Is firing bad instructors the only way to improve schools?

The conversation about how to improve American education has taken on an increasingly confrontational tone. The caricature often presented in the press depicts hard-driving, data-obsessed reformers—who believe the solution is getting rid of low-performing teachers—standing off against unions—who don’t trust any teaching metric and care more about their jobs than the children they’re supposed to be educating.

But in some ways the focus on jobs misses the point. As New York State Education Commissioner John King has pointed out, with the exception of urban hubs like New York and L.A., few school districts have the luxury of firing low-performing teachers with the knowledge that new recruits will line up to take their places.

If we take firing off the table, what else can be done to resolve America’s education crisis? The findings of several recent studies by psychologists, economists, and educators show that—despite many reformers’ claims to the contrary—it may be possible to make low-performing teachers better, instead of firing them. If these studies can be replicated throughout entire school systems and across the country, we may be at the beginning of a revolution that will build a better educational system for America.
Yet there is growing evidence that you may not need to hand out stacks of pink slips—or have a very tall stack of greenbacks—to improve teacher quality. When I asked education scholar Doug Staiger where the most promising evidence lay, he referred me to an assessment of the Teacher Evaluation System that was implemented in Cincinnati public schools in 2000-01.

Cincinnati’s approach combines evaluation by expert teachers—who observe classroom performance and also critique lesson plans and other written materials—with feedback based on those evaluations, to help teachers figure out how to improve. The study that professor Staiger described, by Eric Taylor of Stanford and John Tyler of Brown, focused on teachers in grades 4-8 who were already in the school system in 2000, which allowed the researchers to examine, for a given teacher, the test scores of their pupils before, during, and after evaluation was performed and feedback received. And because the TES was phased in gradually, the researchers could compare the performance of teachers who had already been evaluated and received feedback to those who were still awaiting their TES treatment. This ensured that any change in test scores wasn’t just the result of a general improvement in Cincinnati’s schools concurrent with the implementation of TES.

The results of the study suggest that TES-style feedback and coaching holds promise—Taylor and Tyler estimate that participating in TES has an effect on students’ standardized math test scores that is equivalent to taking a teacher that is worse than three-quarters of his peers and making him about average. The effects of participation only get stronger with time: If teachers were simply performing better because they saw their evaluator sitting at the back of the classroom, you’d expect only a onetime improvement in student outcomes during the evaluation year. Instead, TES participants’ performance is even greater in subsequent years. And the expense of creating, if not a great teacher, at least a decent one, is fairly modest—the cost of TES was about $7,000 per teacher. (Unfortunately, Cincinnati’s approach to evaluation and feedback has yet to catch on—a 2009 survey by the New Teacher Project found that school districts rarely use evaluation for any purpose other than remediation and dismissal.)

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