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Did You Know That THE Key To Saving American Education Is Firing Bad Teachers?


Newsweek’s cover this week proclaimed that “The Key To Saving American Education” was that “we must fire bad teachers.”

Now, that’s what I call a sophisticated analysis of a complex problem….

Yes, there are bad teachers. But, as the saying goes, if the only tool you have is a hammer, than every problem looks like a nail.

Instead of only scapegoating teachers, perhaps a more accurate and non-black/white solution would be to also look at curriculum, school and district leadership, parent engagement, and community pressures like unemployment, safety, and health care. Is it really too much to ask that experienced journalists (and others) recognize that most problems of any kind require a multi-pronged approach?

And it might be helpful if the writers didn’t say that teaching doesn’t attract “the best and the brightest.” Questioning the overall intelligence of teachers is not only insulting, it’s wrong (see Do Teachers REALLY Come From The Bottom Third Of Colleges? Or Is That Statistic A Bunch Of Baloney?)

And then they claim that some private charters are models for us all because they are successful and don’t “cherrypick.” In the same sentence, the writers say “they take anyone who will sign a contract to play by the rules.” Excuse me, how is that not cherrypicking?

The Newsweek writers praise the New Orleans’ success with charters as well, but don’t mention the 70 hour work weeks that are burning their teachers out, as highlighted by the New Orleans Times Picayune yesterday (thanks to The Educated Reporter for the tip). Those kind of expectations are really going to keep teachers in the profession for the long-haul.

There are many other issues with the article, and I’d encourage you to read other critical posts at Public School Insights and The Core Knowledge blog.

These kinds of magazine covers and articles might help sell copies and contribute to feelings that complex problems have simple solutions, but they certainly don’t contribute anything of value to public discourse that could lead to positive change.

Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.


  1. Hello, Larry,

    Nice critique — unfortunately, the shortcomings you describe in the Newsweek article seem to be pretty common in what passes for journalism around educational issues.

    The New Yorker has had some horrifying oversimplifications recently — Steven Brill wrote an incredibly weak story on Joel Klein and teacher’s unions in the August 31, 2009 edition — and it’s too bad, because there is a story there to tell, but the oversimplifications cloud what could be a real, useful discussion with the haze of an unrealistically simple solution.

    Nicholas Kristof, at the NY Times, has written some equally barbarous fluff about Michelle Rhee.

    And it kills me to see such bad writing about such an important topic. Unfortunately, real conversation about education isn’t as punchy as the black/white us/them oversimplifications. Villains sell, and the stories are easier to write. For now, anyways, it looks like coverage of educational issues is a casualty of the decline of journalism in the MSM.



  2. Well done, Larry. Thanks for the link to the N.O. paper in particular.

  3. I quite agree with your post.

    Maybe the people who support the firing of teachers because of the poor test scores of students should be encouraged to take some basic courses in sociology. I think they need to learn that schools are not businesses and students are not machines that need to be maintained. They need to learn that schools reflect the culture and the will of the communities they serve – they do not define them.

    I have always wanted to write an editorial entitled, “If we ran businesses like schools”. The first examples I would give would be that in a business run like a school every person applying for a job would have to be given one. If they couldn’t do the job, they would have to be given one they could do. Employers would have to meet regularly with employees’ families to make certain that all was well while reporting on the progress of each family’s emloyee. I could go on and on …

    Those that can’t teach become critics of education eh?

  4. I dunno, Larry, I remember some pretty bad teachers when I was at school so feel a bit on the shelf.

    The problem as you mentioned is much, much, much deeper than “bad” teachers but when there is so little money in teaching how do you attract the top to join the profession.

    I swore I’d never be a teacher, only – only – because of the money and in my case, it took an accident to make me rethink, realize I didn’t like my profession and I should do something I enjoyed rather than only thinking about how much there was in my pocket at the end of the week.

    But when you’re young…


    All over the world I’ve met people who have become teachers only because there was no other profession that would have them and that is probably where we need to start working first – once teachers can earn the same as any top manager, not only will those who are dispirited raise the bar but those who are already passionate can take more pride in what they do…

    And yes, I know that great video on youtube (which makes one laugh) but…

    • I think Karenne makes some very valid points. Although I do agree that firing bad teachers would not in and of itself solve all of education’s problem, I strongly believe it would be a step in the right direction. I also think that the lack of support for doing this by educators sends a loud and clear message to the general public that we are not serious about improving education and educational reform.

  5. My wonderfully enthusiastic and friendlyt Economics class were only saying today that teachers should be paid more so more intelligent ones would be attracted to the profession. I asked if they would prefer intelligent teachers over teachers who chose teaching because they care about education and young people. One said something like, fair point, but basically they didn’t know how to react so returned to writing their essays on economic growth and unemployment.

