I was in a discussion yesterday about the need to fire “ineffective” teachers when one person asked, “If a doctor is a lousy doctor do you go back?”

Yes, I probably do.  Actually, most of us do if we even return to a doctor at all.

This type of question has been brought up often by non-educators in the past few years when they try to explain how free market thinking is applied in every other area of our lives, so why not teaching?  The reality is that these types of examples are fallacies that are only applied in theoretical examples.

Consider that question about the doctor for a moment.

“If a doctor is a lousy doctor do you go back?”

Seems like a ridiculous question.  Who in their right mind would return to a lousy doctor?  Well, as it turns out, most people do.  Think about your life for a moment and all of the doctors in it.  If you live in a large city you have many choices about your primary physician and all manner of specialists.  In a small town, however, your choice of doctor may be limited (if one even exists in the area at all).  Even today, that family physician is just as likely to do home visits, provide pediatric and geriatric care, and may even deliver babies for the local residents who can’t make the 2-hour drive to the nearest hospital.  In that small town, some people may not like the doctor, but what’s the alternative?  In some cases, it’s even the “family business” and the doctor is the son or daughter of the previous doctor, a person well-known in the community.

So what to do if you’re in a small town with a “lousy” doctor?  In the free market scenario you can just stop going and go somewhere else, right?  In the real world, those choices don’t truly exist.  Furthermore, who’s judging the quality of this doctor?  Is it just you or is it the entire community receiving care?  Following this hypothetical situation, let’s say that 40% of the members in town are unhappy with the doctor’s care – that would seem to be pretty condemning of the practice.  But that would mean that 60% of the residents did NOT rate the doctor as lousy, a convincing majority based on sheer opinion.  If we scale that 60% over all of the years of practice and all of the patients over that time frame, the support for the doctor only grows larger and larger, discounting the feelings of the disgruntled members of the community.

So how do we resolve this impasse?  Surely we shouldn’t let the minority opinion rule and oust this doctor from practicing in the town, but perhaps there isn’t enough of a practice to support multiple physicians in this town or specialists in a given field.  If the residents try to lure a second physician to the area it could end up destroying both practices and leaving all of the residents without local medical care.

The answer: we improve the “lousy” doctor.

Assuming they have a legal license to practice medicine, we know that some university, somewhere attested to the doctor’s skill and ability to provide care.  And in our example above we would even be able to say that the doctor is providing adequate care to more than half of the patients being helped.  Lastly, the sheer intricacies of a doctor’s actions throughout a day working with patients of all ages and all manners of illnesses (and even preventive care) leave us grasping for a truly accurate measure of care provided, giving greater weight to inexact measures such as subjective opinions.  So instead of scrapping the doctor completely, we need all of the patients to engage in the process of providing feedback about their experiences as patients, both the 60% who are satisfied and the dissatisfied 40%.  By capturing the strengths and weaknesses of the doctor as expressed by the patients, the doctor could work to make improvements and increase the level of satisfaction of the patients.

Analyzing the opinion data carefully could also help identify any specific gaps in the doctor’s practice.  For example, perhaps the doctor is providing valuable care to senior citizens in the community that happens to have an older population, reflecting the 60% favorable rating, while parents (40%) find the care lacking.  Or perhaps people are catching influenza at a higher rate than normal and the doctor needs to increase usage of vaccinations and other preventive care measures.

In these situations a qualified practitioner can obtain patient feedback and address any professional deficiencies to improve the quality of life of all in the community.

Conversely, if the community finds a way to simply fire the doctor and hire a replacement, not only will take years for the doctor to learn the medical histories of the residents, the residents will also require years to get to know the new doctor and provide their first evaluation of the practice.

Another oft-used example in this scenario, and connected with the premise of merit for teachers, is the process of elections for public office.  It is stated that we have no way to get rid of “bad” teachers while we get to elect out “bad” legislators during election years.  That premise is inherently false, too.  We certainly hold elections regularly, but voting out “lousy” legislators based on some definitive measure of performance is a myth.  We know that votes are cast based on the opinion of voters that is typically informed by the circumstances most important to their personal lives.  I hope this is not some great revelation of our democratic process.  Instead, remember that officials are elected not through the use of statistical measures or tests of their knowledge or the definitive well-being of constituents, but through a survey of voter opinions.  Through this method, a legislator isn’t even required to gain a majority of votes to gain or retain their position.

