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2010 September 04 Saturday
Fire Teachers Until Student Performance Improves?

Firing teachers is the new magic bullet for improving educational outcomes.

Michelle A. Rhee, the schools chancellor in Washington, fired about 25 teachers this summer after they rated poorly in evaluations based in part on a value-added analysis of scores.

And 6,000 elementary school teachers in Los Angeles have found themselves under scrutiny this summer after The Los Angeles Times published a series of articles about their performance, including a searchable database on its Web site that rates them from least effective to most effective. The teachersí union has protested, urging a boycott of the paper.

I predict that Michelle Rhee, one of the latest great hopes for education, will have about as much success as NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his schools chancellor in closing the racial performance gap: zip, zero, nada. Another total bust. But Rhee can ride high until enough time has gone by to demonstrate that she also isn't firing magic bullets.

Since taking a hard look at the different abilities of students is taboo I've been arguing that lots of teachers must be sacrificed for the liberal mythology about education. This is the next logical step in the increasingly unrealistic US national debate on education policy. Sure enough, two seriously deluded researchers, Doug Staiger, and Jonah Rockoff, now argue that 80% of teachers have got to be fired after their first 2 years.

When they ran the numbers, the answer their computer spat out had them reviewing their work looking for programming errors. The optimal rate of firing produced by the simulation simply seemed too high: Maximizing teacher performance required that 80 percent of new teachers be fired after two years' probation.

But Michael O'Hare reports that the attrition rate of new teachers in US urban school districts is already 50% in the first three years.

More important, no organization has ever fired its way to success; 50% of new teachers in urban school districts already leave in the first three years, and we see how well thatís working for us. (That fact, along with a good bit of the thinking in this post, is courtesy of my colleague Alan Schoenfeld, an actual education professor who was nice enough to hip me to a lot of interesting background on this issue.)

Do the economists want to fire 80% of the 50% who remain? So end up with just 10% of those who started? Um, faced with such odds why would any prospective teacher want to start down that road in the first place?

What so discourages 50% of the teachers that they bail? Maybe this experience is representative.

Once big waves of teacher firings fail to improve educational outcomes what comes next? In 5 years time what will education policy makers embrace as the next great magic cure?

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2010 September 04 10:38 PM  Education


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Comments
sabril said at September 5, 2010 1:13 AM:

"Once big waves of teacher firings fail to improve educational outcomes what comes next? In 5 years time what will education policy makers embrace as the next great magic cure?"

I would say that predicting intellectual fashion is about as difficult as predicting fashion in clothing. Will hemlines be up in 5 years? (I sure hope so.)

sabril said at September 5, 2010 1:21 AM:

And by the way, another problem with "fire the worst teachers" is that the worst teachers are mostly black. So that they probably won't even fire the actual worst teachers, for fear of being accused of racism.

A.Prole said at September 5, 2010 1:45 AM:

I wonder if Jane Elliott will get fired - no not because of her 'state sanctioned' child abuse, but because in the generality of results teachers fail black students.
It would be interesting to see how her love of blacks would wilt if the loss of her cushy job could be directly attributed to the teaching profession's #racist?# failure to educate blacks.
The same goes for literary millions of other teachers.
The phrase 'hoist by one's own petard' springs to mind.

Daran said at September 5, 2010 3:57 AM:

Getting fired a couple of times might make teachers more accepting of charter schools (i.e. another place of employment).

James Bowery said at September 5, 2010 7:50 AM:

Local governments are cashed strapped to the point they are laying off law enforcement. How far down the food chain are teachers?

jjt said at September 5, 2010 9:05 AM:

Staiger, Rockoff, Schoenfeld. How about we admit that the Jewish establishment is a weird, neurotic failure.

OneSTDV said at September 5, 2010 9:57 AM:

Damn...way too many really interesting posts in ONE day. Can't keep up!

OneSTDV said at September 5, 2010 10:00 AM:

I figured Ms. Rhee went to an Ivy - Cornell undergrad, Harvard grad.

I believe the appropriate term is "clever sillies".

Randall Parker said at September 5, 2010 2:30 PM:

OneSTDV,

I tend to do ParaPundit on the weekend and FuturePundit during the week. My job makes me think more techie thoughts. By the weekend I'm curious about what's going on in the world.

Clever sillies: We sure have lots of that.

Sabril,

Intellectual fashion: But can you at least come up with speculations on plausible intellectual fads in education?

I'm thinking they'll revisit the relevance of test results.

Dave in Seattle said at September 5, 2010 5:15 PM:

The cheapest way to fix the schools is to replace the textbooks. The current books are used because the publishers pay bribes. Better books would boost scores for students of all races by about two years. There was a pretty good article about this in Fortune magazine a few years ago.

beowulf said at September 5, 2010 7:30 PM:

"Local governments are cashed strapped to the point they are laying off law enforcement. How far down the food chain are teachers?"

Different income stream. School boards usually have their own taxing authority separate from that for county commissions and city councils.

Its time for the teacher unions to swallow their pride and go full-on Direct Instruction.

What we need to save inner-city schools, and poor schools everywhere, is a method that works when the teachers aren't heroes. Even better if the method works when teachers are ordinary people, poorly paid and ill-motivated - i.e. the system we have today.

In Super Crunchers, Ian Ayres argues that just such a method exists. Overall, Super Crunchers is a light but entertaining account of how large amounts of data and cheap computing power are improving forecasting and decision making in social science, government and business. I enjoyed the book. Chapter 7, however, was a real highlight.

