Hanushek: Want to fix education? Fire bad teachers
Stanford University Professor Eric Hanushek’s recent speech at the University of Kentucky is sure to raise some eyebrows. Dr. Hanushek suggests that “Identifying and replacing 6 percent of a school system’s least effective teachers can turn around student performance and have a greater and more positive impact than any other expenditure designed to stimulate economic growth.”
Hanushek, spoke last Tuesday in a presentation entitled “Will U.S. Schools Drag Us Down?” at UK’s W. T. Young Library as a guest of the Martin School for Public Policy and Administration. A leading authority in the analysis of the economics of educational achievement, Hanushek’s research finds “an investment in education, designed to improve and increase students’ skills, is the best and most effective strategy for stimulating economic recovery.”
Speaking to a rapt audience of faculty and students, Hanushek lamented the years the United States has wasted on resource solutions to improve student outcomes that have not worked. Among the factors not found to impact student achievement were per-pupil expenditures, class size, pupil/teacher ratios, whether or not teachers have master’s degrees, years of experience possessed by teachers and teacher certification. Hanushek concluded the United States is enduring the consequences of “losing focus and failing to direct sufficient attention to teacher quality and teacher effectiveness.”
“Good teachers are ones who get large gains in student achievement for their classes; bad teachers are just the opposite,” explained Hanushek, who said he uses a simple definition of teacher quality. Looking at data from a large, urban school district, he found that effective teachers at the top of the quality distribution got “an entire year’s worth of additional learning out of their students, compared to those near the bottom.”
Hanushek called for renewed and more aggressive methods of performance measures that would reward effective teachers for their “value-added” contributions to a child’s education — what teachers individually contribute to learning in the classroom.
“We have to be able to track the progress of individual students, and we have to be able to relate this progress to the teachers who are responsible for it,” Hanushek said. While there is substantial and significant evidence to relate teacher quality to student performance outcomes, according to Hanushek, “improving teacher quality meets with considerable resistance.” But performance-based incentives that “hold teachers, as well as schools, accountable for the choices they make, is crucial if student achievement is to improve.”
There was no argument in the room when Hanushek asserted that we all know who the bad teachers are. “Parents know, principals know, and other teachers know,” Hanushek said.
In his latest book, Creating a New Teaching Profession, Hanushek wrote that not only was it commonly acknowledged that there are teachers in the classroom who are not very effective, but there were very few observers who believed that the worst teachers could ever become “good” teachers, through any remediation attempt or professional development program. Hanushek asked his audience, who had closely followed his trail of evidence, to consider the option he proposed in his book: teacher de-selection.
“What would happen if we simply adopted policies of systematically removing the most ineffective teachers?” he asked.
The conclusion that can be drawn from the data in Hanushek’s research, and from other studies he presented, predicts a continued lack of success in improving student achievement outcomes if there is no attempt to direct increased attention to teachers’ effectiveness in the classroom. The focus today, Hanushek said, is on establishing programs to increase the effectiveness of teachers already in the classroom. What is missing, if ineffective teachers at the bottom end of the effectiveness range can’t be improved, are options to “trim off the least effective teachers in a more active de-selection process.”
I think that Dr. Hanushek has just unveiled the elephant in the room. Just like every other profession, there are people who are good at teaching and others that aren’t. When people start as teachers, if they’re not going well, they need extra support. If they’re received that extra support for a reasonable period of time and they’re still not improving, then they need to be let go so they can pursue other opportunities. It isn’t fair to keep poor performing teacher in classrooms with students year after year if they’re not able to provide students with the instruction they need.
We need to find a balance between protecting the rights of teachers who are struggling and the rights of their students who need good instruction every year.