Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Thought Experiment No. 2

A while back, I wondered if those who claim that accountability is the issue surrounding lifting of the cap on school choice would agree to enhanced funding of choice schools in exchange for compulsory testing and accreditation. I had no takers. In fairness, the idea was expensive.

So here's a more modest idea.

The Weekly Standard reports on a recent study by the New Teachers Project showing that in a one year study of four large urban school districts, only four teachers out of 70000 were terminated for poor performance.

This suggests one of three possibilities. First, human resources managers at our nation's urban school districts ought to quit their day jobs and publish business books explaining how they manage to hire at a success rate approximating 99.99428%. I don't know how they do it and what to call the book, maybe I Feel It in My Fingers; I Feel it in My Toes.

The other possibiility is that teachers are pretty much fungible and don't make much difference, so why bother firing them? Can't imagine that the unions will buy into that. Even I don't want to think that is the case.

The third is that we have an Accountability Gap of Nixonian proportions.

So here's my new proposal to break the cap logjam. Let's move to standardized testing and accreditation for choice schools. But let's not, at the same time, tie the hands of public school administrators in striving for their own accountability. Let's welcome public school teachers back into the real world. Let's make them "at-will" employees. Let's do it for the children.

Any takers?


Anonymous said...


Jay Bullock said...

I'll bite.

One, research shows teachers improve with every year they teach (gains plateau at about five years). Districts will often hold on to new teachers (the hiring process is expensive) knowing that they will get better. MPS long ago cut its first-year mentors program, designed to accelerate that process. Four of 70,000 does seem awfully low to me, though.

Two, new hires never--and I mean never--have contractual tenure protections. The anti-union arguments just don't hold up when you're talking about first-year teachers. In my experience (having been employed by three districts and having worked in one way or another under six principals) is that the primary reason why teachers are not removed is that administrators don't want to follow the procedure to have them removed, finding it easier to sweep them under the rug. Which brings us to . . .

Three, Milwaukee is unique in that its Teacher Evaluation and Mentoring (TEAM) program--a union idea, by the way--makes explicit the union's commitment to removing bad teachers. Other districts are starting to catch on and use it as a model. Essentially, principals can require--and colleagues can recommend--that bad teachers enter into a mentoring program. At the end of a semester or a year in the program, if the mentor feels (and the principal concurs) that the teacher is not improving, they are shown the door. Many of the teachers show themselves the door when face-to-face with their deficiencies.

The program is not used enough, not because the union doesn't want it--they are constantly telling us to recommend colleagues who might need it--but because principals don't do their jobs and require it when evaluating teachers.

I will second your suggestion that we require accreditation of voucher schools (as a victim of testing, I don't endorse it easily), but the whole "the union protects bad teachers" thing is really a straw man in the case of MPS.

Rick Esenberg said...


For a school system that has such abysmal performance stats, it sure does seem odd that there is nothing wrong with it or anyone who works for it.

I know it takes something like two whole years or so to get "tenure" protection. Here's how long it generally takes in the private sector: Forever.

How many MTEA members have been fired in the past five years? How long did it take? How much did it cost? According to the "success stats" of the TEAM program, its not possible to conclude that any were fired although some resigned.

Taking that program as a benchmark, though, it looks like the TEAM Board has "allowed" 189 teachers to enter the program over the past eight years, suggesting that the other 97% are doing a bang-up job. Hate to see how awful the MPS numbers would look if there were really any bad teachers.

60 have "resigned" meaning that you have a 1% termination rate - again over eight years. Even if as many again were terminated outside the program, this seems very low. You don't have to buy into a Jack Welch-like "can the lowest ten percent" every year to wonder if a bit more exacting scrutiny is in order.

Particularly if you think teachers are professionals with an important job.

The program that you refer to may be better than nothing but it appears that it is 1)completely voluntary and 2) the participant retains the customary contractual protections around discharge, so I'm not sure it is quite right to say that he or she is "shown the door."

It hardly seems unique or particularly innovative to me. It is a form of probation and counseling. That's very routine in the private sector although management does not have to get the approval of a board controlled by labor to place someone in it and it does not change the "at-will" nature of the relationship.

Do you really believe it when you suggest that the union really, really, really wants bad teachers to be fired but those bosses are just too lazy to do the right thing?

Jay Bullock said...

The MPS probation period is three years. Removal under the probationary period is quite easy, but seldom done.

Do you really believe it when you suggest that the union really, really, really wants bad teachers to be fired but those bosses are just too lazy to do the right thing?
I had a conversation with my principal just this week about that. I reminded her that it's her responsibility to use it, but, she said, she never thinks about it. My previous principal used it with just one teacher (who eventually quit the district). The principal before that kind of pretended it didn't exist.

The provisions spelled out in the contract make it quite clear that the responsibility lies with the administration not only to require particpation (and refusal to participate can be used as evidence in termination hearings, should it come to that) but to recommend termination of unsuccessful participants.

As for being "allowed" in, the "joint board" overseeing TEAM is made up of teachers (I believe the teachers who later act as mentors) and administrators. The union pushes this program, believe me, and the teachers who act as mentors (including past MTEA president Bob Lehmann) take the job seriously.

Are the stats slimmer than everybody would like to see? Yeah. They are.

Maybe you should consider contacting MPS and MTEA to learn more and do one of your J-S columns about it. Publicizing it might encourage teachers and principals to use the damned thing.

Anonymous said...

I agree 100%. Once the teacher has tenure, after his/her three year probation, they can be fired like Jay said. However, it is about as easy to do as firing a Milwaukee Police office (i.e. any of the cops that got their jobs back after beating Frank Jude) Is it possible, yes? Is it a reasonable process compared to private sector at-will employment? My tax dollars would say no.

Anonymous said...

Lets add from one of my previous posts on school choice… (

If WEAC/DPW wants accountability in choice schools and the ability to shut down all poor performing choice schools great. I agree 100%. But, I also think that the same standards should apply to MPS schools and they should be shut down too if they are not performing up to the same standards. Oh wait. That would close a lot of MPS schools. And I doubt that WEAC would want that.