  6. It’s believed that if you can’t do somenthingm you end up teaching that… kind of controversial, since we can imagine how to teach something you can’t do… It takes a lot more courage, dedication and background to teach. I can’t understand at what point we started thinking that the only problem in Education is the teacher, and not the way our schools have been administrates, how our children have been raised or how little important we think formal education is nowadays…
    Ok, let’s fire the bad teachers… but how will you know if they are really bad?

  7. I’m with you. There’s no way that THE key to ‘saving’ education. And the whole ‘saving’ thing is, in itself, overblown.

    But surely some teachers need to be fired? Or at least there should be the possibility of firings if they don’t do the job?

    I’m not sure that people outside the education system hear much more than the two extremes – let’s fire the teachers vs we can never fire teachers. And it’s only natural that one extreme begets another.

    So, I agree with your post completely in what it says. But sooner or later the good teachers will have to accept that part of being ‘good’ is to accept criticism, cut down on the outrage and get rid of their less useful colleagues.

    • Sion — We pay administration a lot of money to get rid of ineffective teachers. Teachers are currently not part of that process, so it is beyond their responsibility. And rest assured, all teachers have to accept mountains of criticism. Let’s spread out the responsibility, and teachers may well welcome their share.

  8. Sandra, most of the pieces I’ve read complaining about the absurdity of unfireable teachers were talking about motivation/laziness/behavioural problems rather than ability. FWIW, I think we should support ‘less able’ teachers – the weirdness of an education system that can’t, erm, educate teachers is too much to bear.

    There are teachers who are ill-prepared or rude or bullies. Teaching wouldn’t be such an important profession if everybody could/would do it.

    • I couldn’t agree more, Simon!
      My concern is about how these teachers are being evaluated. Are they really the heart of the matter?
      All prefessions hold good and bad performers, but in all professions they have parameters to assess the quality of their services. With teachers, it wouldn’t be different.
      Unfireable teachers is a huge nonsense, but blaming the teachers for all the flaws in the processo is also a big nonsense. We need high standards, and we need to prepare all the people involved in the process to reach thoso standards.

  9. Maybe the solution is to fire bad students? that would certainly raise test scores, wouldn’t it?

    Ah, the ludicrious notions of those who hold education up to “measurement” and “standards” etc…. I may be radical but in the land of the blind, this guy that delights in learning anywhere is king.

    What’s wrong with education ain’t any of the participants. It is the process. Until people come clean about that, ain’t no tinkering going to stop the widgets from dropping off defective from the end of the line.


    PS. Yes, it is complex. But seems so many like to just sweep things under the rug.

  10. I agree with you. It was disgraceful that a President who supposedly backs educators (and had plenty of them vote him into office) and the Secretary of Education think that this will fix a school. It’s outrageous.

    I just wrote an article yesterday about this too. In it, I show that EVERYONE is responsible for the education of students.
    I’d love to hear your comments on it.


  11. @David, re: “Maybe the solution is to fire bad students? that would certainly raise test scores, wouldn’t it?”

    They tried that in Houston. It certainly did raise test scores, and made for some great stats on college attendance rates.




    • Private schools and some charter schools have a different method to get high test scores, high college acceptances and graduation rates – they pre-screen the students that are going to enter their school. The government loves to show how Charter schools are doing so great but fail to mention that most can hand pick their students and kick out any that don’t conform. Public schools don’t have that ability.

  12. the authors of the Newsweek article cite out of context. Yes, Finland takes from the top 10%. They also pay better, subsidize several years of training under experienced teachers paying both for the cost of the training and providing a stipend. That provides a wider pool of people willing to take on the task of teaching.

    Administrators exist to support teachers in their teaching. Tests are not used punitively.

    When I see a writer like Evan Thomas so wrong on subjects about which I know, I have to really doubt anything else I read from him.

    • RE: “When I see a writer like Evan Thomas so wrong on subjects about which I know, I have to really doubt anything else I read from him.”

      I feel exactly the same way about Kristof. His work on women’s rights has been amazing, but when I see the utter mediocrity of his educational writing, I wonder if my appreciation of his writing on other issues stems from an incomplete understanding of those issues on my part.

  13. Firing bad teachers is simply the easiest solution for an oversimplified problem. Yes, There might be bad teachers in the profession as ther might be bad journalists in the profession of journalism. Would anyone suggest to fire bad journalists to save the press from oversimplifiyng problems??!!
    As far as I’m concerned, I think that the problem is multidimensional. Many variables come to play as you mention in your article. So instead of skapegoating teachers, they should look for the real causes of the problem!!!

