Teachers must embrace reform efforts

August 1, 2010


A year or two ago, I received this e-mail. The writer was upset with me for arguing that school principals should have the power to fire teachers who do not perform. As numerous educators have told me, union protections being what they are, dumping a teacher — even a bad one — is an almost impossible task.

My correspondent, a teacher, took issue with my desire to see that changed, noting that without those protections, she’d be at the mercy of some boss who decided one day to fire her.

In other words, she’d be just like the rest of us. The lady’s detachment from the reality most workers live with struck me as a telling clue as to why our education system frequently fails to educate. When you can’t get fired for doing bad work, what’s your impetus for doing good?

Many of us seem to be wondering the same thing.

Recently, for instance, Washington, D.C., schools chief Michelle Rhee, hired in 2007 to reform the system, fired 241 teachers, most of whom had performed poorly on a teacher evaluation system.

And in a speech Thursday before the National Urban League, President Obama defended his Race to the Top education initiative, saying the goal isn’t simply to fire bad teachers, but to lower class sizes, reward excellence and demand accountability.

Earlier this year, officials in Rhode Island fired the entire faculty of a poorly performing school

Finally, there’s 2002’s No Child Left Behind Act, which, while deeply flawed, at least represented an attempt to bring about critical change.

Americans seem to be rallying around a demand for education reform. Apparently, we’ve had enough of students failing schools and schools failing students. We know our kids are capable of better — and that in a competitive, hyper-connected world where China is rising and India aspiring, not delivering better is no longer an option.

Unfortunately, whenever anyone seeks to REQUIRE better, they seem to find themselves at odds with the last people you’d expect: teachers. Or, more accurately, teachers unions.

No, I don’t hate teachers. I’ve been one myself. Moreover, I know that whatever I’ve achieved in life is due in large part to what I learned from Mr. Jacobs, Ms. Sobo, Mrs. Harrison, Sr. Tapanez and many others.

No, I don’t hate unions. I support the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively if they choose.

And no, I don’t think teachers bear sole responsibility for the failure of our kids to excel. You also have to blame those parents who are uninvolved or who live under the misapprehension that their little darlings can do no wrong, even when said darlings are swinging from the light fixtures in class or running an extortion ring behind the gym.

All that said, it is troubling to see teachers unions reflexively reject anything that smacks of accountability.

Rhee offered a significant raise and big bonuses for effective teachers in exchange for weakening tenure protections. She had to fight the union.

The White House put up $4 billion in grant money to spur innovation in schools. It had to fight the unions.

Those Rhode Island officials fired (and later re-hired) faculty at a school where one child in two doesn’t graduate and only 7 percent of 11th-graders are proficient in math. It had to fight the unions.

ENOUGH. It is time teachers embraced accountability. Time parents, students and government did, too.

Because ultimately, what is at stake here is not grades, not jobs and not blame. No, this is an argument about the future — and whether this country will have one. The fact is, it cannot in a world where information is currency and American kids are broke.

People like my correspondent need to understand: There is a groundswell building here. Lead, follow, or get out of the way.

— Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He chats with readers from noon to 1 p.m. CDT each Wednesday at www.MiamiHerald.com. lpitts@miamiherald.com


Liberty_One 7 years, 10 months ago

It doesn't matter how much you try and reform the system, it will never work as long as the service providers are not held accountable to the customers. This is because the people they serve, the students and their families, do not pay for the education. Anything given away for "free" will be of low quality, overused and destructive of innovation. Vouchers aren't the answer, reform isn't the answer. A completely free market in education is the answer.

Of course public education is a sacred cow both to the liberals and conservatives. Government education makes about as much sense as a government media. What a great way to indoctrinate future generations in the glories of the state and the evils of the private sector....

jafs 7 years, 10 months ago

There's a surprise!

Liberty One advocating for a free-market approach.

seriouscat 7 years, 10 months ago

Yeah free market is the solution to everything!

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 7 years, 10 months ago

Wal-Mart is only "effective" because they sell imported goods made with near slave labor.

How do you propose to replicate that in a classroom?

Scott Drummond 7 years, 10 months ago

Thank you for the honesty.

Do you think we'll reach a landed aristrocracy during my lifetime?

puddleglum 7 years, 10 months ago

libby one buys toilet paper at wal mart cuz itz cheaP!

Kookamooka 7 years, 10 months ago

I agree with Leonard. Tenure for teachers is a bad system. My mother, a retired school teacher who taught in the 60's-90's once told me that tenure was good in case a male principal wanted to fire a teacher for not sleeping with him. I nearly choked. That sounded so ridiculous. Watch an episode of Mad Men and you might see where she's coming from-the early 1960's!

Stay focused on the kids and their success, work hard, even when you don't want to and CARE. I've met burned out teachers in both public and private schools who don't. Move them on? NEVER! Do they damage children? yes.

Liberty275 7 years, 10 months ago

Leonard, you are going to lose a lot of fans with this one.

canyon_wren 7 years, 10 months ago

A great column from Pitt. I agree 100%. It is scary to have teachers (like everyone else) be vulnerable, but something HAS to be done about the poor public school education in our country--and done quickly. Unfortunately, most of our teachers now went to school themselves after the schools started deteriorating (in the mid-to-late 60s) and don't really know what they DON'T know. It's going to be a long haul for improvement but we have to do it.

