NEWSWEEK Debate: Can Bad Teachers Change?

On Sunday, The New York Times Magazine published a cover story called "Building a Better Teacher." Written by Elizabeth Green, the article detailed how teachers could be retrained to increase classroom performance. On Monday, NEWSWEEK published a cover package labeled "The Key to Fixing American Education." In that series of articles, authors Evan Thomas and Pat Wingert argued that the only way to increase classroom performance was to fire the teachers who didn't get results. So which is it? Can bad teachers be reformed, or should they be kicked to the curb? We asked Green and Thomas to debate the issue via e-mail, and will publish their discussion, as it unfolds, below.

Wednesday, March 10, 10.24 am ET
Dear Evan,

I'm excited for the opportunity to "debate." The term violates my traditional sensibilities, but I'll try to get over it. What resolution should we discuss? Resolved: "The problem with education is teachers," as one online headline for your story read. Resolved: "The best way to deal with underperforming teachers is to fire them." Resolved: "Much of the ability to teach is innate," as the lead story in your package declares.

My reporting for The New York Times Magazine turned up counter-arguments to each of these declarations. But it also turned up many facts that appear in your story. Here are some premises we can probably agree on: The quality of teaching plays a major role in determining whether children learn. An upsetting number of teachers are not helping children learn as much as we want them to. A smaller group of teachers are actively impeding learning. It is insanely difficult to fire these bad teachers, and the teaching profession at large is an insanely isolated one in which it is not unusual for the only people who ever observe the professional at work to be 9 years old.

That said, the overwhelming conclusion of my reporting is that efforts to change this picture must go beyond simply firing the lowest performers. One reason is just plain money. Firing employees—in many professions, not just teaching—brings a lot of legal hurdles and therefore costs a lot of money. The bill is especially high for firing teachers; to fire underperforming teachers in New York City, Chancellor Joel Klein invested $1 million a year in a fleet of fancy attorneys tasked solely with this responsibility. In the two years the project has gone on so far, the city only fired three teachers charged with incompetence.

The costs multiply when you account for the expense of replacing the lost teachers. Even without any increase in the pace of firings, the U.S. Department of Education projects a demand for as many as one million new teachers by 2014! That's because the teaching profession is one of the largest in the country: 3.7 million strong, if you include only elementary and secondary teachers at public and private schools. Of course, you can imagine a world—and the Obama administration arguably is actively trying to build this world—in which states around the country rewrite their tenure laws so that firing becomes less of a hassle.

I don't mean to suggest that removing underperformers is a bad goal. I certainly had a few teachers who I think were unfairly protected by the public system's apparatus of defenses. And I think efforts to make the teacher removal process more sane and less expensive—like the peer review process in Montgomery County, Maryland, my hometown—are important. But given our not endlessly deep pockets and the very immediate demand for new teachers, almost every educator I talked to concluded that a bigger-picture solution is vital.

Since we're writing more dispatches, I'll save the bulk of their case for later and just say that it depends on a view that teaching is not, as you and Pat Wingert argue, mainly "innate," but rather comprised of a set of concrete and teachable skills and knowledge. I'll end with a question: Can you talk a little more about your "innate" position?

Looking forward to more discussion!


Wednesday, March 10, 12.00 pm ET
Dear Elizabeth,

I thought your article was excellent and I learned from it. I hope the two articles taken together can actually do some good. I think there is a lot we agree on, but let me make a few points, pushing off from your question about innate ability.

You sometimes hear that a requirement of good teaching is to have "eyes in the back of your head." (The cover art of the NYTimes suggested as much.) That strikes a chord with me. My own experience, as a student, a parent of two grown daughters, and now as a teacher for the past six years (at the college level) tells me that great teachers are born, not made. The same, unfortunately, is true of bad teachers. Go to any school and you can find examples of both—again, unfortunately or unfairly, more of the former in private schools for rich kids and more of the latter in public school for poor kids. I agree with you, however, that most teachers are somewhere in the middle, and—importantly—I agree that better teacher training can make some difference. Not the training they get in most education schools, which is usually too theoretical, but rather the common-sense steps you outline, especially for controlling the classroom. Nonetheless, the bad teachers are a huge problem. They may be in the minority—though hardly the two percent figure cited by Randi Weingarten—but a couple of bad teachers and a student can fall hopelessly behind. In my experience, the number one reason parents want to send their children to private schools is because private schools can and do weed out the poor teachers.

You say that as a practical matter it's not possible to fire all the bad teachers because it's too expensive. All those lawyers, all that endless fighting with the union. But that's just the point. The thrust of our story was that the system needs to be changed to get rid of, or at least seriously reform, tenure in the public schools. School principals and superintendents must be able to remove teachers who badly underperform. This shouldn't be done arbitrarily, but it need not be. Go into any school and everyone, from parents to kids to the other teachers, can identify the really bad teachers.

This is not a matter of "blaming the teachers," as the unions like to say. The real goal is attract better teachers. Over time, as opportunities have opened up in other areas, public schools have attracted less able teachers. Only lately has a new cadre popped up, many of them former Teach for America teachers or mid-career switchers, the kind that are making some charter schools stand out. We need to take these signs of progress and try to change the whole system. (Fortunately, and bravely, the Obama administration seems to be on board.)

We need to make teaching a more desirable, more high-status, and better rewarded profession. To make it a calling that will attract the best. We need to pay teachers more—but hold them accountable. That is the value of the system proposed by Michelle Rhee in D.C. Pay the good teachers up to $130,000, a good salary they deserve. But in return, strip them of tenure. In what other important profession do the employees have such mindless job protection?

I don't know that we're disagreeing, so maybe this isn't much of a debate. Perhaps we're disagreeing over matters of emphasis. But I welcome your further thoughts.


