Friday, September 12, 2008

So Exactly How Should We Get Rid of Bad Teachers?

All I want for my birthday this year is the answer to the problem of bad teachers, and for this new fantastic idea to be implemented by 10 o'clock this morning in a glorious revolution involving guillotines, firing squads and kids throwing water balloons at those judged "bad".

At the same time, I remember reading Miles Davis' autobiography a few months back. In it, the great trumpeter and even greater band leader bad mouths just about every other jazz great of his era. He is particularly harsh on pianist Oscar Peterson, who might not have been Art Tatum or Abdullah Ibrahim, but no less a person than Duke Ellington called Peterson the "Maharaja of the keyboard".

And Miles just trashes the poor Canadian bastard, saying of Peterson:
"Oscar makes me sick because he copies everybody. He even had to learn how to play the blues."
And you might be asking, rightly, Scot, just what the Hell does this have to do with the price of tea in Toronto or "bad teachers"? Well, I've always considered teaching its own kind of artform, one similar in execution to jazz. To my mind, teachers either "swing" or they don't. And bad teachers don't swing. An objective observer, aged 8 or 80, can watch a teacher for only a minute or two and figure that out. A teacher who doesn't swing, who leads one to bang their head instead of tapping their intellectual toes, is a painful thing to watch.

But the Oscar Peterson example shows that it's not always so simple. I like Oscar Peterson. I always thought he "swung", even if he did play overly schmaltzy versions of standards at times. A guy's gotta make a buck, hell even Charlie Parker recorded that ghastly "with Strings" album and you might remember Miles' cover of a Cyndy Lauper tune. That was awful.

Enough of that jazz. Let's cut back to the chase of bad teaching. Every school has at least one teacher who can be considered "bad". A "Kenny G" of the teaching profession, if you will. Problem is, not everyone uses the same criteria for what constitutes bad. For example, as much as I hate to say it, not many school districts or principals use "swing or don't swing" as their criteria for getting rid of bad teachers. Instead, because of union employee protections and a ton of other bureaucratic garbage, the firing process of bad teachers is slightly more byzantine than a John Coltrane saxophone solo circa 1965.

And if there aren't employee protections or a union in place, it is possible for a teacher who "swings" to be fired by an administrator who "doesn't swing". Trust me.. I know a little something about that kind of situation. And I'm not gonna talk about it.

So what to do? How can we get rid of the blatantly bad without wasting three years fulfilling "intensive evaluation" and "administrative transfer" processes? How can we empower on-site administrators and colleagues without turning them into little Robespierres, executing capriciously under the phony authorization of some "Committee of Public Safety" (i.e., "Instructional Council" or "Lead Team")?

I don't know. And for my birthday today I want somebody to answer that one, and do it by 10 o'clock this morning. And while I'm waiting for my "present", let's see/hear the late Oscar Peterson play one of those tunes I'm sure Miles Davis thought "didn't swing".

Actually, I think I do have an idea or two on how we can get rid of "bad teachers", but I'll wait on throwing those out for now. I'd prefer to hear from you guys on the subject. Besides, it's my guys do all the work, while I listen to some swinging jazz piano.


Anonymous said...

Happy birthday Scott. Good luck on your quest!

Perry said...

Happy Birthday.

As to the question of bad teachers: I think peer review might be a good place to start. Of course, those pesky egos might get in the way, but that's another problem.

Perhaps some sort of system wherein each teacher is rated by every other teacher in a number of categories (anonymously, of course), and then the results are displayed and discussed at staff meetings. Then, it becomes the responsibility of the top-rated teachers to take on more work to help those that are lagging behind - in the interest of fairness, this puts the burden on those most equipped to handle it.

Natalie said...

Happy B-Day, Scot. Spending it listening to Jazz is a wonderful thing.

Hmmm... Getting rid of bad teachers? Well,it would be good if "bad" was properly defined and the performance management was given shorter timelines.

It's that way in almost every other profession; why not teaching?

Maybe it has to do with the union?

I dunno.

One bad apple can spoil the whole bunch.
Oh, sorry! No Osmonds on the birthday!

Enjoy your day.

Anonymous said...

How do we get rid of bad teachers?
We do what we always have done in APS, we promote them to central office. That's why they had to buy the twin towers, so they could fit more of the incompetents in the empty offices!

ched macquigg said...

Peer review won't work because most teachers have never watched another teacher teach. Most teaching assignments do not include time to watch other teachers teach. Some teachers would feel uncomfortable with the peers sitting in to "evaluate" them.

You need some objective measures like test results.
You need some subjective measures like student evaluations of teachers.

If the indicators point to a potential problem, then a more intensive evaluation is necessary.

If a "problem" it indicated, then impartial, professional mentor/evaluators enter to help teachers with potential, or terminate those with none.

Teachers will wonder of course, why they are being held accountable to meaningful standards of conduct and competence, while administrators are not. It might even be the cause of some resentment.

ched macquigg said...

You suggested once that if the leadership of the APS were asked if they were honestly accountable to meaningful standards of conduct and competence; that they would answer that they were.

At 12:30 tomorrow, Monday, the leadership of the APS will be at Jefferson, they will be asked that question, and you will see, if you attend, that that is not their answer at all.

Perry said...

Unfortunately, Ched, "teaching quality" is somewhat subjective. I don't think it makes sense to depend on uneducated students for the 'subjective' portion of teacher evaluations.

If teachers have never observed each other teach, well, perhaps that's part of the problem. How did you learn in the first place?

Professional collaboration is a keystone of just about every job out there: if, as you say, teachers DON'T engage in this sort of dialog... well, that strikes me as problematic. There's got to be some way to disseminate the techniques used by good teachers.

Kelsey Atherton said...

longitudinal testing.

Don't compare this years 4th graders against last years 4th graders, compare this years 4th graders against last years 3rd graders. If you test at the beginning of each year, you have a good idea of what was learned (and retained) from the previous year, and you can better use standardized testing to figure out where problem areas are.

I think that this, combined with course evaluations, would do a decent job. Yeah, I know, course evaluations are at college and filled out by adults, but I tend to give kids credit for a lot. Plus, even if kids were not the most objective of evaluators, having the evaluations in place for a few years would give a basis of statistical knowledge from which to actually make policy. We can just assume that over the years, kids are non-objective in consistent ways.

Anonymous said...

i have a teacher who is totaly stupid. she does not even let you ask questions during class.
if you want more email me at