Does Every Teacher Deserve to Keep Her Job?

Cleveland Schools’ Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Eric Gordon announced earlier this month that more than 50 Cleveland public school teachers may be terminated based on their performance and/or conduct. According to Gordon, in 41 schools, principals gave notices to 68 teachers that their one-year contracts would not be renewed. Those 68 notices were far more than the number of notices that are typically distributed at the end of the school year in Cleveland, and as you might imagine, the leadership of the Cleveland Teachers Union was not happy. The increased ability of principals in Cleveland to remove ineffective teachers is a direct result of the Cleveland Plan for Transforming Schools, signed into law in 2012 by Ohio Governor John Kasich. As part of the bipartisan sponsored plan which applies only to Cleveland as Ohio’s sole school district under mayoral control, Cleveland schools are now implementing a new teacher development and evaluation system based on professional standards.

Hearing about public school teachers being fired causes most of us to sit up straight and listen for the rest of the story. That is because public school teachers, especially in high-needs school districts, are typically only terminated when a teacher has been found guilty of something particularly egregious, like stealing money or having an inappropriate sexual relationship with a student. Even in the current era of reform, you don’t hear very often of significant numbers of teachers in traditional public school districts losing their jobs based on their performance. And why is that the case?

First, most big city teachers unions (the Cleveland Teachers Union included) fight with every ounce of strength they have to prevent teachers from being terminated; even teachers whose performance has been abysmal, and in some limited cases, even when a teacher’s conduct has been so inappropriate that she cannot return to the classroom. Second, Americans have largely accepted the reasoning that teachers (and leaders, and schools) should not be held accountable for the academic performance of their students, particularly if those teachers serve children of color or economically disadvantaged students. Fortunately for children, both of those circumstances are changing. First, parents, community members, the business community, and school districts are demanding changes in teachers unions collective bargaining agreements, particularly around provisions that restrict school leaders’ ability to supervise, evaluate, and if need be, remove ineffective teachers. Second, parents, community members, and the business community are demanding that teachers, even teachers who serve children of color and economically disadvantaged students, be held accountable for the learning of their students.

Cleveland Schools CEO Eric Gordon has assured that the teachers in danger of losing their jobs will receive due process. Those teachers will have the opportunity to respond to the charges of their principals. I fully support teachers’ right to due process. It may turn out that some of the teachers in question are able to present evidence of their instructional effectiveness and keep their jobs. But teachers who are unable to provide evidence of their students’ learning should be fired. My stance on this issue is firm: Teachers that cannot provide evidence of adequate learning in their classrooms should be removed from those classrooms.

It is true that some teachers whose performance is not optimal can and should be developed. Early career teachers in particular need mentoring and development and they deserve the opportunity to grow. Pre-service teacher training should be regarded only as preparation for entering the profession, so new teachers should never be seen as finished products. But even with the understanding that early career teachers and even some struggling later career teachers can be developed, I will not back down from the argument that every student deserves the opportunity to learn in her classroom, regardless of how inexperienced or well-meaning her teacher is. A sixth grader gets one shot at sixth grade, and educational leaders and policy makers owe it to every sixth grader to ensure that she has an adequate teacher.

I have no problem with teachers unions fighting for job security for teachers, but only for effective teachers. Contrary to popular belief, all teachers are not effective. Some ineffective teachers can be mentored and developed to become effective teachers, but others should be removed from the classroom quickly before they do irreparable damage to children. Consideration of job security for teachers should always be secondary to ensuring that every child has an effective teacher in her classroom.