Wednesday, March 10, 2.02 pm ET
Dear Evan,

We may well be debating a matter of emphasis. But for the sake of the conversation, I'll try to use all my journalistic skills to home in on areas of conflict.

You say, "The real goal is to attract better teachers." I think that many of the educators I've spoken to would argue that raising standards, status, and pay is great but just not enough. Teach for America provides a good test case. The organization recruits only the most elite candidates, has a 12 percent admission rate, and has carefully honed its selection criteria over time to match the traits the organization sees in its most effective teachers.

But the more elite pedigree does not seem to bring a guaranteed boost to how much students learn. Studies comparing Teach for America teachers to traditional education-school graduates have come up with mixed results at best. Some have found that TFA teachers perform worse than traditionally certified teachers, while others find the opposite—like one recent study of teachers at North Carolina high schools. The organization's own internal data show that only 44 percent of its corps members are top teachers (meaning that they pass on roughly a year and a half's worth of material to their students, as judged by standardized tests). And that percentage is up from 24 percent in 2007.

Guess what led to the increase, according to Teach for America? Its decision to invest more in training, through a program in which a former teacher, Steven Farr, studied the best TFA members and tried to pass on the skills they used to other teachers. Here's how Jeff Wetzler, the organization's "chief learning officer" (his real title), explained the new TFA philosophy to me recently: "Great teachers are not just smart people. Great teachers are teachers who do specific things to lead their students to good outcomes. And those specific things are teachable."

So what are those specific things? I'm really eager to talk more about that, because I think the intricacy of the skills proves great teaching can't be just innate. But I'll await my next turn!


Elizabeth, teaching is not just innate, I'll grant you that. And some skills can be taught. But I am influenced by Malcolm Gladwell's article in The New Yorker showing that ineffable skills are pretty crucial. He writes about "withitness," the natural and hard-to-teach skill of being able to read students and react to their verbal and emotional messages. To Gladwell, choosing the right teachers is the name of the game. It doesn't have to be based on grades—in fact, grades alone are probably a poor predictor (though some inner-city schoolteachers barely know the subjects they teach). Just getting a high GPA at an Ivy League school doesn't mean much. But TFA has started to look harder for the right students—often people who have done well in service organizations and student-leader types who have a natural ability to lead people. It's not just TFA's teacher training that's improved, it's their recruitment process. The flip side of good recruiting is accountability—weeding out the ones who can't hack it. In the same Malcolm Gladwell article, a Stanford economist named Eric Hanushek estimates that just by replacing the bottom 6 to 10 percent of teachers with teachers of average quality you would raise the standing of American schools from below average to equal high-rankers like Canada and Belgium.

But let's hear more about the specific things you can teach a teacher to do ...  


Hi Evan,

OK, I will get to the specific things! A woman named Deborah Loewenberg Ball at the University of Michigan's School of Education conducts the most fascinating research on this topic. Spend some time with Ball and you will leave convinced that teaching even elementary school is a mode of expertise as intricate and specialized as bridge-building. No one is born knowing how to do this. Ball's work stems from her own teaching, especially several crucial years at a school in East Lansing, Mich., where she and a colleague, the professor Magdalene Lampert, videotaped themselves teaching elementary-school math over the course of a single academic year.

I describe Ball's teaching in my story, but I urge you also to view some of the videos from the year, which Ball has uploaded online. Her class contains a mix of the children of university professors and immigrants who have only lived in the United States for a few months before starting third grade with Mrs. Ball. Yet the lesson runs at such a high level—so high even professional mathematicians find the class engaging to watch. At one point, the students discover the concept of infinity; at another, they prove the properties of even and odd numbers. They are always making "conjectures," a word that sounds especially adorable when voiced by a 9-year-old. One mathematician, Hyman Bass, a professor emeritus at Columbia and now a professor at Michigan, has dedicated much of his career to studying Ball and Lampert's video archives. Previously he won a National Medal of Science for his work inventing a field of algebra.

Ball's teaching skill is not something she was born possessing. She learned it only after several years of painstaking trail and error, including many in which she was sure that math was the subject she taught most poorly. What changed? By her account, over time she was able to cobble together a special kind of knowledge that is crucial to teaching well. In her case, for teaching math, she called it Mathematical Knowledge for Teaching, or MKT. Here's how I describe MKT in my story:

It's one thing to know that 307 minus 168 equals 139; it is another thing to be able understand why a third grader might think that 261 is the right answer. Mathematicians need to understand a problem only for themselves; math teachers need both to know the math and to know how 30 different minds might understand (or misunderstand) it. Then they need to take each mind from not getting it to mastery. And they need to do this in 45 minutes or less. This was neither pure content knowledge nor what educators call pedagogical knowledge, a set of facts independent of subject matter, like Lemov's techniques. It was a different animal altogether. Ball named it Mathematical Knowledge for Teaching, or M.K.T. She theorized that it included everything from the "common" math understood by most adults to math that only teachers need to know, like which visual tools to use to represent fractions (sticks? blocks? a picture of a pizza?) or a sense of the everyday errors students tend to make when they start learning about negative numbers. At the heart of M.K.T., she thought, was an ability to step outside of your own head. "Teaching depends on what other people think," Ball told me, "not what you think."

The takeaway for me is that the very best teachers—the people who look like natural-born geniuses—may in fact just be people who have worked hard to improve their craft. The shame is that this craft gets re-created from scratch thousands of times a year by teachers working almost entirely alone. The promise I see is in trying to record the knowledge so that it can grow over time. I didn't have to come up with the idea of a "lede" or "nutgraf" on my own. Teachers deserve a language of expertise, too.


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