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In the age of accountability, measuring teacher effectiveness has become king. But it’s not enough merely to measure effectiveness, according to many leading thinkers and policymakers; personnel decisions—from pay and promotions to layoffs and outright firings—should be based on teacher-effectiveness data, they say.

The Obama administration’s Race to the Top competition brought renewed attention to teacher evaluation, as did The New Teacher Project’s 2009 landmark report, “The Widget Effect: Our National Failure to Acknowledge and Act on Differences in Teacher Effectiveness.” (TNTP’s report found that the vast majority of teachers in America—upwards of 99 percent in some districts—are rated as “satisfactory,” usually by their own principals. And such ratings or evaluations have tended to be infrequent and pro forma. That is beginning to change, however.)

Two new studies about the feasibility of grading teachers based on their students’ performance provoked a lot of discussion this week. I had a chance to be part of the conversation on January 14th with Christine Romans, host of CNN’s “Your Bottom Line,” and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second-largest teachers union.

Romans opened the discussion by citing a remark made by John Friedman, a Harvard economist who coauthored one of the studies. Summarizing his study’s findings for The New York Times, Friedman said: “The message is to fire people sooner rather than later.”

Friedman was speaking specifically about value-added ratings of teachers—which use student scores on standardized tests to determine a teacher’s relative effectiveness—and whether they are sufficiently accurate and reliable to guide personnel decisions. His answer? An unambiguous “yes.”

I addressed this “Let’s-find-and-fire-the-bad-teachers” mentality in my comments on “Your Bottom Line,” but what I said ended up on the cutting room floor—so I figure it’s worth re-articulating here.

The problem with the approach that Friedman and others advocate is that it assumes we have all these wonderful, high-quality teachers just waiting in the wings to take over the jobs of the bad teachers we fire. In reality, there is no such supply, even in a bad economy with high unemployment. We have a shortage, not a surplus, of great teachers—and so it’s naïve or shortsighted (or both) to think we can somehow fire our way to a great educational system.

There are almost four million K-12 teachers in the United States, which is more than twice the number of lawyers and doctors combined. Teaching is America’s largest profession. And so we need teaching to be a job that an average person can do reasonably well, which means we probably need to rethink how the job is structured.

A starting point would be to look at—and reconsider—the number of hours U.S. teachers spend at the front of the classroom each week compared to the time they spend planning lessons and collaborating with colleagues. It’s no secret that American teachers spend many more hours teaching than their colleagues do in higher-performing nations. Elsewhere, teachers often teach fewer lessons each week than U.S. teachers, but they spend significantly more time on planning and collaboration.

In Finland, for example, teachers teach an average of 600 hours per year (or 800 lessons of 45 minutes each). In American middle schools, by contrast, teachers teach an average of 1,080 hours per year (or about 1,300 lessons of 50 minutes each). Perhaps we should rethink the amount of time that U.S. teachers spend teaching vs. planning vs. collaborating? A well-planned lesson, after all, is worth any number of poorly planned (or unplanned) lessons when it comes to student learning.

Now, back to what actually aired on January 14th. Here’s the video of our discussion on CNN:

A transcript of our conversation follows:

CHRISTINE ROMANS, HOST: A landmark new study from economists at Harvard and Columbia found that one good teacher can result in higher earnings, a lower chance of getting pregnant young, and a better future. Their conclusion: kids with higher test scores are kids with better teachers.

Just one year with a teacher ranked in the top five percent can mean $50,000 of additional earnings over the course of that student’s career. Imagine what four years, eight years, 12 years with a good teacher could do.

Randi Weingarten is the president of the American Federation of Teachers, and Justin Snider is a former teacher and a contributing editor at The Hechinger Report. Thanks for joining, both of you.

This—this Harvard/Columbia study is fascinating, and one of the study’s authors told The New York Times, quote, “The message is to fire people sooner rather than later.”

