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Why Is It So Difficult To Fire Bad Teachers? 1322

Ant writes with this depressing story about how public schools sometimes work: "This six-page Los Angeles Times article shares its investigation to find 'the process [of firing poor teachers] so arduous that many school principals don't even try (One-page version), except in the very worst cases. Jettisoning a teacher solely because he or she can't teach is rare ...'"
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Why Is It So Difficult To Fire Bad Teachers?

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  • by chunk08 ( 1229574 ) on Sunday May 03, 2009 @05:30PM (#27809307) Journal
    "The erroneous assumption is to the effort that the aim of public education is to fill the young of the species with knowledge and awaken their intelligence .... Nothing could be further from the truth." Not sure where that quote is from, but it's good and I had it lying around.
    • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday May 03, 2009 @05:46PM (#27809431)
      SCENARIO #1: Take one teacher. Put her in a classroom of Japanese-American kids or Hungarian-American kids. They will do well because they are committed to learning.

      SCENARIO #2: Put that same teacher in a classroom of African-American kids from Oakland, California. The kids will do poorly because African-American culture rejects learning -- and rejects Western culture in general.

      In scenario #2, the teacher would be fired as a "bad" teacher. In scenario #1, the same teacher would get a bonus for producing such accomplished students.

      Is there any reasonable and objective way to determine a teacher's performance that is independent of the students in her classroom?

      • by readin ( 838620 ) on Sunday May 03, 2009 @06:25PM (#27809861)
        Is there any reasonable and objective way to determine a teacher's performance that is independent of the students in her classroom?

        Perhaps not, but it may be a matter of matching teachers to students.

        Scenario one: place a teacher with a logical methodical style in a group of students who show up to play games. Scenario two: place that same teacher in group of motivated kids who show up to learn the subject.

        In scenario one, the teacher gets fired. In scenario two, the teacher does quite well leading the kids from step to step and introducing exciting concepts into the classroom while making it fun.

        There were other factors as well, but the above is basically what happened to me when I taught English overseas. There were teachers who were great entertainers who did very well in the first circumstance. That wasn't me. I did very well in a school with a different style, where the focus was on the language and we we're expected to play games (though I did sneak in one or two).

        My getting fired was good for my career and good for the students at both schools.
      • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday May 03, 2009 @06:49PM (#27810113)

        Funny you would say that. I AM a Hungarian-American student. I grew up in Budapest, Hungary and moved to the USA at the age of 18, after finishing high school in Hungary. I am currently in the nursing program at my local community college and what I see in every single class is part frightening, part infuriating.

        Young American college students (I take night classes, so their ages range between 18 and 50 in my class) are awful. They lack the most basic respect, which they display by talking shit about any teachers they don't like as soon as the teacher turns away. Many send and receive text messages on their cellphones all the time despite clear instructions that forbid doing so. Many act like not understanding something is the teacher's fault for not being able to explain things right, at which point they give up entirely and sigh audibly.

        I'm taking basic college level chemistry and, forget kids not being prepared to go to college, the MAJORITY of my chemistry class cannot do FRACTIONS and PERCENTAGES. How do you expect these people to go anywhere near college? These are the kinds of things they were supposed to master by age 10. No wonder they can't do even simple chemistry which involves balanced chemical equations. The entrance test for my program involves basic algebra (the stuff you study in high school by grade 10). A student has to have a combined FIFTY PERCENT math score to pass and be eligible to become a Registered Nurse, yet many fail brutally. They fail using decimal numbers. Fractions. Percentages. These are the same people who will be measuring out your morphine after you get carted into the ER.

        Nursing students in particular are terrible. They don't want to learn how the distribution of ions in an IV bag breaks down, or what it even means, because "it will be on the bag and explained anyway" -- god forbid they ever get into a situation where they don't have everything written down, pre-measured out, chewed, and digested for them. They lack critical thinking or the desire to have any.

        My chemistry teacher sheepishly told me that I'm flying through his class while my fellow students are failing at a 50% rate because I'm used to a more intense method of lecturing back home. I told him he was wrong. He lectures just fine. He's just not used to having decent students in his class.

        Don't even get me started on English or writing essays.

      • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday May 03, 2009 @07:00PM (#27810227)

        Why is teaching apparently the only profession that is not capable of being objectively judged?

        Welcome to the real world.

        SCENARIO #1: Take one SW developer. Put her on a project for a kick ass new feature that will get a lot of attention (but they aren't doing anything particularly difficult.)

        SCENARIO #2: Put that same developer on a team fixing bugs that made it to the field and need quick resolution (a potentially more challenging job.)

