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.