Ayres argues that large experimental studies have shown that the teaching method which works best is Direct Instruction... In Direct Instruction the teacher follows a script, a carefully designed and evaluated script. As Ayres notes this is key:

"DI is scalable. Its success isn't contingent on the personality of some uber-teacher....You don't need to be a genius to be an effective DI teacher. DI can be implemented in dozens upon dozens of classrooms with just ordinary teachers. You just need to be able to follow the script."
http://www.marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2007/09/heroes-are-not-.html

Big bill said at September 5, 2010 10:35 PM:

More magic bullets? If Direct Instruction works then it will automatically be adopted. No need to pimp it. The fact that you are pimping it suggests to me it doesn't work anymore than the previous magic bullets professional educators have sworn would solve all our problems.

sabril said at September 6, 2010 8:35 AM:

"Intellectual fashion: But can you at least come up with speculations on plausible intellectual fads in education?

I'm thinking they'll revisit the relevance of test results."

That seems like a good guess to me. Maybe there will be a big push to remove the "bias" from tests, perhaps by adding a subjective interview-like portion which can be fudged in favor of NAMs.

It's funny how everyone (except HBDers) has their own pet theory to explain NAM educational failure, which theory they believe without any serious evidence.

"The cheapest way to fix the schools is to replace the textbooks."

This is a decent example of what I mean. I would be willing to bet serious money that if you take a lousy school system and replace every last textbook, you will not see a significant improvement in student performance. Not only that, but to the extent that new textbooks help, they will provide more of a benefit to white and asian kids than to black and hispanic kids, thus widening the evil gap.

Randall Parker said at September 6, 2010 8:38 AM:

Big Bill,

Direct Instruction robs teachers of autonomy. So they resist it.

Direct Instruction yields better outcomes on average. But it isn't going to close the racial test gap.

I would be curious to know whether Direct Instruction worst best for super bright kids. I'm thinking maybe not.

sabril said at September 6, 2010 10:58 AM:

"Direct Instruction yields better outcomes on average"

How exactly do you measure outcomes? Perhaps "Direct Instruction" is, in essence, teaching to the test.

sabril said at September 6, 2010 11:31 AM:

"If Direct Instruction works then it will automatically be adopted. No need to pimp it"

I think there is probably some truth to this. Education has been a big priority for some time and it's reasonable to think that all the low hanging fruit had been snapped up. i.e. improvements which are effective and not too difficult to implement.

Quite possibly there are improvements which are effective and cheap but which aren't being implemented due to political correctness. For example aggressive tracking starting in first grade. Or aggressive separation of disruptive children.

But the cold reality is that there is not all that much you can do with a child with an IQ under 85. And most of the schools which are considered bad or failing are chock full of such children. Fundamentally, are modern educational reformers any different from medieval alchemists looking for ways to transmute elements?

OneSTDV said at September 6, 2010 11:32 AM:

We went to the Moon on those "crappy" textbooks. Newton's 3 Laws still apply just like they did 50 years ago.

Don't need new textbooks.

Randall Parker said at September 6, 2010 1:54 PM:

sabril,

Improvements that are effective are improvements that close the racial test gap. All other improvements are not effective even if they improve outcomes for a subset of students.

OneSTDV,

What we need most of all are 3 babies from each high IQ couple and more high IQ people coupling for reproduction. Oh, and pre-implantation genetic testing for higher IQ, less criminality, better looks, and better health of IVF babies.

Randall Parker said at September 6, 2010 1:56 PM:

OneSTDV,

What would help far more than better textbooks: Online free textbooks and online free lectures in as many economically useful subjects as possible.

Then throw in online tests to test one's knowledge before going to a place that offers proctored tests.

SteveO said at September 6, 2010 8:36 PM:

Some day someone will wake up and finally figure out that all kids are not the same and no matter what they do, they cannot make an A student from someone who does not have the IQ, desire or whatever else. In fact it is dangerous. In sports we don't care that 80% of Basketball players are black, we don't force Asian, white and Latino men on the NBA? ...we want the best in these professions. But in police, fireman, and other professions we just cannot take it that the white and Asian guys study and do better on the standard tests. So instead of taking the best candidates, we find ways to marginalize these systems, and this is damn dangerous. Same with schooling, not all kids were made to be good at algebra or chemistry. Now that they have dropped all of the shop classes, there is no where else for these "hands on" students to go, so they drop out...duh. we need more than one path for different students. We need technical hands-on training for the math challenged and keep the current system for those who do well on standard tests. In professional life, we have to also take the best, not try to marginalize their professions which is actually making things very dangerous for all of us.

no i don't said at September 8, 2010 2:24 PM:

A big problem is that teachers are overloaded.

Teachers are not hired to do TEACHING work anymore, but PAPERWORK.

sabril said at September 9, 2010 2:14 AM:

"A big problem is that teachers are overloaded.

Teachers are not hired to do TEACHING work anymore, but PAPERWORK."

There should be a name for this phenomenon. Perhaps "silver-bullet-itis." The tendency for people to believe in a pet theory, based on little or no evidence, that the problems with America's education system can be fixed, or greatly improved, by changing one little factor.

Here's a hypothesis: Education in America actually does a pretty good job; most of the failures are the result of children who are born stupid and with a strong tendency to engage in destructive and violent behavior; and there is essentially nothing which can be done to significantly improve the situation.

Engineer-Poet said at September 10, 2010 3:09 PM:
What we need most of all are 3 babies from each high IQ couple and more high IQ people coupling for reproduction.
IVF is pursued mainly by more successful people, and it often yields more embryos than couples want to bring to term.  Solution:  pay low-IQ people to take excess embryos from high-IQ people.

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