        I'd sure as hell rather see a great teacher unfairly fired occasionally (they'll rise to the top elsewhere) than see the person's seniority be the prime consideration. How's seniority based teaching been working out for us?

      • by edumacator ( 910819 ) on Sunday May 03, 2009 @07:07PM (#27810317)

        Is there any reasonable and objective way to determine a teacher's performance that is independent of the students in her classroom?


        I'm an English language arts department chair at a very diverse school. As part of my job, I have to observe teachers in all different kinds of classes, AP to freshman remedial classes. It is easy to see which teacher is a good teacher and which isn't. To go with a nice car analogy. If a mechanic is working on a PoS or a Rolls, you can still tell if he knows what he is doing.

        A good teacher cares, asks questions, engages the students with appropriate questions and pushes them to do a little better than they currently are regardless of the class. The bad teacher doesn't.

        Now as to the subjective point. When did objective become synonymous with truth? My evaluations are subjective, with objective elements. Nevertheless, I have the experience to be right subjectively.

      • by George_Ou ( 849225 ) on Sunday May 03, 2009 @07:33PM (#27810545)
        There is a charter school in Oakland with nearly all minority kids (mostly black) that do better than schools comprised mostly of while kids in wealthier districts. The same can be said of Catholic schools comprised of mostly inner city black kids. My point is that race really isn't the issue although there is a serious problem within popular black culture. But if the school has zero tolerance for disruptive children and they enforce a strict learning environment, you can teach children of any race to do well.
    • by an.echte.trilingue ( 1063180 ) on Sunday May 03, 2009 @05:55PM (#27809535) Homepage
      It is from HL Mencken, The American Mercury, April, 1924. The sentiment goes back at least to JJ Rouseau.

      Here is a great quote from the article:

      Building a case for dismissal is so time-consuming, costly and draining for principals and administrators that many say they don't make the effort except in the most egregious cases. The vast majority of firings stem from blatant misconduct, including sexual abuse, other immoral or illegal behavior, insubordination or repeated violation of rules such as showing up on time.

      Either the journalist is a product of the LA school system or the LA school system mandates that teachers show up late.

      More to the point, however, is that this is actually not such a bad system, no matter what populist journalists wishing to stir up anti-(government|teacher's union) sentiment says. As somebody with managerial experience in the federal government, I can attest that establishing a pattern of misconduct is a very effective way to get people fired. However, it requires that administrators keep their paperwork in order. There has to be a written record in place establishing that the misconduct actually happened. This requirement is a good thing in government positions because it keeps people from getting fired for political reasons and thus helps prevent nepotism and cronyism. The horror stories that you hear about the impossibility of firing bad employees always come from inept administrators who could not be bothered to properly manage their personnel and want to blame the system for their failings.

      • by MoonBuggy ( 611105 ) on Sunday May 03, 2009 @06:05PM (#27809635) Journal

        I appreciate that it must be hard to strike a fair balance of evidence when it comes to firing people, but just how would one make a specific record of incidents of misconduct when a teacher is simply crap at their job?

        Not only is any direct measurement very subjective, an objective measurement (exam grades achieved by children) is skewed by so many factors it's not even funny and even brings in its own set of problems - it's more dependent on the children who happen to be in the class than the teacher to begin with, and since it is often used despite that it means that most teachers (even the good ones) are forced to teach to an exam syllabus rather than actually providing a rounded understanding of a subject.

        • by Brett Buck ( 811747 ) on Sunday May 03, 2009 @07:32PM (#27810543)

          Not only is any direct measurement very subjective, an objective measurement (exam grades achieved by children) is skewed by so many factors it's not even funny and even brings in its own set of problems - it's more dependent on the children who happen to be in the class than the teacher to begin with, and since it is often used despite that it means that most teachers (even the good ones) are forced to teach to an exam syllabus rather than actually providing a rounded understanding of a subject.

          But you have to remember that the entire reason that the exams were instituted for a very good reason. Part of a hypothetical "rounded understanding of a subject" is actually being competent in the basic skills associated with the topic. That wasn't happening in many many cases. "Rounded Understanding" isn't possible until "basic understanding" has been achieved. Even if ALL they do it end up teaching the test, that's still a hell of a lot better than teaching nothing at all and graduating students that don't have basic skills required to function. That's what was happening (and still is, in a lot of cases) and that's why, in the large, that the testing was instituted.


      • by leucadiadude ( 68989 ) on Sunday May 03, 2009 @06:06PM (#27809657) Homepage

        insubordination or repeated violation of rules such as showing up on time.

