education philosopher

What Does Firing Teachers Do? (A Qualm About Diane Ravitch’s Recent Article)

Posted in Politics of Education by KevinCK on March 5, 2010

Diane Ravitch recently wrote an article called “First, Let’s Fire All the Teachers.” Its aim is at NCLB’s idea of accountability.

The fundamental principle of school reform, in the Age of Bush and Obama, is measure and punish. If students don’t get high enough scores, then someone must be punished! If the graduation rate hovers around 50%, then someone must be punished. This is known as “accountability.”

Far be it from me to say many nice things about NCLB. It is a federal program that is the equivalent to: “Okay, states. Figure out a way to set standards and meet them. Oh, and figure out how to pay for it.” There are many, many problems with this, none the least of which is the idea of having the folks charged with meeting standards of facing consequences be the VERY SAME FOLKS who set the standards they will be penalized for not meeting. This basically ensures that the standards will be low (at least, in a non-market system where performance record is irrelevant to profits).

But my disagreement with Ravitch has to do with a larger problem: Ravitch seems very opposed to ‘accountability’ measures that would result in under-performing schools having to close, teachers being fired, etc. And since she doesn’t offer any competing vision of accountability, it is difficult to see what type of accountability she’d be happy with. (I will be reading her newest book soon and maybe she offers answers there.)

This strategy of closing schools and firing the teachers is mean and punitive. And it is ultimately pointless. It solves no problem. It opens up a host of new problems. It satisfies the urge to purge. But it does nothing at all for the students.

I am well aware of the apparent reasons that schools are not like businesses. So, I will use an anaology cautiously, making it as close to the school model as I possibly can: if I own several tutoring centers, and one of them repeatedly fails to meet quality control standards, how is it of no benefit to shut down the center and fire the workers? By doing this, I prevent future customers from wasting time and money on a product that fails to meet promised results, and open up a ‘blank canvas’ on which I can start over. In fact, if I were to continue offering subpar services knowingly, one would be fair to accuse me of running a scam that actively DOES NOT BENEFIT anyone (except for myself and my staff, who continue to collect money for subpar work).

Now, here is the question: how does Ravitch’s outrage over closing a school that year-after-year fails to meet standards NOT translate to my example? Only one way I can think of : students are forced to attend the failing school (unless they can drum up private tuition or move to a different district) but they are not forced to attend my failing tutoring system. But this makes the situation worse! Children are COMPELLED to go to a school where many hours a day are spent without resulting in proportionate educational gains. It makes me feel worse for the kids, not better.

So, why NOT shut the school down? If kids aren’t going to learn much there, then why are they a whole lot worse off for not being able to attend because the school is shut down? I can’t think of a good answer, and here is Ravitch’s best attempt:

Will it be replaced by a better school? Who knows? Will excellent teachers flock to Central Falls to replace their fired colleagues? Or will it be staffed by inexperienced young college graduates who commit to stay at the school for two years? Will non-English-speaking students start speaking English because their teachers were fired? Will children come to school ready to learn because their teachers were fired?

If the best reason not to shut down a failing school is to state – via rhetorical questions – that shutting down the school does not guarantee that the next one will be any better, then I am not sure how much of an answer it is. Is the best objection to me shutting down a failing tutoring center is that there is no guarantee that the next tutoring center the students go to will not be worse? Does anyone take that as a serious argument against shutting a failing business? (Toyota could have not recalled their faulty cars by arguing that there is no guarantee that the new parts would work better.)

Now, as a former teacher I reject the simplistic idea some journalists and pundits have us believe that teachers are slackers who like avoiding accountability for anything. Teachers are varied and like any profession, there are good and bad. But I can understand the public’s mis-perception in this direction every time I read yet another article by a defender of education who is railing against accountability as damaging and dangerous.

What we need from Ravitch and others is not polemics against testing, accountability, or any other quality control measure. What we need is suggestions at quality control measures that will be better than those they argue against. Otherwise, we get articles like this which can too easily be read as advocating against ANY accountability rather than arguments for a different kind of accountability. As economist Thomas Sowell has said many times, it never ceases to amaze me at how many folks devote their lives to pointing out imperfections in things, as opposed to how few devote themselves to constructively formulating new solutions that can overcome those imperfections.

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