Thursday, March 4, 2010

so to get students to do well.... fire their teachers?

I've been hearing a lot lately about the chronically underperforming school in Rhode Island that decided to fire all its teachers so as get kids to do better. For those of you who missed that in the news, basically what happened is this: Central Falls High School graduates only about half of its students and has some abysmal percentage of students who pass state proficiency tests (I'm not sure about the numbers, but it seems like somewhere to the tune of 11% of students were "proficient" on whatever tests they have to determine that). After teachers refused to add time to the school day and provide extra-curricular tutoring without extra pay, the district decided to just fire them all and start over.

Really? So here we have an underperforming school from the poorest city in Rhode Island, and the best solution to help students do better is to get rid of everyone who was already trying? Where, I wonder, are they going to find 80 more (or whatever it was) quality teachers who just so happen to want to work in a really, really poor district, with severely disadvantaged kids, in a school where they can't count on any job security? Did that really seem like a good idea?

It's all so ridiculous. There's so much talk about improving achievement and getting more kids to graduate and--of course--racing to the top, but I think we're largely ignoring the real issues. Kids will do better when they have teachers who are invested in their success. And teachers who are truly invested in their students doing well don't need different evaluation techniques, don't need longer school days, don't need all manner of fancy-schmancy new scheduling, and don't need different pay scales (though it would certainly be nice!). What they need is working conditions that allow them to get their job done.

A longer school day will achieve nothing if students are still crammed into classes of 35. Better pay will do nothing if teachers don't have time to plan. A block schedule won't do anything if teachers don't have a chance to think about and then execute what they know is best for their specific students. We don't need anything fancy. We just need to spend our efforts creating environments where students can actually thrive, where there are few enough of them that no one gets lost, where teachers can teach instead of babysit and where they can teach their students instead of their curriculum.

Forget the drastic measures like starting a school over, hiring a whole new staff, making the school day 8 hours instead of 6 (really? It's hard enough to stay mentally focused for 6. Is two extra hours of sitting in a desk really going to achieve that much?). All of those drastic moves seem born of desperation; once you do something like that, you've already lost the war. I think the solution is much more simple than we make it out to be--but no one wants to talk about it because, after all, it means a radical restructuring of schools. Cut the class size. It's not going to fix everything, but it's a start, and a way better one than anything I've seen floating around in the news.


James Ofsink said...

It seems like Newsweek editors are also followers of your blog. Or at least their most recent issue would indicate such. I can't find an image online of their March 15 cover, but it provocatively states that the "Key to Saving American Education" is firing bad teachers.

The entire article is here for those who care.

Too bad that the "Key" is firing bad teachers instead of reducing class sizes or any number of other available options.

Not to worry though, I'm sure that Newsweek has done an exhaustive (and balanced) journalistic inquiry...

Anonymous said...

Maybe it's not the best way to improve a school district, but if everyone there is already retarded, there's no harm in firing everyone and trying again. . . I mean, shoot, it's worth a try. You never know till you try.
And for that matter, the whole 8 hour day thing might be worth it just to keep kids off the street and away from, you know, gangs and crime and shit. Or maybe it's a total waste. But still, worth an effort.

Just for the sake of argument. You never know what works till you try a few things.

Hahah. Just saying. . .

little happinesses: said...

You know, the Newsweek article does make a good point in that if we got rid of bad teachers, there might be more respect for the profession in general. I mean, I hope that "bad" teachers doesn't just mean "teachers whose students get low test scores," because then any teacher who takes a job at a school with poor students, or minority students, or otherwise disadvantaged-by-popular-culture students would automatically be taking a job with much less security... But it is an interesting point.

And as far as trying different things, you're right. I don't want to be someone who automatically dismisses different options because it seems like they won't work--you know, one of those old farts who knows better than anybody what will and won't work, without ever having tried it. So thanks for calling me out on that. But I really do think that firing everyone or making teachers work for no pay (really? In how many other professions would they say, "oh, come on, just work 5 more hours a week with no compensation, it's no big deal if you really care about your kids") is kind of a desperate action when there are other, less desperate things that we could try. It just seems like the wrong message to send: oh, students fail because teachers suck. It's a convenient way to ignore the problems inherent in the system while letting teachers take the fall. Sure, some of them probably shouldn't be teaching, but a large-scale, indiscriminate firing seems like the wrong way to go.