        Either the journalist is a product of the LA school system or the LA school system mandates that teachers show up late.

        Looks more like YOU are a product of the LA school system. The reporters usage is correct. He is talking about a rule, i.e., the rule to show up on time.

    • by apoc.famine ( 621563 ) <> on Sunday May 03, 2009 @06:14PM (#27809743) Journal

      My personal theory is that it's to teach them to take standardized tests.
      Drivers permit/license
      Industry Certifications
      That, or it's to teach people to work line shifts. Turn on, turn off. Do job a, switch to job b, switch to job c, then go home when the whistle sounds.
      It's CLEARLY not designed for learning.

  • by Brett Buck ( 811747 ) on Sunday May 03, 2009 @05:33PM (#27809329)

    I think it's blatantly obvious, the NEA is exceptionally powerful and won't permit it.


  • Labor Economics (Score:4, Interesting)

    by snwyvern ( 1334877 ) on Sunday May 03, 2009 @05:34PM (#27809341)

    Seeing the result of poor education is an easy task. It's even easy to identify poor teachers by merit and/or performance... The difficulty comes in establishing universal standards that will do that by a set of static rules. Of course there are the pandemic issues with unions and so on. My spouse is a teacher, and several friends I graduated with are in education, and the story (at least in Colorado) is the same: The Union only steps in for members of the herd that are to be culled. In more... sane... states (our state is the lowest in Higher Education funding by several orders of magnitude) your mileage may vary.

    • Re:Labor Economics (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Darkness404 ( 1287218 ) on Sunday May 03, 2009 @05:40PM (#27809393)
      How about Students, give students an anonymous evaluation form to put their feelings of teachers on them, then when the time comes to get rid of unnecessary teachers, its easier to get rid of the ones where the students can't learn in. Because, most students can easily identify teachers they don't like and can't learn from, and face it, even if you have a PhD in mathematics, yet your algebra students are totally confused, you aren't doing your job as a teacher and should be let go.
      • Re:Labor Economics (Score:5, Insightful)

        by bwalling ( 195998 ) on Sunday May 03, 2009 @06:08PM (#27809681) Homepage
        The problem with this is that students are generally not in a good position to evaluate their educational needs. Many middle and high school students prefer to not be challenged and to do as little work as possible. A likely outcome of a student rating system is that teachers who offer easy classes that require little work will be seen as the highest quality educators.

        Some of my most difficult teachers in high school are among those that in retrospect I recognize to have done the most for me. Only a few of those would I have evaluated so highly during my schooling.
      • Re:Labor Economics (Score:5, Interesting)

        by catchblue22 ( 1004569 ) on Sunday May 03, 2009 @08:40PM (#27810989) Homepage

        Do you not see the conflict of interest in this? Do you really believe that most high school students are capable of differentiating a teacher who cannot explain material from a teacher who simply teaches to a high standard and who won't spoon feed his/her students? There is a difference between a genuinely bad teacher and a teacher who expects his students to learn for themselves. Giving students the power to fire their teachers will lead, in my opinion to a system where teachers are afraid to push their students, where they are afraid to give hard tests, and where they are afraid to not all but give the answers to tests out before giving the tests.

        I have always thought that if students are treated as consumers, and teachers as service providers, then the market will provide what the typical consumer wants: high grades with as little effort as possible. If teachers are to serve their public service role of training competant citizens, then they must have the power to, at times put pressure on their students.

  • Two words... (Score:5, Informative)

    by jdb2 ( 800046 ) * on Sunday May 03, 2009 @05:34PM (#27809345) Journal
    ...Teacher's unions.

  • by Xylaan ( 795464 ) on Sunday May 03, 2009 @05:39PM (#27809377)
    ... but somehow we keep creating.

    The problem is that we don't want to trust people in authority to make decisions, so we come up with a process or committee or something to ensure that one person can't make the hard decisions. But time and time again, it's shown that if no one can make hard decisions, no one will.

    And while it's probably going to beat the hell out of my karma for it, I recommend The Death of Common Sense [], by Philip K. Howard. It basically goes into examples of how our unwavering belief that a legal processes can sort through the mess impartially causes all sorts of unexpected results.

    As soon as the authority to make a decision is lost, how can bad behavior be punished?
  • by Bloater ( 12932 ) on Sunday May 03, 2009 @05:41PM (#27809399) Homepage Journal

    Give 'em a broom instead of a class. They'll get the point.

  • two reasons. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by DragonTHC ( 208439 ) <Dragon.gamerslastwill@com> on Sunday May 03, 2009 @05:47PM (#27809449) Homepage Journal

    first is tenure.

    second reason is unions.