The best example of the use of this low bar for performance was the 2010 Ohio gubernatorial election.  You’ll recall that Ohio voters were evenly split among the two lead candidates, incumbent Ted Strickland and challenger John Kasich.  In the final tally, both pulled less than 50% of the vote, yet Kasich ultimately received a larger vote total.  And while most of my friends, colleagues and Plunderbund readers openly disagree with Kasich and his actions and policies, and we often express our believe that he is wrong on many fronts, we know that the 2014 election for governor will be close between the Republican and Democratic candidates due to the even distribution of political views (i.e., opinions) across Ohio.  What to do with a “lousy” governor, then?  Since it only takes a positive evaluation of 49.04% to get a four-year contract for (arguably) the most important public job in the state, does that make 49.04% our benchmark for all public positions?

And so we get to the question of what to do with “lousy” teachers.  Using the governor’s example, teachers might only need to have a “success rate” of around 49% (i.e., student passage on state tests; graduation rate) to earn a four-year teaching contract.  That certainly seems absurd, doesn’t it?  Especially when we factor in the fact that a teacher has to meet legal requirements to earn a college degree and earn a license to teach from the state of Ohio, something not required to be elected to office.

If teachers were evaluated solely on elections by parents with children in their classes, and if it merely required that they receive the most votes (not a 50% minimum), or if our public schools were held to that same standard, we would have to accept that the majority of families in public schools would likely have to vote in favor of their teachers and schools based on consistent proficiency and graduation rates of well over 50%.  Even the much-maligned Cleveland School District is graduating 62% of its students, a number we all want to increase, but a total that would constitute a “mandate” in terms of elections.

But since elections have such a low bar for success and don’t even require an opponent to gain the “approval” of the community, we can’t be satisfied with the notion of a popular vote for teachers and the education community is not satisfied with mediocrity or the idea that test scores somehow indicate such success.

Much like the analogy of the doctor, know that school choice for all is also a fallacy that we must concede is unrealistic.  In many small towns across Ohio and the U.S., the population is too small to support any options beyond the local public school district.  In these places, short of moving to a larger city, parents simply do not have any choice but to place their children in the public schools.  With such limited choices and without any competition in the supposed “free market” system, why do so many small school districts experience the high achievement scores that legislators label as measures of success?

Case in point is the Steubenville City School District, the controversial location of Governor Kasich’s state-of-the-state speech this year.  Steubenville has few different school options for its families and yet has produced high achievement scores by its students – much greater than the 49% popularity vote benchmark set by the governor himself.

In the majority of our school districts across the state and country, firing teachers or closing schools that are viewed as “lousy” is just not a choice.  We must instead commit to improving every teacher’s professional practice just as we would improve the doctor’s, resulting in a better community for all. We must again remember that those teachers have graduated from an accredited university and been granted a teaching license by the state of Ohio, meaning that they have the necessary skills to teach.  And like the doctor above, they likely need to improve in some areas (e.g., math instruction) while sharing their knowledge in other areas with their peers (e.g., reading instruction).

There are obviously instances when people do things that cause them to be fired in any profession, and I’m not arguing that professional improvement is a cure for those individuals (e.g., breaking the law).  Those situations currently exist in medicine, teaching, public office and any other line of work and there are procedures for removing offenders from their jobs.

We must stop focusing on the lowest common denominators by assigning their actions to everyone with the common job title, whether it is a teacher, doctor or governor.  And as for school or teacher choice, expending our efforts on trying to make them a reality in every community is a fruitless endeavor that is fracturing our public education resources.

So avoid being baited into discussions that talk about firing teachers and the idea of the free market or capitalism being implemented as a means of educational reform.  Our reality is that the free market only exists where alternative options can be supported and firing licensed educators based on unscientific and misunderstood measures will only set schools and children further behind.

What’s more, in a teaching situation where an evaluation is merely based on an end-of-year set of measures, we wouldn’t even know whether we were dealing with a “lousy” teacher until the entire class of students had gone through the year.  This is not a scenario that any of us wish to happen but with people focused on this summative and punitive type of evaluation, this is precisely where the focus is.

So instead of this backward practice that needlessly punishes children and teachers alike, we must to commit to the idea that educators (teachers and administrators) need to have access to increased and varied supports that promote the improvement of professional practice in a field that changes every minute of every day of every year.

But the first thing we must do is accept that yes, we will be returning to our “lousy” doctor.

  • Danngoingdown

    oh bullshit, people switch doctors all the time. find a better analogy

  • gregmild

    Perfect.  The target audience is reading.  Thank you.