Randi, we don’t—it sounds extreme. Randi, we—we don’t get do-overs with kids. Can we afford to keep underperforming students in the school? Is this study telling us that we have to do a better job of finding out—finding those underperforming teachers, rather, not students, teachers, and—and moving them to a different career?

RANDI WEINGARTEN, PRESIDENT, AMERICAN FEDERATION OF TEACHERS: Well, look, I felt that the economists, the economists should do the economy and let the teachers actually do teaching. So I thought it was a very unfortunate thing to say because if you actually did that, we’d lose all of our new teachers, because the people that actually get really much better over two or three years are new teachers.

ROMANS: You don’t come in as the teacher you’re going to be the first year that you’re a teacher.

WEINGARTEN: Never. And so it was—so I thought that that was a very unfortunate thing to say—

ROMANS: The report. But do you—do you agree with the report?

WEINGARTEN: Of course—look, of course if you have—you know, if you have good performance in schools, if kids do well in school, it gives them confidence to do well in the future.

The real issue is—and—and we’ve been saying this for the last couple of years—you have to have a good performance system. We have to all be about high performance and some of the work that we’ve tried to do with evaluation, with revamping it, we’re basically taking it away from strictly being a principal’s responsibility and let’s do it together, to focus on continuous improvement.

We will ensure then that teachers are getting better. And if teachers can’t do their jobs and if you try to help them and they still can’t do it, then we have to usher them out of the profession.

ROMANS: But do you—do you agree that testing teachers, standardized testing is a way to find good students, and those students are doing better because of their teacher. That a standardized testing (INAUDIBLE), you’d like to see a different way to do it?

WEINGARTEN: No. And, frankly, testing has a role, data has a role, but the same day that that Harvard study came out, the Gates, big Gates study, came out that said you can’t just use tests. You have to use multiple measures.

And so what happens is you have to think—what you—what we need to do is we need to think about what is a teacher teaching and what is a student learning? And so, tests play a piece of that but basically so do student portfolios, so do teacher practice, so does a whole bunch of—of other things.

ROMANS: Yes. Justin, I want to ask you, the Los Angeles Times used the results of standardized tests to rate the city’s teachers there and they posted those ratings online. How much weight should parents give to standardized testing? I mean, Randi’s saying there needs to be a whole portfolio of things to judge a teacher. Standardized tests aren’t enough?

JUSTIN SNIDER, CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, THE HECHINGER REPORT: I don’t think so. I think it could be a component, maybe 20, 25 percent. I think the states that are considering 50 percent as part of the evaluation system, that’s a bit scary, because there is volatility in those scores. And so a teacher who has students performing highly one year might have student with lower performance the next year.

And the thing is that parents looking for information, oftentimes this data is not coming out until after the year is over, and so the students are moving on. And I would prefer, if I had children in a school, that my students or my children were in a classroom with a teacher who I knew went the extra mile and cared and gave extra time, and that’s not necessarily going to show up in standardized tests.

ROMANS: But you can’t—you can’t choose your teacher. That’s the thing here.

SNIDER: That’s another thing.

ROMANS: I mean, the other thing is even if you know how the school ranks or how the teacher ranks, you can’t choose your teacher. And that’s a question, Randi, how do you make sure that the teacher in the classroom is one of those teachers who’s going to make your kid be the one who succeeds in life?

WEINGARTEN: Well, let’s look at what happens in countries that outperform us. They have a whole different view of this. What they do is they create a climate, which is, in some ways—


ROMANS: —performing teachers.

WEINGARTEN: Actually, they actually focus on creating a climate so that there’s high performance and real respect and dignity. And so what we’re saying—

ROMANS: And it’s a sought-after profession, and not everyone is accepted into—into education schools.

WEINGARTEN: Take what Justin just said about test scores. This sounds easy, but it’s so totally wrong in that teachers don’t get to decide who their kids are in school.

ROMANS: And that’s the other thing.

WEINGARTEN: And you want to make sure that a teacher is working as hard, if not harder, with a kid who needs the extra mile.

ROMANS: Randi Weingarten, Justin Snider, thank you so much.

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