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March 14, 2010

The Key To Saving American Education: Retrain or Replace Teachers?

Evan Thomas & Pat Wingert:

I'm excited for the opportunity to "debate." The term violates my traditional sensibilities, but I'll try to get over it. What resolution should we discuss? Resolved: "The problem with education is teachers," as one online headline for your story read. Resolved: "The best way to deal with underperforming teachers is to fire them." Resolved: "Much of the ability to teach is innate," as the lead story in your package declares.

My reporting for The New York Times Magazine turned up counter-arguments to each of these declarations. But it also turned up many facts that appear in your story. Here are some premises we can probably agree on: The quality of teaching plays a major role in determining whether children learn. An upsetting number of teachers are not helping children learn as much as we want them to. A smaller group of teachers are actively impeding learning. It is insanely difficult to fire these bad teachers, and the teaching profession at large is an insanely isolated one in which it is not unusual for the only people who ever observe the professional at work to be 9 years old.

That said, the overwhelming conclusion of my reporting is that efforts to change this picture must go beyond simply firing the lowest performers. One reason is just plain money. Firing employees--in many professions, not just teaching--brings a lot of legal hurdles and therefore costs a lot of money. The bill is especially high for firing teachers; to fire underperforming teachers in New York City, Chancellor Joel Klein invested $1 million a year in a fleet of fancy attorneys tasked solely with this responsibility. In the two years the project has gone on so far, the city only fired three teachers charged with incompetence.

Posted by Jim Zellmer at March 14, 2010 2:18 AM
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