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Notes from Education Nation: How to Keep Good Teachers and Get Rid of the Bad Ones


I mentioned in my preview of Education Nation that this was the panel I most looked forward to, in terms of seeing the claws come out and the fireworks spark -- and I was not at all disappointed. After Duncan’s feel-good, uplifting address, I was interested to hear what would happen with so many education heavy-hitters -- all with their own opinions about how education reform should work -- in one room. D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, and Harlem’s Children’s Zone President Geoffrey Canada were in attendance, as well as Brian Jones, a public school teacher from Harlem, Allan Golston from the Gates Foundation and National Education Association President Dennis van Roekel.

Before the discussion (or “Randi-Michelle fight”, as the moderator put it) began, the audience viewed a short movie on a first-year teacher, Ms. Groves (who also attended the discussion). She started September bright-eyed (“I love my students and I don’t even know them!” she gushed excitedly), but by November, she’d been reduced to tears and resorted to yelling at her students just to get them to be quiet in class. “I feel like you have to attack the day,” she said, tears streaming, “or it attacks you.” She eventually found her strength and confidence as a teacher, but the valid point to her story was, Why is it so hard for good teachers to be effective, and so easy for bad ones to be ineffective – and how do we change that?

To be honest, I don’t think the point of the panel ever really got around to being discussed as Jerry Springer antics took over. The poor moderator could barely get a word in edgewise.

It all started about 30 seconds into the discussion, when Canada waxed about the need for teachers to work until they get the job done, including keeping schools open later. “You’ve got to work until your reach success,” Canada said – to which Jones, the public school teacher, vigorously shook his head.

Jones disagreed that methods like longer school days and merit pay that have worked in Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone schools will work everywhere. “Charter schools are not a miracle,” said Jones, quite heatedly. “Are they waiting for Batman?” (Canada himself noted that there are definitely some lousy charter schools out there, and that charter schools alone are not the answer. But the ways they are allowed to innovate just might be.)

Jones also disagreed on performance-based pay for teachers. “It’s an insult and outrageous to pay teachers based on student performance,” he spat.

To which Canada fired back: “If you don’t want your bonus, give it back!”

From there the discussion never really took true flow or form (the moderator tried desperately to get the discussion back to track, from interjecting with the occasional “Why don’t you let me ask the question!” to literally holding his clipboard in front of Weingarten’s talking head). But, here are a few interesting tidbits:

-Weingarten was ready to admit that the current education system is broken (“We have done things that have been wrong in the past”; “We know the current system is broken”; “We’ve got to figure our what makes an effective teacher”), but for whatever reason she seemed less galvanized to initiate immediate reform than Rhee or Canada. When Jones agreed with Weingarten about the need to take steps to first figure out what makes an effective teacher, and how to evaluate one, Canada, eyes popping, gesticulating so ferociously that his chair rocked, said “You’re acting like [this] is not a crisis! We can’t wait another ten years!” (An interesting stat to note: Canada’s HCZ teacher contracts are two pages long, whereas the AFT’s contracts weigh in at a whopping 166 pages.)

-But even though time is pressing, the value-added system of evaluating teachers will not work alone. The L.A. Times released data rating teachers based on student performance earlier this year, and, allegedly, the teacher who had the lowest ranking committed suicide because of it. The Dean of the L.A. schools, who was in the audience, stood up and said that a teacher who had been rated ineffective was recruited anyway by UCLA to teach. Jones and Weingarten are certainly right in that we need an effective way to measure teacher performance, but Canada’s urgency is also needed in this time of crisis.

-Rhee attempted to clarify the point of the movie Waiting for “Superman”, as pointing to ineffective teachers -- and the unions that protect them -- as the enemy, not all teachers. “Ineffective teachers are a huge burden on effective teachers,” said Rhee evenly. “The national message of ‘Superman’ is that teachers are the most important part of education.” And in response to Jones, who (incorrectly, in my opinion, as someone who has seen the movie) said “Superman” was about glorifying charter schools, making teachers the enemy and emphasizing test scores, Rhee said: “Brian’s point of view does not reflect the viewpoint of effective teachers,” and that “teachers’ unions, and what they espouse, do not reflect what teachers believe.” Zing!

-The only thing everyone did seem to agree on is that what we’re doing simply is not working: even the top five percent of our students still rank at the bottom according to global standards, and we need effective teachers to turn that around. NEA President van Roekel talked about the Finnish school system, where the top high school students are recruited, tested for teaching aptness, paid to go through five years of university and not even allowed to set foot in a classroom without a Master’s degree, whereas in the U.S….pretty much anyone can teach. “You can’t cut hair without a license but you can teach without a license?” said van Roekel, incredulous.

After the discussion, I caught up with Ms. Groves, the teacher from the movie, and Canada with two questions. First, I asked Groves what she thought of “Superman,” as a teacher.

Groves easily had the most evenhanded tone of the whole panel. She acknowledged that there are some great public schools out there and that charters are not a panacea, but what the parents in “Superman” faced is a reality to many other parents and we need to address that. “The polarization of sides scares me,” she also said, “because it’s not the truth.” I think that’s a fair assessment of the movie, and also that the politics of this issue often clouds the truth.

To Canada, I asked what he thought parents can do to play a bigger role in their child’s education; how can they feel empowered? “You have to show up,” said Canada without hesitation. “You have to tell your child’s teacher that you expect your child to earn an A,” and tell the teacher that you’re willing to work with them and your child to get there. “Parents need to tell teachers what they expect of their child,” but they also need to “be involved” along the way to work with the teacher to get there.

Readers, share your thoughts on this interesting panel!