Should teachers be held more accountable for students' performance?

To follow is an excerpt from the CQ Researcher report on "Revising No Child Left Behind" by Kenneth Jost, April 16, 2010

When teachers at chronically underperforming Central Falls High School in Rhode Island balked at agreeing to extend the school day by 25 minutes without any additional pay, the school board and school superintendent decided on Feb. 23 to fire the entire staff. Termination notices were read aloud at a contentious school board meeting for 93 people altogether, from the principal and assistant principal down through 74 classroom teachers and other educational or administrative aides.

The episode gained national attention when President Obama — echoing earlier favorable comments from Education Secretary Duncan — endorsed the board's action. “If a school continues to fail its students year after year after year, if it doesn't show signs of improvement, then there's got to be a sense of accountability,” Obama said on March 1. “And that's what happened in Rhode Island last week.” [Footnote 15]

The mass firings are now on hold, pending mediation between the school board and the local teachers' union. But the cooling-off came only after heated comment from NEA and AFT leaders and many individual teachers. Anthony J. Mullen, a Greenwich, Conn., teacher and the current teacher of the year, said the call for firing teachers to improve schools reflects an “off-with-their-heads mentality.” [Footnote 16]

The focus on tenure for individual teachers represents a significant policy change from No Child Left Behind in its present form. “Teachers were not really accountable under No Child Left Behind; schools were,” says McGuinn, the Drew University political scientist. “There were no consequences for teachers if students didn't perform.”

Conservative education experts are applauding the administration's approach. Increasing teacher accountability is “a good thing,” says the Fordham Institute's Finn. “While any given teacher may not have huge control over a kid, the cumulative effect of teachers is the single most important influence on what a kid learns — or maybe the second most important after home and neighborhood.”

Leaders of the two national teachers' unions sharply disagree with the administration's approach. They say firing teachers is a punitive approach with no sound basis that ignores other factors in student performance and in the end does little if anything to help students improve.

“The idea that you can measure a teacher's work or a student's work on the basis of a test on a single day is absurd,” says the NEA's Van Roekel. “There's no test that you can give that can evaluate what I've taught over the year.”

Obama's plan “seems to be holding teachers 100 percent responsible for students' success,” says the AFT's Weingarten, “without giving teachers any authority or leverage to get the tools they need to do their jobs and any countervailing responsibility on anyone else.”

School management groups also view the administration's approach as too severe. “I would like to see more latitude in terms of model intervention,” says Wilhoit of the state education chiefs' group, specifically referring to teacher dismissals. But, he adds, “we need to get serious as a country to turn around these chronically underperforming schools.”

“We don't think there are any data out there that show that those remedies will help,” says Felton of the school boards association. Some principals or teachers may need to be reassigned, Felton says, but the administration's blueprint “doesn't focus on the skill sets that you need to really turn around any program.”

Criticism also has come from Ravitch, the supporter-turned-critic of conservative versions of school choice and accountability. “Wouldn't it make more sense to send in help instead of an execution squad?” Ravitch writes on an Education Week blog. [Footnote 17]

The administration's blueprint ties the firing of teaching staffs with the implementation of “a research-based instructional program” along with a “new governance structure” and “extended learning time.” Interestingly, Obama strikes a more supportive tone in the two-page introduction to the blueprint. “We must do better to recruit, develop, support, retain, and reward outstanding teachers in America's classroom,” the president writes.

“Some of these schools have real numbers of teachers who either are ineffective or have become discouraged,” says American Enterprise Institute expert Hess. “Replacing teachers can bring in more effective teachers and create a necessary sense of urgency. What bothers me is that there's some stock playbook and that somehow this is going to take a consistently underperforming school and put it on a better trajectory.”

The Issues:
*Should states adopt the proposed “common core standards” for English and math?
*Should the Education Department focus remedial efforts on the worst-performing schools?
*Should teachers be held more accountable for students' performance?

For more information see the CQ Researcher report "Revising No Child Left Behind" [subscription required] or purchase the CQ Researcher PDF.

[15] See Steven Greenhouse and Sam Dillon, “A Wholesale School Shake-Up Is Embraced by the President, and Divisions Follow,” The New York Times, March 7, 2010, p. A20. For local coverage of the school board action, see Jennifer D. Jordan, “Teachers fired, labor outraged,” Providence Journal-Bulletin, Feb. 24, 2010, p. 1.
[16] Quoted in Greenhouse and Dillon, op. cit.
[17] Diane Ravitch, “Try Again, Secretary Duncan, It's Not Too Late,” Bridging Differences, March 23, 2010.