  • Duckmonkeyman

    Since quite a few teachers leave the profession in 5 years, there is already self-evaluation occurring. I know of several tired of the bull and GOP demonizing that they are just saying “fluff it” and getting better jobs especially in STEM. I busted my a$$ this year and did pretty darn good teaching kids who hated math and despised homework even more. But at least at the end of the year several actually appreciated my efforts – unlike the rest of America.

  • Duckmonkeyman

    Here’s one…… if we evaluated doctors like we now evaluate teachers, we’d fire physicians solely on the yearly measure of a patient’s waistline. That means Ohio doctors are much worse than Colorado.

  • gregmild

    An excellent point for discussion, and we should also agree that unions vary widely in their work in schools.

    The one thing I’ll challenge you on is your labeling of  “the union” as an entity that is separate from you the teacher.  You…WE…ARE the teachers union and WE, along with the administration, negotiate the contracts that WE jointly agree to.  “The union” is not some ethereal entity that exists “out there” apart from us.  If we do not police our own through either counseling them out or through providing greater support and mentorship, then we can only blame the administration and “system” to a point.
    Teachers ARE the union and any alleged failure by our union is a failure by us to hold ourselves accountable for our profession.  And until people can definitively identify “bad” as you have labeled it above, we cannot justify simply firing someone without any attempt to either move them to a situation where they can provide value to the district and students and/or provide them the tools necessary to have success in their classroom.  How often could we lay some shared blame on a system that doesn’t provide the necessary materials (texts, computers, desks, classroom space) to aid the teacher in his work?  And surely you can appreciate the varied levels of parent/community support that give students/teachers an unlevel playing field across the 600+ districts in Ohio alone.

    Finally, I intentionally made the point that there are individuals who should be released for cases of “malpractice” in any profession, whether it is doctors or educators.  Perhaps your believe the AMA has an airtight practice for ridding the world of every “lousy” doctor who has ever practiced medicine.  Even if that were true (it’s not) we know that no such infallible measures exist for the teaching profession at this time.  Without this type of system in place, I will still argue that our recourse should be a ramped-up process for supporting and improving every teacher’s practices.

  • gregmild

    Here’s a few other resources for you to consider — especially as to the actual reasons people change doctors when it does occur (rarely by choice).



    (Zoomed in on chart from second link) http://www.jabfm.com/content/17/6/453/T2.expansion.html 

  • gregmild

    You can also find statements like the following on the websites of the large healthcare companies (this is CIGNA, for what it’s worth).  They recommend AGAINST changing primary physicians for a number of reasons:

    Can I change my PCP?

    Yes, you can change your PCP for any reason – if you move, if your family situation or medical needs change, or if you’re just not happy with your choice. But changing PCPs often is not recommended. You and your doctor need time to get to know each other and develop a relationship with open communication. That’s what helps your doctor to provide you with the most medically appropriate care. You can change doctors once a month. The change is effective on the first of the month following the date you notify us. For example, if you notify us June 15, the change will be effective July 1.

  • gregmild

    And then there’s another view about this process that says that unions have a primary role and that is to defend/enforce the employment contract.  Under this scenario it is the district’s responsibility to prove “negligence” or a violation of the contract in order to dismiss a teacher and the union leadership’s job to defend them.  If a district is unable to definitively make their case that the teacher merits dismissal, then the teacher stays.  If the district fails to even try, well that’s the fault of the administration, not the union.

    Perhaps people would disagree about the burden of proof needed to dismiss an educator and that seems to be a central point of discussion in education reform these days, but doesn’t the administration of the district have the responsibility to push that issue during negotiations?  The problem lies in the inability to construct objective measures that will definitively identify the “success” of all teachers in a fair manner.  Certainly initiatives like Race to the Top are forcing the discussion and pushing educators to discover measures that may aid us in this process, but they simply do not exist at this time and the variables in a classroom that are outside of the scope of academics are too numerous to list.

    Short of our ability to identify these measures, that is why I believe our best course of action is to promote and even require professional development for all educators (admin and teachers).  If we engage in productive and collaborative learning practices we have the opportunity to collectively identify weaknesses and strengths and build capacity in our schools and classrooms for improvement.  We are spending too much time focusing on end-of-year metrics and not enough time on life-long growth opportunities for all educators.  It is this practice that will result in improvements in teaching and learning in our schools.

    But know that I’m not talking about half-hearted and routine meetings held in large rooms where we look at a PowerPoint all day — leave those for the business seminars.  I’m talking about the epitome of professional growth practices that engage teachers in meaningful discussions about their own practices and student learning on an ongoing basis (at least weekly, preferably daily).  This will also require a massive shift in the way we think about the structure of the school day, week, year.