  14. Firing bad teachers certainly isn’t THE key, but something does need to be done about the system of retaining/firing teachers based solely on seniority. I’ve seen some very good, motivated, *effective* teachers laid off simply because they hadn’t been around as long as someone else. That needs to stop.

    When another teacher clings to the same methods and lesson plans she learned 40 years go, and refuses to use any technology, no matter how helpful, shouldn’t that teacher be pumped higher up the pink-slip list? “Blogs, wikis, email, Twitter, and video cameras have no place in education. We didn’t use them when I was in school, and I see no value whatsoever in their use. In fact, they’re most likely doing more harm than good.” Paraphrased, but pretty close to an actual quote. Is it any wonder that this teacher’s students are performing well below everyone else at the school? And no, this isn’t an age issue. Some of our very best teachers, adept at engaging students and inspiring learning, are some of our oldest and most tenured. Likewise, we have plenty of 20 and 30-something Luddites. The point is, the teachers who are not engaging their students, not serving their students as well as they should, those are the teachers that should be first to go – not “last in, first out.”

  15. I don’t like the seniority system, but I don’t know of a better option. Most teacher layoffs happen at the district level, not the school level, so it is very difficult to fairly evaluate teachers on any objective criteria other than “hasn’t been disciplined”. And it’s not like firing factory workers or even police officers…teaching assignments have to match areas of certification.

    Some of the above comments are brilliant, especially the ones by patricia and teacherken.

  16. What a great discussion!

    I appreciate, and have learned from, all the comments and look forward to more….


  17. As a teacher in the greater New Orleans Area, I can vouch for the fact that our “great charter experiment” is flawed, at best. While there has been some success, I fear the lack of oversight that these schools enjoy is ultimately going to result in something really bad happening to a student (or students). Simple things we take for granted at public schools such as crossing guards and cafeteria managers are often written off as unnecessary at charters.
    Bad teachers are a real problem at public schools, but I also know that if the culture of a school is right, then most teachers, good and bad, will rise to the occasion. I do think that many people have a knack for teaching, but that is not enough to sustain a career. Training and experience still trump charisma when you’re in a classroom.

  18. Although I agree that firing bad teachers in and of itself would not solve all of education’s problems, it would be a positive step in the right direction. The fact that, overall, educators themselves do not support this sends the message to the general public that they are not serious about improving education.
    I have worked both in education and in the private sector and I can honestly say that the private sector does much better handling personnel than those in education by far. In the private sector, if you worked hard and performed well, you were rewarded with pay incentives and chances for advancement. I also felt that if a reduction of force was needed, my job was secure based on my job performance.
    In my last two years working in education, this has not been the case. Although positive, productive work is appreciated by parents and administrators, raises are automatic and you do not earn them; you may only advance if someone with more seniority moves to another position or retires; and if we went through the RIF process in our schools, the only things that will save your job is years of experience, which would result in our school losing some excellent, young teachers and keeping some older, very poor staff members.
    I think we need to admit as educators that there are some bad teachers among us and applaud those administrators who are courageous enough to let those teachers go. If not, what happened in Rhode Island is only just beginning.

  19. Jeremy said: “Most teacher layoffs happen at the district level, not the school level, so it is very difficult to fairly evaluate teachers…”

    Agreed, and that’s part of the problem. School administrators generally know who’s performing well and who isn’t (at least they SHOULD.) In no way should teacher layoff decisions be made at the district level. You don’t need rigorous evaluation criteria to know who’s not pulling their weight. School administrators should do everything they can to help teachers who are struggling (or who just don’t care anymore), but if a teacher disregards that help, then maybe it’s time to let them go. I think everyone here knows at least one person at your school who’s just dialing it in…Good teachers outweigh the bad by a wide margin, but there needs to be the flexibility for school administrators to get rid of those who, for whatever reason, aren’t getting it done.

  20. I think a lot of outsiders like to think that duds must flock to public education simply because there is a lot of dysfunction there – and they can’t think of any other possible cause for it.

    The reality is, we need a new system. One that doesn’t burn out nearly half of new teachers – passionate, talented teachers – in the first 5 years. What other profession has turnover like that? We’re fed up with a system that pits teachers against their students and forces us to have right and wrong answers (whether they exist or not) to conform to a grading system. Is it any surprise we don’t have the time to give students the individual attention they need when when we have to spend the little time we have trying to stay sane and dutifully documenting our students’ failures?

  21. Great piece of firing bad teacher; if only it were done. Many times the bad teacher’s influence the really good teacher’s before anything is done. Thus, alienating the parents or guardians from the school. It is time to take action, fire them.

  22. Important work Larry. Oversimplification in the media (and thereby society as a whole) is the plague of the age. Thanks for keeping the “eye on the ball(s)” and getting the entailed questions with no simple answers out there into the discussion!


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