Where Will All The Effective Teachers Come From?

An increasingly popular strategy for improving teaching and learning is to identify ineffective teachers and then dismiss them.  However, I believe this strategy is short-sighted and incomplete.  Investing precious time and resources in the removal of negative outliers in the teaching corps does little to improve teaching and learning at scale.  Only deep investments in the conditions that support teaching and learning – for teachers as well as students – can do that.

The most recent and high-profile example of teacher dismissal held up as a panacea is the Vergara v. California trial, just concluded in Los Angeles.  Based on the “guesstimate” of an academic researcher, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu last week asserted that there were between 2,750 and 8,250 “grossly ineffective” teachers running roughshod over California’s school children.  (Let us leave aside the uncritical and unsupported use of value-added measures to define and identify “ineffective” teachers and agree that some number of teachers are less effective than others.)  To remedy this disparity – and, in so doing, presumably to improve teaching and learning for all – Judge Treu struck down three California laws related to due process for teachers.  The cumulative effect of this ruling, provided it stands on appeal, will be that teachers identified as ineffective will be removed from their jobs.

But once these teachers leave, who will take their place?  Where will all the effective teachers come from?  Judge Treu did not say.  Neither, for that matter, did the plaintiffs in the Vergara case. 

An often-unspoken assumption underlying the strategy of removing ineffective teachers seems to be that these teachers are a lost cause.  If we accept this logic, then we must also assume that all other strategies to improve these teachers’ practice have been tried and found lacking. 

However, I see no evidence that policymakers so eager to dismiss teachers have provided adequate investment in ongoing support for teachers.  Without equivalent support, accountability is simply not credible.  In a high-stakes environment – where poor evaluations may result in teachers losing their job – those doing the evaluating have an ethical imperative to couple their accountability with ongoing and relevant support. 

Currently, the preponderance of professional development programs offered by schools and districts seem designed to ensure proper implementation of state and district policies and not necessarily to help teachers develop capacities directly related to the craft of teaching.  When today’s policies and standards are revised, as inevitably they will be, then the PD related to them becomes irrelevant.  Effective teachers are those who can adapt their practice to the changing conditions around them, resulting in sustained student learning.  A more sensible approach to teacher support, then, would be to design learning environments for teachers in which they develop their capacity to adapt to changing conditions, where they can learn to ask hard questions and innovate and assess their successes and failures.

Contrary to the assumption implicit in Judge Treu’s ruling, we cannot merely hire our way to more effective teachers.  Greater effectiveness must also be nurtured from within.  Doing so means not only an investment in teacher learning but a fundamental re-imagination of what effective teacher learning environments look like.