The teachers unions won’t like this

This is a surprisingly good piece from the leftist magazine, Newsweek. It certainly won’t win them any friends in the teachers unions.

Yet in recent years researchers have discovered something that may seem obvious, but for many reasons was overlooked or denied. What really makes a difference, what matters more than the class size or the textbook, the teaching method or the technology, or even the curriculum, is the quality of the teacher. Much of the ability to teach is innate—an ability to inspire young minds as well as control unruly classrooms that some people instinctively possess (and some people definitely do not). Teaching can be taught, to some degree, but not the way many graduate schools of education do it, with a lot of insipid or marginally relevant theorizing and pedagogy. In any case the research shows that within about five years, you can generally tell who is a good teacher and who is not.

The biggest problem is not that teaching colleges do a bad job or that the dregs of the classroom usually end up teaching. The worst problem is that, because of unions and tenure, schools cannot get rid of bad teachers.

Nothing, then, is more important than hiring good teachers and firing bad ones. But here is the rub. Although many teachers are caring and selfless, teaching in public schools has not always attracted the best and the brightest. There once was a time when teaching (along with nursing) was one of the few jobs not denied to women and minorities. But with social progress, many talented women and minorities chose other and more highly compensated fields. One recent review of the evidence by McKinsey & Co., the management consulting firm, showed that most schoolteachers are recruited from the bottom third of college-bound high-school students. (Finland takes the top 10 percent.)

At the same time, the teachers’ unions have become more and more powerful. In most states, after two or three years, teachers are given lifetime tenure. It is almost impossible to fire them. In New York City in 2008, three out of 30,000 tenured teachers were dismissed for cause. The statistics are just as eye-popping in other cities. The percentage of teachers dismissed for poor performance in Chicago between 2005 and 2008 (the most recent figures available) was 0.1 percent. In Akron, Ohio, zero percent. In Toledo, 0.01 percent. In Denver, zero percent. In no other socially significant profession are the workers so insulated from accountability. The responsibility does not just fall on the unions. Many principals don’t even try to weed out the poor performers (or they transfer them to other schools in what’s been dubbed the “dance of the lemons”). Year after year, about 99 percent of all teachers in the United States are rated “satisfactory” by their school systems; firing a teacher invites a costly court battle with the local union.

Right on. Any profession that refuses to allow the dead wood to be culled is a risk to the entire system. This is precisely what is wrong with the government school system, among other things.

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