachers, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The average teacher salary in 2013 was around $56,000, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimating that teachers receive another $25,000 in annual benefits. That’s a conservative estimate, since it doesn’t include teachers’ retiree health costs or unfunded pension liabilities. But based on these figures, firing the worst 5 percent of schoolteachers would generate annual savings of around $12 billion from day one.

Now for the objections. For instance, if you fire the worst 5 percent of teachers and reassign their students, won’t class sizes increase? Sure, but there’s very limited research showing that class size matters very much, and no evidence that it matters more than teacher quality. According to the NCES, the student-teacher ratio declined from over 22 in 1970 to around 16 today. Have you noticed big educational gains? Has Korea been harmed by having 31 students per class? Teacher unions understandably favor small classes but, as Education Secretary Arne Duncan has noted, you’d much prefer your child to be in a large class with a good teacher than a small class with a bad one.

Likewise, how can we be sure that teacher assessments will accurately identify the worst-performing 5 percent? We can’t, though teacher assessments are probably a more objective performance measure than most non-teaching employees receive as part of their annual performance reviews. Moreover, the Chetty, Friedman, and Rockoff calculations assume that teacher assessments aren’t infallible: If we could identify the worst 5 percent of teachers with absolute certainty, the earnings gains to their students would rise to a quarter million dollars.

But why not simply recruit better teachers rather than fire bad ones? For instance, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten has proposed a “bar exam” for teachers, a more rigorous qualification test before they can enter the classroom. Here we hit on a key reason why better firing may be more important than better hiring: It is notoriously difficult to identify the best teachers without seeing them perform on the job. Research by economists Cory Koedel of the University of Missouri and Julian R. Betts of the University of California at San Diego shows that teacher quality varies considerably and has a real impact on how much students learn. Unfortunately, however, “observable teacher qualifications” — such as college quality, field of study, years of work experience, certification, or advanced degrees — are much poorer predictors of teacher performance than actual value-added assessments of teachers once they’re in the classroom. Judging teachers before they enter the classroom appears to be as effective as signing an athlete without having him step on the field.

As Vanderbilt University economist Dale Ballou has shown, even when schools are offered teacher candidates with better credentials, such as higher GPAs, majors in subjects other than education, or degrees from better colleges, schools don’t appear to choose them. If anything, better qualifications may make an applicant slightly less likely to be hired. The best explanation is that principals and superintendents are not so much opposed to better applicants as they are to different applicants, and they favor applicants who took the traditional education-school route to teaching.

Moreover, despite Weingarten’s analogy to the law, the bar exam isn’t how the legal profession itself ensures quality. Yes, lawyers must pass the bar before they can practice law. But that’s just the bare minimum. To reach excellence, most law firms still follow a ruthless “up or out” model in which the best associates become partners and the rest are expected to leave. When looking for a lawyer, a smart client looks for much more than just a passing grade on a bar exam. Parents should expect more in the teachers who educate their children.

Wouldn’t teaching attract better candidates if it paid better? Maybe, but maybe not. Teaching itself does not pay badly: $56,000 on average for roughly ten months’ work, with a benefits package that’s about twice as generous as those in comparable private-sector jobs. Most job openings in teaching don’t lack for applicants. In Connecticut in 2012–13, for instance, the typical teaching-job opening drew 56 applicants, a pool that included “many acceptable applicants,” according to data from the state department of education.

Moreover, as Dale Ballou and University of Missouri economist Michael Podgursky have shown, higher pay actually could lead to less qualified teachers. Here’s why: As Ballou found, schools don’t consistently hire the most qualified applicants; at best, it’s a crap shoot. Raising average pay would reduce the number of job openings due to lower teacher retirements and would increase the number of applicants for each job that did open up. As a result, any particular applicant would have a lower chance of being hired.

For less-skilled college students, that’s not such a big deal: They can major in education, and if they don’t get a teaching position, that education degree is no worse for their job prospects than many other less rigorous fields of study, such as liberal arts or general studies, would have been. But now think of the best college students: If these students major in education in order to pursue a teaching job, they may give up the chance to major in engineering, finance, or other potentially lucrative fields. The “opportunity cost” of pursuing teaching is already higher for the best college students than for the worst ones, and raising average teacher pay would increase that opportunity cost by reducing the best students’ chances of getting a teaching job. Thus, the result of raising teacher salaries could be to reduce the quality of the applicant pool. A number of empirical studies have shown that schools that offer higher salaries or better work conditions don’t necessarily attract better-quality teachers.

Education is “complicated,” we’ll hear. Sure. But is teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic really more complicated than making software, or automobiles, or anything else in the modern economy? And is education so different that we shouldn’t even attempt to apply the incentives that work in pretty much every other business? Firing the worst teachers won’t fix everything that’s wrong with U.S. public education. As teachers’ unions point out, many children don’t come to school prepared to learn. But even those students could benefit from having a better teacher.

We’ve had No Child Left Behind, and Race to the Top, and Common Core — all while avoiding what any decent manager would do in his first day on the job: dismiss poor performers. Former General Electric CEO Jack Welch identified the bottom 10 percent of employees. “There is no sugarcoating this,” Welch says. “They have to go.” Why is it that Jack Welch cared more about the quality of the GE employee making your dishwasher than your elected officials care about the quality of teachers educating your children?

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