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While I haven’t yet seen “Waiting for Superman,” Dan Haley’s column in the Denver Post ( points to an error in the logic behind most current education reform movements. It is a logical error common in political advocacy of all kinds, from all points on the ideological spectrum: He assumes that an accurate description of the problem is an argument for one proposed solution. If that were the case, then correctly identifying the problem of, for instance, poverty, could be used as an argument for either welfare, welfare reform (such as occurred under Clinton), or the complete elimination of welfare.

Here’s a big problem with the “easier to fire bad teachers” model: There is a certain demand for teachers, and a set of intrinsic and extrinsic incentives to become a teacher. That set of incentives supplies us with the current in-flow of teachers, with the current distribution of quality. Making it easier to fire teachers adds only one new disincentive (because unusually high job security, along with lots of vacation time, have been two of the incentives counterbalancing a relatively low professional salary), without off-setting it with any new incentive. As a result, the average quality of in-coming teachers is likely to be decreased by some unknown degree (particularly since the most talented new teachers are also the ones with the most alternative options available).

Even if removing “bad” teachers worked as advertised, we would be skimming off the worst teachers while diminishing the overall quality of the teacher pool. Furthermore, the removed teachers have to be replaced, increasing demand for teachers, which, in the absence of creating an upward pressure on salaries (which, particularly in Colorado where tax revenues are low and increases require voter approval, are not determined by market forces), creates a downward pressure on quality (you have to fill vacancies with whoever you can get).

The lack of political will to raise revenues for education also debunks the counterargument that pay-for-performance or other increased incentives for quality teachers to enter the profession can or will off-set the increased disincentives, since the money doesn’t exist for any sustainable and substantial pay-for-performance program. Furthermore, few people contemplating entering the teaching profession are unaware of the difficulties in measuring “performance” in a way that would actually reward talent, or of the disincentives pay-for-performance provide to talented teachers contemplating teaching at-risk students.

Even beyond the above-mentioned concerns, I think that removing “bad” teachers is very unlikely to work as advertised. School districts are highly politicized environments, with risk-aversion and avoidance of boat-rocking forming imperatives far stronger than the commitment to provide children with the highest quality education possible. Therefore, teachers who rock the boat or somehow trigger administrators’ risk-aversion sensors (whether justly or unjustly) will be removed at least as frequently as teachers who are actually poor teachers. The evaluation systems for making determinations will become politicized in ways which will allow this to happen. It already does, to the extent possible.

So, the real systemic results of making it easier to remove “bad” teachers is that we remove some exceptionally good ones at a rate approaching if not exceeding the rate at which we remove exceptionally bad ones, and decrease the overall quality of the incoming teacher pool at the same time.

Sometimes, reality is counterintuitive. Simplistic arguments based on “Here’s the problem, and since it’s a problem, this proposed solution must be good,” may persuade those who are easily persuaded, but they don’t replace actually doing the analysis.

In countries where educational performance is superior to that of the United States, it is not due to weaker protections of teachers, but rather to stronger community involvement and cultural commitment to education as a value. The problems with American education are overwhelmingly located outside the schools, and outside the school hours. What we really need to solve our educational problems is a new commitment to expanding the mission of American public education to include more comprehensive guidance to parents and more effort to include the community in the educational mission.

The latter is so far from our current reality that when I strove, on my own time and my own dime, to create a more robust school-community partnership in Jeffco Schools, Superintendent Cindy Stevenson first stonewalled me, and then brusquely brushed me off when I persisted in my efforts. I believe that she doesn’t want a more robust school-community partnership because she doesn’t want the challenge to her autocratic authority that such community participation might imply. While realizing that an N of one is not evidence of any norm, I suspect that her attitude is not unusual, particularly in large urban and suburban school districts.

I am not suggesting that none of the ideas coming from our current education reformers and innovators are good ones. I strongly suspect that when I do watch “Waiting for Superman” I will be impressed by some of the ideas and experiments that have been tried, and frustrated by the politics which have obstructed their implementation and diffusion. Sometimes, as well, ideas that would not work if generally implemented work in specific instances because of the particularly endowed people implementing them. We need ideas that do not require “supermen,” but rather work with the material we currently have, everywhere. In the end, effective education reform is likely to involve a mixture of ideas and approaches, that recognize a variety of challenge and deficiencies.

But if we want to go down the path of real, effective educational reform, we need to stop kicking responsibility down the hierarchy to those who are already overburdened with responsibilities but under empowered to meet them. We need, instead, to place the responsibility where it really belongs: On all of us, on the anti-intellectual culture we have created, and on the ritualistic and ossified school district administrations we have essentially insisted upon by requiring them to compromise education to popular fanaticisms. Until we face these challenges at their roots, education in America will remain sub-par.

(For more general discussions of the need for less reliance on delegation of public responsibility, and more reliance on each person interested in meaningful improvement to start by taking personal responsibility for it, see, e.g., A Call To Minds & Hearts & Souls, A Proposal, The Ultimate Political Challenge, The Voice Beyond Extremes, The Foundational Progressive Agenda“A Theory of Justice”The Battle of Good v. Evil, Within & WithoutThe Battle of Good v. Evil, Part 2, and “Messaging” From The Heart of Many Rather Than The Mouth of Few).

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