    Broward County schools are filled with bad teachers. The unions keep them working.

    recently a broward teacher had a delusional episode in the classroom. she had a pair of scissors and was threatening a student shouting about demons.

    the union not only kept her job, but she's coming back to the classroom (albeit at a different school).

    Bad teachers are a bit like molesting priests. They get moved around schools when people complain about them.

  • Tenure is the key (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday May 03, 2009 @05:52PM (#27809495)

    The article summary is incomplete. The title of the article is "Firing tenured teachers can be a costly and tortuous task"
              Well, the problem, and the solution, are right there.

              Tenure is intended for university professors mainly; it intentionally makes it harder to fire a tenured person, so they can "push the boundaries" a bit in their classes.. without the fear of being fired for petty political reasons.

              The universities do not just give out tenure to every new professor, they make sure they are competent first. If the California schools have *tenured* teachers that can't teach, that is the problem RIGHT THERE. Don't give tenure to a teacher until they know they can teach. Simple as that.

  • by slasho81 ( 455509 ) on Sunday May 03, 2009 @05:53PM (#27809505)
    Part of the problem is unions. Another part is the massive bureaucracy. But many times, it's to protect the good teachers from vindictive parents.
  • by Seraphim_72 ( 622457 ) on Sunday May 03, 2009 @05:58PM (#27809579)
    Wanna fire that "bad" teacher for teaching evolution? Great, make it easier to do so. I agree there are bad teachers, but the fact that you don't like them doesn't necessarily mean they are indeed bad teachers.
  • by mkcmkc ( 197982 ) on Sunday May 03, 2009 @06:02PM (#27809605)

    I've worked as a computer programmer for over 20 years, and I have never seen or heard of any programmer being fired for incompetence, no matter the magnitude.

    As far as I'm concerned, teachers deserve our support, and I think all of the bitching is just a smokescreen to support cutting education funding, and a mind-trick to turn people against unions.

  • by Brian_Ellenberger ( 308720 ) on Sunday May 03, 2009 @06:14PM (#27809747)

    Its easy. Teachers' Unions have no incentive to do anything but gain as much money and power for the teachers as possible. They are not there for the students. Students don't vote or pay dues to the union.

    Unfortunately, boards of education have been fairly powerless. There is this myth of the "Virtuous Teacher" who is perfect in all ways, makes minimum wage, and would solve all the worlds problems if only they had a little more resources. This is reinforced by the media, both in moves and TV as well as reporters. The truth is that teachers are regular people, there are good and bad ones. But if you try to stand up to the union, you are demonized as an "evil teacher hater". Nevermind the fact that test scores haven't gone up despite hundreds of billions of dollars in spending increases. Or the fact that we spend over $12,000 PER STUDENT in Atlanta and D.C., two of the lowest performing school districts in the country!

    I have alot of respect for teachers. In fact, I have often thought about going into teaching High School after I retire as a way of giving back. I would not have made it to where I am without the exceptional work of many caring teachers. But I also had to put up with more than a few worthless, incompetent teachers who didn't care one bit about actually teaching. They came in with no preparation, read straight out of the book, and gave completely worthless exams. It was absolute torture having to sit there for 60-90 minutes a day, every day, with someone getting paid to waste my time. Back in High School myself and many others wondered how they could keep their jobs. Now I know.

    Hopefully the tide is turning. If a paper like the LA Times is criticizing the union there maybe hope yet. We now need some boards to stand up to the unions.

  • by damburger ( 981828 ) on Sunday May 03, 2009 @06:19PM (#27809793)

    The article kicks off describing how a group of shrill, ignorant parents took the word of an emotionally disturbed 12 year old and decided to push for someone to be fired based soley on that.

    Parents like to treat teachers as their personal governesses. Like that cheerleading coach who was crucified for playboy pictures that were not a big deal until some fat dumpy girl who didn't get picked had a tantrum and made her mum charge into the headteachers office with the pictures.

    Your kid isn't special. In all likelihood, your kid is a spoilt, willfully ignorant little shit who will give the teacher hell no matter how much they try (and they do try; nobody sticks at teaching who doesn't see it as a vocation as well as a job). Your little darling is so convinced they will be a millionaire professional sportsperson/musician/actor because you've always told them how 'special' they were, that they carry this overinflated sense of entitlement into the classroom along with 30 other 'special' kids.

    The result basically lord of the flies with nicer clothes. And the people who take up the under paid task of controlling the little bastards are constantly subject to demands to fire them, cut their pay, and increase their work loads.

    Back off assholes.