  • clambake

    This might be a better analogy: Doctors, like teachers can only accomplish so much. For instance, a patient may go to a doctor with some vague, non specific symptoms. The doctor cannot come up with a conclusive diagnosis. Patient wants a diagnosis, though– goes to more doctors. Same results. Are these bad doctors? The patient would say so.  I would say the patient might have unreasonable expectations.
    Or, doctors may be like teachers in that they may offer worthwhile advice, but patients refuse to follow it or follow it halfway.
    Or, as with educational success, the greatest predictor of health status is socioeconomic status.  What comes with low socioecomic status? Stress. And stress is bad for health. When a person has enough to deal with surviving from day to day they are not focused on future oriented health habits, but more importantly they are dealing with constant emotional stress which has actual physical consequences on your body– whether it is affecting your blood sugar, hypertension, or your weight.
    This is why I cannot support measures such as RTTP, NCLB, or whatever hare brained scheme Kasich is proposing at the moment. We expect teachers to fix all the problems whether they have any control over them or not.

  • cavsfanaholic

    This is a very poor article.  You can’t even come close to comparing a teacher and a doctor.  My kids are 24, 22, and 19 and I switched pediatricians twice before I found a good one.  We’ve had broken bones in our family and I can tell you that there are two doctors we were sent to that we never went back to.  Same with a podiatrist. 

    I agree with the “Tknestrict” re: poor teachers being saved by the union.  One of my children went through a year of hell with probably the worst social studies teacher in our public high school.  It wasn’t only her that suffered it had been students in every class that woman taught since she had been at the high school.  One good way to measure a poor teacher:  when more students are failing a class than passing.  Why is this woman still teaching?  I have my suspicions.  I also know of a math teacher who was removed from the district after almost 20 years of teaching.  Why?  Too many students were failing and oh, maybe because he came to school drunk on more than one occasion and had too many DUI’s.      

    Last time I knew teachers were evaluated two or three times a year by their principles.  Maybe its time to look at the evaluation system and the people doing them.  

    A good teacher will look at the class and realize that if the majority are failing then maybe something is wrong with the way the unit was taught.  There are a zillion teachers like that!  

    You want good, qualified teachers?  How about raising the GPA’s in college in your requirements.  When I graduated with a degree in social studies, the GPA in the discipline was 2.5.  Are you kidding me, 2.5????  When my counselor asked me what I would improve upon because so many students were entering social studies, I told her to raise the GPA.  In a group of eight students I started out with at the main university’s branch, I was the only female and one of two who entered social studies to actually TEACH the discipline, not to be a coach because the GPA was so low (the other six).

    There are many factors to poor teachers.  If you don’t get them out then what you are going to have are students who are not going to be prepared for the next level, which makes that teacher’s job all that more difficult.  For everyone out there who complains about teachers, I suggest you do one of two things:  try it for a week or homeschool your kids.  You’ll never make it through either one.

  • I don’t think Greg was saying teachers should never be fired. Obviously a guy who shows up to work drunk should probably be fired whether he’s a teacher, doctor or just works at the local fast food restaurant.

    But Republicans have suddenly decided to make teachers the enemy. And their fire-now ask-questions-later approach fails to take into account best practices for professional development that would seem ridiculous if applied to other career choices.

    Are we just to assume every plumber who installs a drain wrong is a just a bad plumber and can’t be trusted?

    Are we to assume that every police officer who writes a bad speeding ticket is suddenly incapable of being a good cop?

    It’s a ridiculous assumption, but that’s the assumption that the GOP seems to be making about teachers.

    OBVIOUSLY there are cases in which we can make this assumption – if the police officer randomly beats up old ladies with walkers or if the plumber connects your faucet the gas pipe and burns down your house – but making mistakes is part of the process of becoming skilled at whatever career you choose.

    And maybe we should be focused on improving the learning process, instead of focusing solely on improving the ease with which teachers can be fired.

  • Dmoore2222

    Let me make it simple. Public schools are a massive daycare enterprise concerned primarily with order and safety. Most (not all)  public schools have to deal with such a wide range of societal issues that achievemnet is on the back burner despite the frilly mission statements you see on district publications.  This is not to demean public educators. Most try anything and everything they think will help their students succeed but the deck is stacked against them by an entitlement culture that says “I get something for nothing.” I admire them for trying. But without the willingness of parents to parent, and students to be willing to make the effort, no evaluations system for teachers will be effective.

