Education Crisis: Testing and Firing Teachers Doesn’t Work

Obama’s misguided policies and the overhyped doc Waiting For Superman have turned America against its teachers. Education expert Diane Ravitch on why the vitriol is so dangerous.

Obama’s misguided policies and the overhyped doc Waiting For "Superman" have turned America against its teachers. Education expert Diane Ravitch on why the vitriol is so dangerous.

For the past week, the national media has launched an attack on American public education that is unprecedented in our history. NBC devoted countless hours to panels stacked with "experts" who believe that public education is horrible because it has so many "bad" teachers and "bad" principals. The same "experts" appeared again and again to call for privatization, breaking teachers' unions, and mass firings of "bad" educators. Oprah devoted two shows to the same voices. The movie Waiting for "Superman", possibly the most ballyhooed documentary of all time, explains patiently that poor test scores are caused by bad teachers, that bad teachers are protected for life by their unions, and that the answer to our terrible test scores is privatization. If only we fire enough teachers every year, goes the oft-repeated claim, our national test scores will soar to meet those of Finland, the highest scoring nation.

This narrative began with George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind legislation in 2002, which mandated that 100 percent of all children would be proficient by 2014. Leaving aside the fact that no nation or state has ever achieved 100 percent proficiency, this law unleashed a frenzy of testing in American public schools. The results are meager, as judged by the highly respected federal tests.

Instead of changing direction, Barack Obama has tightened the screws on Bush's policies. Now, testing is more important than ever. Obama and his Secretary of Education Arne Duncan are pressing states to adopt merit pay, so that teachers will get bonuses if student scores go up, and pressing them to evaluate teachers by student test scores. Testing is the key element in this approach. Woe to the teacher who cannot raise test scores on standardized tests that demand only the skill of selecting the right bubble of four possible bubbles.

Arne Duncan's Race to the Top program handed out almost $5 billion to promote these ideas. States leapt to be eligible for the money, promising to open more privately managed charter schools, to fire the principal of every low-performing school, to fire most or all of the teachers in schools with low scores, and to close public schools if their scores are low.

None of these approaches works.

Privately managed charter schools do not get better results on average than regular public schools. Some are excellent, some are awful, but most are no better than their public counterparts. Even the Superman movie admitted that only one in five (actually, only 17 percent) of charters get great test scores. Twice as many charters (37 percent) are even worse than the neighborhood public school.

The claim that "tenure" is a guarantee of lifetime employment is a canard. Professors in higher education get lifetime tenure, but teachers in K-12 schools do not have lifetime employment: they have the right to due process if the principal wants to fire them. Teachers get due process rights only after a principal agrees that they have earned it. The reason for due-process rights is that teachers have been fired because of their race, their religion, their sexual orientation, or because a supervisor didn't like them. Teachers with due process can be fired, but only after a hearing by an impartial hearing officer.

Twice as many charters (37 percent) are even worse than the neighborhood public school.

Danielle Moss Lee: Not Everyone is Waiting for Superman Lloyd Grove: ‘Superman’ Villain Fights Back Benjy Sarlin: An Outside Take on Waiting for Superman The claim that merit pay will improve student performance has been disproven again and again. Whenever businessmen decide to "reform" education, they insist on merit pay. But it doesn't work. The latest study, released only a week ago by the National Center on Performance Incentives, was the most rigorous evaluation of merit pay ever conducted. One group of teachers in Nashville was offered bonuses up to $15,000 if they raised students' math scores; another, the control group, was offered nothing. The average teacher pay is about $50,000, so this was a significant incentive to get higher scores. Over the three years of the study, both groups produced the same results. The economists, who were scrupulously nonpartisan, concluded that performance pay had no effect on student performance. It turns out that teachers were working as hard as they knew how, with or without the bonus.

The claim that teachers can be accurately evaluated by student test scores has been refuted again and again by scholars. The Economic Policy Institute released a statement by many of the nation's leading testing experts warning that this method was riddled with error and instability. A study released days ago by Sean Corcoran of New York University showed that a teacher who was ranked at the 43rd percentile, using student test scores, might actually be at the 15th percentile or the 71st percentile because the margin of error in this methodology is so large.

Tests that assess what students have learned are not intended to be, nor are they, measures of teacher quality. It is easier for teachers to get higher test scores if they teach advantaged students. If they teach children who are poor or children who are English language learners, or homeless children, or children with disabilities, they will not get big score gains. So, the result of this approach—judging teachers by the score gains of their students—will incentivize teachers to avoid students with the greatest needs. This is just plain stupid as a matter of policy.

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This past summer, the Los Angeles Times published a database in which they rated 6,000 elementary teachers as effective or ineffective, using what is called "value-added methodology," that is, whether their students' scores went up. Their decision to do this was denounced by testing experts and applauded by Secretary Duncan. Testing experts tried to explain why this method is likely to mislabel teachers and why it is so error-prone that it must be used—if at all—with extreme caution. One teacher who was rated "less effective" than his peers was Rigoberto Ruelas. A few days ago, Mr. Ruelas committed suicide. Many educators blamed the Los Angeles Times for his death, but it is impossible to know what his state of mind was. The Times reported his death and noted that he taught in a neighborhood that was one of the city's most impoverished and gang-ridden, and that he had a nearly perfect attendance record. Former students of Mr. Ruelas' wrote on websites to express their admiration for him, to explain how he reached out to the most difficult students, how he was so kind and gentle in a tough, tough neighborhood, how he was the best teacher they ever had.

None of the current remedies now embraced by the Obama administration, the Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation, the GOP, Davis Guggenheim, or other so-called reformers will improve education. Making war on teachers and principals is ridiculous, outrageous. None of the people at the foundations or in the policymaking circles work as hard as the average teacher, face as many challenges every day, for as little pay. None of the pundits who blithely denounce teachers would work 20 years with the hope of getting a salary (today) of $52,000.

No nation in the world—certainly not Finland—has improved its education system by belittling and firing teachers and principals.

People who know nothing about education and whose ideas have no basis in research or practice are calling the shots. Left to their own devices, they will destroy public education. They have already demoralized our nation's teachers. Eventually, their bad ideas will fail, because they are wrong.

Diane Ravitch is a historian of education and author of The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (Basic Books, 2010).