  • by zerofoo ( 262795 ) on Sunday May 03, 2009 @06:39PM (#27810017)

    Tenure and Unions

    I work in a private school as an IT director, and we don't have either of those things. If you are a stellar teacher, are rewarded with more compensation, and better kit for your classroom.

    If you are a, "do-just-enough-to-get-by", type of teacher, you don't get more/better stuff for your classroom (motivated teachers will make better use of the materials), and if you are bad enough, your contract won't be renewed next year.

    I've been with this school about 8 years, and I can see the steady improvement in the staff. The strong ones stay, the weak ones go elsewhere.

    We are a private school - typically districts send us students, and we have some private pay students. We need to have the best staff possible, or else districts and parents will send their kids somewhere else. Competition does make us better.

    That's the way public schools need to be.


  • by Nimey ( 114278 ) on Sunday May 03, 2009 @07:27PM (#27810487) Homepage Journal

    Because bad parents affect kids more than the teachers, and there are a /lot/ more bad parents out there.

  • by dark_requiem ( 806308 ) on Sunday May 03, 2009 @07:34PM (#27810553)
    I have had a biology teacher who was a proud member of the Promise Keepers [] (our section on evolution was ten minutes, mostly consisting of "Now, you don't have to believe any of this."), a college algebra teacher who had trouble adding two single-digit numbers without a calculator and who let us use cheat sheets for every exam, including the final (could only be 1"x1", but in 6pt font, that's every formula for the test), a statistics and probability teacher who spent most of the class discussing the latest goings on with the various school athletic organizations (she was the cross-country coach), an AP English teacher who had a penchant for "losing" papers she didn't want to grade (and when she did grade papers, the first few submissions would have corrections and comments, the rest had nothing but a grade, rumor has it she never read them, just assigned a grade based on what she thought that student would do), a physics teacher so mind-bogglingly incompetent that my sophomore year a student organization devoted to her termination had more members than any other club (she was really, really bad, a powerpoint teacher), a German teacher who spent more time showing us slides of her various trips to Germany than teaching (we did a lot of projects in English in that class), a Spanish teach who spent an entire semester not teaching Spanish because it was more important that we learn about the cultures of South American nations (Spanish-speaking or otherwise), a seventh-grade math teacher who didn't mark off points for wrong answers because, and I quote, "Check marks lower self-esteem" (no, I am not making that up). The list goes on and on. We watched the Leo DiCaprio Romeo and Juliet, rather than reading it, I had an English teacher in middle school who thought Billy Maddison was an educational film, you name it. I attended a private Catholic school until fifth grade, and while I wouldn't have wanted to study Biology there, I was about two years' worth of curriculum ahead of my classmates when I transferred into public school.

    Now, I did have a handful of good teachers. Namely, two good middle school science teachers, my sociology teacher, 20th Century History teacher, CAD teacher, art teacher (I made a bong mug), and good elementary teachers (until public school. Although they were about as friendly as Catholic school nuns are widely supposed to be). That's it. And, those teachers were the ones always getting into it with the administration. The most wildly incompetent teachers were the ones in the administration's best graces. My sociology teacher couldn't get textbooks for his class, for example.

    A large part of the problem is the incompetent teachers. They have no interest in emphasizing retention. Starting College Algebra, but don't remember how to add, subtract, multiply, and divide fractions? No problem, the first month of the class will be spent reviewing it! It is very much the case that the further you progress through the curriculum, the less you are expected to remember. Instead of booting the kids who can't handle fractions out of the College Algebra course and sending them back to a more appropriate course, the curriculum is dumbed-down to fit them (I once had to make up a test in College Algebra, along with a classmate a year ahead of me who was about to graduate valedictorian. We were sitting out in the hall, and I was breezing through the test, while my classmate looked quite perplexed, stuck on the first problem. Finally, she turned to me and asked "What does perimeter mean?" God I hate this country...). As a result, your average and above-average students not only don't learn the material they should, but they often lose confidence and interest in school in particular, and learning in general (luckily I still enjoy learning, I just chose to learn out of the state-sponsored daycare/prison).
  • by Locke2005 ( 849178 ) on Sunday May 03, 2009 @08:57PM (#27811131)
    I complained about my daughter's teacher, and the Beaverton Education Association sent me a cease and desist order threatening to sue me for defamation and interfering with the teacher's business relationships! Wanna know what teacher's priorities are? Visit the teacher's union web sites sometime. Hint: They contain no content about helping students learn; all everything there is concerned with how to avoid be held accountable for your actions or for you lack of educational results.

Thus spake the master programmer: "Time for you to leave." -- Geoffrey James, "The Tao of Programming"