Opinion: Failing Teachers Should Get the Boot, Kids Come First

chalkboard picture

In public school systems, do kids come first? Credit: Getty Images



I went to see "Waiting for 'Superman'" recently, then tuned in for a virtual town hall meeting moderated by Arianna Huffington of the Huffington Post, and featuring the film's director and producer, Davis Guggenheim and Lesley Chilcott, and New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein.

I hadn't heard much about the movie in advance, so I expected a dry documentary about the problems inherent in the public education system. But, it turns out, the film is gut-wrenching, striking a deep emotional chord through the struggles of the kids who are featured.

Early in the movie, Guggenheim admits, sheepishly, that he chose to send his young daughter to private school -- a fact he says "haunts him" when he drives past his neighborhood public schools.

Like Guggenheim, I also chose to send my kids to private school. But, in looking at the state of the New York City public school system in 1996, when my daughter started kindergarten, I didn't feel badly about my choice. I felt grateful that I had a choice.

My kids' school is not one of those swanky private schools you may have heard of -- full of old money and celebrity offspring. I didn't choose private school so my kids could hobnob with the rich and famous. And I didn't choose it because it was shiny and new or because it had fabulous athletic facilities -- it doesn't.

I chose private school for my kids out of fear, plain and simple.

I was afraid budget cuts would make it impossible for the school to hire enough staff. I was afraid my kids would have neither art nor music classes because of funding shortages. I was afraid of overcrowded classrooms, which would render my kids invisible to overworked educators who were forced to focus their attention on the squeakiest wheels.

But, most of all, I was afraid of an educational system that wasn't set up to reward high-performing teachers, or to let go of those who failed their students. I feared my kids would lose out on the opportunity to be taught and inspired by great teachers who would instill in them a life-long love of learning.

It turns out my biggest fear was -- and still is -- very real: Of all in-school factors that affect student achievement, effective teachers and principals account for nearly 60 percent of a student's ability to succeed, the film reports.

"Every one of us understands the power of great teachers to transform lives, and we have got to do everything collectively to focus on bringing the best people into the profession, supporting them, rewarding them, making them heroes," Klein explained during last week's town hall.

And that, I learned from "Superman," is the seed of one of the biggest debates in public school education today.

Throughout the film, educators and administrators build the case that it takes exemplary teachers to reach kids who are challenged by a system that continues to fail them, and by parents who either can't be, or choose not to be, involved in their child's education.

"The new way of thinking is, no matter what else is happening, we will not leave those kids behind, and they will perform as well as the rest of the kids do," Chilcott said during the town hall.

While portraying the struggles of kids who desperately want a good education, and parents who try to do everything in their power to provide for them, the movie shows examples of charter schools that have become models of exemplary education, such as the KIPP schools around the country and the Harlem Success Academy in New York.

These are schools that serve kids from disadvantaged communities and are challenging the odds and changing outcomes significantly with graduation rates that approach 100 percent.

So, it sort of seems like a no brainer: Let's model public schools after the charter schools that are succeeding. We'll set longer school hours, create personalized tutoring programs that help kids reach grade level skills and hire great teachers, pay them well, reward them for exceptional performance and cut them loose when they fail. Right?

Wrong. I was shocked to learn from the film that the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the 1.5 million-member teacher's union, is adamantly against rewarding high-performing teachers with merit pay. So much so, that the film says AFT leadership has forbidden members from even voting on the issue.

I also was shocked to learn just how difficult it is to fire a public school teacher. This chart says in New York City it takes 83 steps. It's so difficult, in fact, that only one in 2,500 teachers are fired each year, compared to one in 57 doctors and one in 97 lawyers who lose their licenses, the film reports.

Many teachers, administrators and the teachers' union are outraged over the suggestion that teachers should be paid based upon their performance and fired when they fail, because it means people will lose their jobs. Yes, "will" -- not "may." Face it -- there are countless teachers out there who should not be charged with educating our kids.

And, if you don't believe that, take a look at some other, eye-opening facts I learned from "Superman":
  • Among 30 developed countries, the United States ranks 25th in math and 21st in science.
  • Out of 28 reporting developed countries, American students ranked 20th in graduation rates.
  • For the first time in America, this generation will be less literate than the one before it.
  • In America right now, a kid drops out of high school every 26 seconds -- that's 7,000 kids a day, and 1.2 million kids a year.
  • A child who doesn't finish high school will earn less, and be eight times more likely to go to prison.
"We need to redevelop, reform our current practice to make sure they're focused on the needs of our children, and not the adults," Klein said at the town hall.

So, now, I get it. I'm all for people not losing jobs, but as a parent, my kids come first. The bottom line is, If you're a failing teacher, maybe you should be doing something else.

What do you think?

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