Saying that bad employees should be fired usually isn’t controversial. In almost any occupation, people who fail to meet expectations are fired. It would be absurd to argue that we shouldn’t fire bad doctors, pilots, plumbers, or waiters. And yet it is controversial to say that bad teachers should be fired.
Why is there a separate standard for teachers? If teachers are guaranteed a job regardless of performance then there is little incentive to work hard. Protecting teachers from scrutiny about their job performance and repercussions for failure causes them to become complacent. Without incentives they will not improve their performance or develop their skills. As a result, education quality diminishes and students pay the price.
It is often argued that teachers teach because they love educating children. Unlike other professions, the argument goes, teachers are providing an important service and lack material motivations, and that is why firing the bad ones will not improve standards.
At last year’s Save Our School’s Rally, actor Matt Damon argued that “A teacher wants to teach” and just as he strives to be a good actor out of love for his craft, teachers also teach out of love. “[W]hy else would you take a sh--ty salary and really long hours and do that job unless you really love to do it?”
However, love for education does not ensure quality teaching and such an argument ignores the fact that not all teachers love to teach. Many people love their jobs, but many more work simply for a paycheck, and teaching is no exception. This is not a persuasive argument against firing bad teachers, it is a claim that bad teachers don’t exist. The teachers Damon describes, who would work hard no matter what, would not be negatively affected by removing bad teachers. In fact, they would benefit by removing negative influences that can be a source of frustration in any workplace. Having standards that remove bad teachers would impact those who teach for a paycheck, not for a passion. These people respond to the existing incentive structure. If proper incentives exist to reward teachers who perform well and punish those that perform poorly, then even those without a passion for teaching will be motivated to perform well and those who don’t perform well are replaced.
Incentives motivate people in all professions and even teachers use incentives in their classrooms to motivate students. If students do well they are rewarded with better grades and often other perks. If they do poorly or have disciplinary issues they get bad grades, are disciplined, and can be suspended or expelled. Why should we treat teachers differently than they treat their own students? Can you imagine a system where students are given the same grades no matter their performance and don’t face consequences for bad behavior? Would you expect education outcomes to improve or suffer if every student was given the same grade and guaranteed a diploma regardless of their actions?
The question of what constitutes a “bad” teacher is more difficult to answer than whether a bad teacher should be fired and it isn’t a unique problem in education. Every manager must determine the criteria by which employees are evaluated and proper termination standards. Determining teachers’ performance solely on test scores or student performance is as foolish as a company evaluating a manager’s performance solely on sales numbers or stock price. It is up to managers or principals to develop standards for performance evaluations that fully capture the contributions of the employee. They must also strike a balance for termination standards to ensure they encourage performance. Teachers should feel secure enough in their job that they are not always looking over their shoulders, afraid that one mistake will cost them their jobs. However, they need to know that results matter and they have to maintain high standards or risk replacement.
Clearly, it wouldn’t make sense to arbitrarily fire teachers. An unstable environment due to constant employee turnover doesn’t benefit students or teachers and it is expensive. That is why standards should be established by the individual school’s administrators, those who are closest to the situation. This allows rational standards based on relevant factors to improve quality. Setting arbitrary standards at the state or federal level based solely on test scores or student performance is as foolish as not having any standards. Just as in other industries, there is no one right way to measure performance and there are many factors that can’t be aggregate into test scores. Principals and superintendents should be empowered to manage their schools without being shackled by teachers unions or governments.
Photo Credit: Rex Pe