I graduated from one School of Education (KU) and worked in two others, and, in my opinion, much of the problem is the essential uselessness of many "methods" courses and the quality of instruction. The old saw about "those who CAN, do; those who CAN'T, teach; and those who CAN'T TEACH, teach teachers, seems to have a lot of truth to it. I agree that there are some amazingly gifted and conscientious teachers out there (and some are even teaching education at the university level), but they are swimming against a very strong current.

seriouscat 7 years, 10 months ago

Agreed Pitts! It was a good call on Obama's part hiring Rhee and going in this direction.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 7 years, 10 months ago

There's nothing wrong with holding teachers accountable. But when it comes to education, there are many factors that determine whether or not successful educational outcomes are achieved. Many of those factors are completely out of the control of teachers.

The big problem is finding ways that actually hold teachers accountable for that which is in their control, and not merely to scapegoat them. And if you give principals the unquestioned power to hire and fire, a good deal of scapegoating is almost certainly what you'll get.

Jayhawkindallas 7 years, 10 months ago

I have been teaching students for many years here in the Dallas suburbs. I am a product of Lawrence schools and proud of my education. I have had similar discussions like this with friends & co-workers many times. In the end, it is not just the teachers, but the students. More and more the responsibility is placed on the teacher and less on the students. We give the assignments, but they don't turn them in. We fail them on the test, but they can retake as many times as they want. We give students chance after chance to pass, and they ignore it until the end of the semester and beg for one more chance.

We do this because we have administrators who demand we keep our passing rates high. We get evaluated on old evaluation methods. I teach AP classes. My formal evaluation is not designed for the style of class I teach, so my annual evaluation is skewed. In Texas, we give a state mandated test called TAKS. Teachers, principals, schools, & school districts are judged on how good they are by the scores of the students, but the students do not have any incentive to pass these tests. There are no penalties for their failing the test. So, again, I say where is the responsibility for the student to preform? Education is a muli-partnered affair of teacher, parents, students, schools, and the community. Don't put all the blame on simply the teachers in the classroom.

pittstatebb 7 years, 10 months ago

As an educator I am all for education reform including eliminating tenure. However, this op-ed and some commenters seem to have some facts wrong. First a principal CANNOT fire a teacher, that decision is made by the board of education. Yes, the principal/super. can recommend a teacher be fired, but the board must vote for it. Just like the board may vote to fire a teacher that the principal does not want fired. In most smaller communities, guess who sits on boards of education. . . parents. That in itself seems to be a conflict in interest when it comes to firing a teacher. Let's say you work in the private sector. Would you want one or more of your customers you have upset (rightly or wrongly) having the ONLY say in whether you have a job or not? Alas, all of this should be a moot point. If a school district is having a hard time firing an underperforming teacher there is only one thing to blame. That is the administration, not a union. ALL IT TAKES TO FIRE A TEACHER IS A VOTE OF THE BOARD OF ED. That is it, no more. The fear that seems to be attached to firing a teacher comes from the possiblility of a lawsuit that may follow if the due process has not been followed. Now, if the administration has done their job in documenting poor performance, offering remediation, increased evaluations, etc. then a lawsuit will be won.

Lastly you cannot compare public education to either of the following: the private sector workplace or private schools. Both of the above have quality control mechanisms in place while public education does not. This is not meant to excuse the shortcomings of public education, and there are many, but please stop with the private school/workplace comparisions. When I can give a test on the first day of class and send the lowest 1/3 or more of my students away, then you can compare my job to a private teacher or a factory worker.

Kawatchi 7 years, 10 months ago

This is probably the first time I have ever agreed with Pitts.

matthewjherbert 7 years, 10 months ago

Two quotes from this essay tell you everything you need to know about how Pitts has no clue what he speaks of:

  1. "Finally, there’s 2002’s No Child Left Behind Act, which, while deeply flawed, at least represented an attempt to bring about critical change." WRONG. Part of the problem with education is the constant need for outsiders to change things. If what you put in place doesn't work IMMEDIATELY, change it. Start over. Spend more money. Then, two years later when you haven't seen immediate results, change it. Start over. You should not reward NCLB for "attempting to bring about critical change". That's the same as saying: My car wouldn't start this morning, so I kicked it. No, it didn't work, but at least I was trying to fix it.

  2. "The White House put up $4 billion in grant money to spur innovation in schools" WRONG. Nothing says innovation like standardized, multiple choice tests. The basis for determining if your school and ultimately you as a teacher have been successful is how well your students do on a standardized test. So, REALLY, this money is put toward stifling efforts at innovation and encouraging homogeneity.

canyon_wren 7 years, 10 months ago

Great comments, solomon! Thanks for taking the time to post!

voevoda 7 years, 10 months ago

If there were a quick fix for the problems of public education, it wouldn't be broken. Incapable and unmotivated teachers are a problem. However, they are less of a problem than incapable and unmotivated students. Most of the time when students fail to learn, it's not the fault of the teachers, or the principals, or the curriculum; it's the fault of the students and their families. The decline in respect for teachers (at all levels, including universities) is a big part of the problem. Witness the number of comments posted above deriding teachers. Teachers work long hours, year-round (vacations are preparation time); they get paid a lot less than other professionals; and on top of it, they have to put up with mouthy kids, threatening parents, judgmental administrators, and know-it-all members of the public.
In this kind of atmosphere, tenure and unionization are necessary protections against arbitrary penalization. Tenure and unions protect teachers who hold students accountable, resist parents' unreasonable demands, take administrators to task, and defend their profession to the public. Tenure and unions don't protect incompetent teachers. Standardized tests provide a minimal benchmark of student learning. However, life isn't made up of multiple-choice tests, and the curriculum shouldn't be skewed in that direction.

mom_of_three 7 years, 10 months ago

Not to argue, but I know a few teachers. They don't work year round, although they might attend workshops and conventions during the summer. They work as much as anyone else who gets paid a salary as opposed to hourly

mdrndgtl 7 years, 10 months ago

Leonard Pitts must embrace studio apartment, simple mind.

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