Voting Bad Teachers Off the School-Island

Scott McLeod wrote an entertaining and thought provoking piece recently on reworking the teacher evaluation process to make it more like a reality show:

Every year fire the worst teacher in the school. If you don’t have a robust teacher evaluation system (or if you’re worried about administrator bias), do it like they do on Survivor: everyone gets a vote and the one with the most votes leaves the island.

Scott said that teachers know who the bad teachers are. We should just let the teacher’s vote somebody off the educational island each year (if we don’t already have some better system in place). Eventually we’d reduce the number of “bad” teachers we have…

I share Scott’s sentiment. The simple truth is that at almost every school where I’ve ever worked there’s been a teacher or two (or three) who were different. Maybe they simply didn’t try. But often they were people that you could watch go about trying to fulfill their professional duties, and you just knew from watching them that the world would be a better place if they’d find other employment – preferably in an endeavor where they weren’t required to deal with children. (I say “almost” because I work at a school now where that isn’t true; it’s a very small school and I can’t see that anyone needs to be run off.)

I discussed Scott’s suggest with a number of people. The first one I mentioned it to asked a question. Who would we find to replace the teacher that had been voted off? If there was an easy answer to that question, I suspect we wouldn’t have the problem that we do with of incompetent teachers hanging on in the classroom. In my state at least, the evaluation process in place could be used to fire bad teachers. But administrators feel some ambivalence about firing a certified teacher when the only replacement is an uncertified long term substitute. After all, under NCLB the certified teacher is probably “highly qualified” and the substitute is not – something that will cost the school points when it comes to determining adequately yearly progress (AYP).

The solution to this aspect of the problem is for colleges and universities to produce more entry level teachers. Of course, that’s not purely up to the universities. Individual students have to see teacher prep programs as a good career choice. If NCLB has accomplished nothing else, it has managed to make people look more skeptically on teaching as a possible career. The demands on teachers have increased and the training required to do the job has increased, but compensation for teachers has not kept pace. A large portion of the teacher workforce is moving toward retirement, but teacher is a less attractive career option for college students today than it was five years ago. Since Scott is involved in teacher preparation, I suspect he know this all too well.

A second reaction I had was that voting someone off the school seems kind of abrupt. I actually watch Survivor. People get blindsided on a regular basis. Their playing the game and thinking they’re own they’re way to the million dollars; next thing they know, they’ve been voted off. I know that many incompetent teachers just don’t have whatever raw material it takes to be good teachers. I know that some of our incompetent teachers don’t care that they’re incompetent. But we should at least give teacher improvement a try. Maybe we could go to a system where a teacher gets voted out of a school, but not altogether out of the profession the first time. Let them get voted out of two or three school before we revoke their license. Or let them get sent to some form of Exile Island first, before a school’s staff can vote to get rid of them completely.

My last reservation revolves around individual rights in our society. I like the fact that we live in a republic, as opposed to just a democracy. Even incompetent teachers have rights; and in our society, I’m grateful that the majority doesn’t always get everything it wants. If you’ve ever watched Survivor, it’s not a nice world to live in. In the real world there are confidentiality and privacy issues that have to be somehow managed before the faculty senate at a school starts debating who to get rid of this year. At the end of the vote, questions arise about just cause in the termination process. The Survivor approach sounds like we’re ditching any concept of due process. I think that would be a dangerous precedent in our society.

At its heart I think Scott’s suggestion is thought provoking. But I suspect it’s meant to be tongue-in-cheek, or mostly meant to provoke discussion.

Having said that, the basic underlying idea of getting teachers involved in some form of peer evaluation is an exceptional idea. And while we have great difficulty quantifying merit so that we can recognize it in our teacher workforce, Scott’s right: teachers know who the bad teachers are…

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