  • Thomas Paine

    Good Post, the notion of the article is flawed terribly.  From its Dr. analogy to the typical bashing of the Governor.  

  •  Try switching doctors where I live. It’s not very easy. It is easier to move my child out of a classroom I do not like (which they will not do in our district, than to switch a doctor. They are all full not excepting more patients. Or they do not stay in our small community. And when we get a new doctor they are just that. New. They really do not know what exactly they are doing because they are new. It takes a long time before they know just what is what and by then. Usually around 4-5 years or less. They leave. Just like  lot of new teachers do in the Urban or inner city areas for teachers. Doctors cannot make the money they want in small towns and teachers cannot make the progress you demand in the inner city. Both not by their own fault. Usually it is many, many outside factors that are at force over those outcomes. You know it. I know it and we all want to see  different outcomes but this is not the way. Oh yes and it is not the union that keeps the poor teachers teaching it is the administration who do not do what they need to do to get rid of those teachers because they do not want to put the time and effort into it. If they would put the time and effort in then those teachers they often improve and no longer need to leave. And if the teacher doesn’t improve then get rid of them.

  • Ah yes: I got mine. Screw the rest of you.

    And you wonder why people think Republicans are a bunch of selfish twits?

  • Mcc

    Are there more failing teachers or are there more failing parents? If you have a failing school you are more likely to have more failing parents on all levels.

  • Duckmonkeyman

    I’ve seen bad teachers and agree they need removed. No more, however, than incompetent managers, office jerks, orbosses nephews/nieces found in private business. Those people always survive the layoffs.

    Today a parent was upset their child performed poorly on a college exam. I take this personal. The kid tried but just didn’t grasp things no matter what approach I tried. Back to the doctor analogy, even they can’t save every patient but we expect teachers to bring each child to 100% or America is ready to get a rope and hang the teacher. Some kids I take far in math and some, I’ve got be honest, just struggle to retain or are unable to apply many concepts. Am I an ineffective teacher? I don’t know. I don’t think a 2 hour end of year test will tell me but a seasoned veteran might.

    People not in a classroom today view education through their experience as a “patient” not the doctor. The view from the front of the classroom is quite different. Frequent absences, little interest in completing homework, lack of impulse control and serious behavior issues, little support but a barrage of critiques, constant teach to the test or silly mandates. If I had a dollar for every parent that sits in a conference and brags “I never did well in math” or “I hated math”, I really could retire at 55.

  • Duckmonkeyman

    Private schools can cherry pick and “churn” teachers.

  • wetsu

    How many IEP students attend your school? Probably few, if any, and only if they average 6 yards a carry or 20 points a game.

  • Guest

    My kids come first. That is selfish? Paying for my kids AND other peoples kids is selfish?

  • guest

     A lot of insurance companies are starting to move in that direction-they’re tying physician compensation/staying in their network to annual benchmarks based on practice type and size, e.g. how many diabetics are meeting certain insulin ratings, smoking cessation, how many patients are completing recovery plans if they have surgery, etc. 

  • Dmoore2222

    As long as something so utterly stupid as the 3rd grade reading mandate, or whatever they’re calling it, is on the table, I’ll throw this litte nugget in: No teacher evaluation system will be implemented until every member of the Assembly and Senate, and the governor, passes the state mandated high school graduation tests. It’s the only way they can have even a shred credibility when it comes to any conversaton about evaluation.

  • Dubs

    A valid point. A doctor can give advice and treat, but the PATIENT also has to follow through. It’s like a doctor performing triple bypass surgery, only to have the patient go home and eat a plate of chili cheese fries….with bacon and – what the hell? – hot dog pieces. Then the patient dies months later from a heart attack.

    Is the doctor to blame? No. Just like blame should not solely be on the educator. Responsibility should also be shouldered largely on parental involvement.

  • Duckmonkeyman

    I read an article recently in JAMA (I believe) describing outcome based medicine and measuring doctors and hospitals by death rates or infection rates. Interestingly the objections raised by physicians were the same being raised by teachers – doctors can’t control all aspects of patients, some hospitals are in poor areas and have violence or lack of preventative medicine, etc.

  • Duckmonkeyman

    You’re right. There’s islands in the Pacific available. I don’t want to pay for your roads, water, police protection, fire safety, Internet, hospitals, jails, clean air, free markets, weather prediction, safe airways, or heaven forbid something happens to you and your family and a community might actually be helpful. Hell, even chimpanzee figured out they can do better in supportive groups and they fling poo at people.

  • gregmild

    crew AT plunderbund.com

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