Fire Teachers, or Improve Their Practice?

Struggling Schools Taking Action

The mass firing of teachers at a failing Rhode Island school in February generated a lot of press and debate (For example, see the following NY Times article: School’s Shake-Up Is Embraced by the President). Some saw this as a heroic action on the part of the Superintendent, finally drawing the line on the unacceptable levels of educational performance. Others felt that the mass firings of staff, with no distinctions based on quality of teaching, was just plain unfair.

Given new federal mandates to turn around failing schools, this is likely not the last mass firing. Mass firing is a dramatic step that gets a lot of press, obscuring the fact that there are more effective and less extreme measures that districts are using to turn around their struggling schools.

The Day After

Almost any effort to transform a failing school will involve re-shuffling of staff. Teachers may be asked to re-apply for their jobs, and some may not be re-hired. But for many districts and schools, mass firings are completely impractical.

  • Many struggling schools already have trouble recruiting teachers – especially experienced teachers who teach high need subject areas such as math and science. If these schools get rid of the majority of their current staff, they are left to find large numbers of highly qualified teachers on short notice who are willing to teach in a failed school.
  • Such mass turnover is disruptive to students and can lead to an uprising among parents.
  • It will take a large amount of time and resources to train a whole new staff who will need to learn about the school’s overall strategy, culture, students, community, etc.

Because of these and other challenges, often school transformation will have to be done with a school’s existing teachers. This brings up the question: Is it possible to improve teaching skills, and if so, how?

Good Professional Development

Every organization faces the human capital question of whether to “buy or build” talent. In other words, is it smarter to bring in the best people from outside, or develop the talent from within? Not surprisingly, for most organizations the answer is a little bit of both – and this is true for teaching as well. A big question in education today is: How do you improve teachers’ practice?

The U.S. Education system spends a lot of money on professional development for teachers – by one estimate, more than 3 billion dollars annually.[i] Unfortunately, not even teachers themselves believe that much of this money is well spent: in a recent national survey, only 59% of teachers judged their content-related learning opportunities to be “useful” or “very useful” and less than half felt this way about their non-content related training.[ii]

In particular, one-day workshops with an outside speaker are still a very common form of professional development, yet they have been shown to have no lasting effects on teacher performance. There has also been a lot of press about increasing teachers’ technology skills. Yet many of the claims regarding the impact of technology remain unproven thus far.

So what makes good professional development? Research on the topic indicates that, to be effective, professional development should:

  • Be intensive, ongoing, and connected to practice (studies vary, but interventions that have offered 30-100 contact hours of training over a 12 month period have shown a positive effect on student achievement)
  • Focus on student learning and address the teaching of specific curriculum content
  • Align with school improvement priorities and goals
  • Build strong working relationships among teachers
  • Include approaches that are school-embedded, classroom-based, and taught by peers (teacher leaders) rather than outsiders

Additional promising practices:

  • School-based coaching to enhance professional learning
  • Teacher mentoring and induction programs to increase new teacher effectiveness[iii]

Implications for Donors

So what does this mean for the philanthropist who is committed to improving teaching quality?  Here are three things to consider:

  1. Professional Development (PD) Strategy. Whether you are thinking about supporting a) a school district directly, b) a charter school management organization perhaps working with a school district, or c) an organization providing training to teachers — take a look at the professional development strategy.   Is training offered as a one shot deal, or is it sustained over time?  How does it measure up against the criteria outlined above?
  2. Evaluation. Ask about how the district or organization will track whether or not investments in professional development are effective?  What measures are they using, and are they thinking through an evaluation strategy along with the professional development design?
  3. Technology.  While technology expertise is undoubtedly helpful, it is unlikely that it can substitute for deep content knowledge and good practices on the part of teachers.  However, in the area of professional development, technology can facilitate access to information and innovative learning approaches at a relatively low cost.  For example, it has become increasingly common to use video to demonstrate good teaching in action.

A Balanced Approach

It is true: some people were just not cut out to be teachers or have become too cynical and discouraged over the years.  These people should be identified, and counseled out of teaching.  But many more are struggling to do their best under difficult circumstances.  In order for these teachers to improve, changes in both underlying school conditions (e.g., improvements in school safety and atmosphere) and better quality professional development are needed. As is so often the case, the answer to improving teaching quality is not about choosing between one strategy or another, but about striking the right balance.

Thanks to Kate Barrett and Kate Hovde, of the Teaching Quality team, and to Kat Rosqueta for their contributions to this post. Both Kate Barrett and Kate Hovde are also currently in attendance at the 2010 AERA Annual Meeting in Denver, Colorado.

[i] Estimate based on Title 2 and required Title 1 funding.  From: Darling-Hammond, Linda, Ruth Chung Wei, Alethea Andree, Nikole Richardson and Stelios Orphanos, Professional Learning in the Learning Profession:  A Status Report on Teacher Development in the United States and Abroad.  Washington, D.C. National Staff Development Council, 2009. P.3

[ii] Ibid,  Page 21.

[iii] This list is adapted from findings from the Darling-Hammond study cited above that can be found at:  NSDC has also developed standards for evaluating the effectiveness of professional development programs ( and a definition for effective professional development under the revised No Child Left Behind Act at:

Other Helpful sources

Corcoran, Thomas B., Patrick M. Shields, and Andrew A. Zucker. The SSIs and Professional Development for Teachers. Arlington, Va.: National Science Foundation, 1998.

Garet, M. S., Porter, A. C., Desimone, L., Birman, B. F., & Yoon, K. S. (2001). What makes professional development effective? Results from a national sample of teachers. American Educational Research Journal 38(4), 915 – 945.

Knapp, Michael S., Andrew A. Zucker, Nancy E. Adelman, and Mark St. John. The Eisenhower Mathematics and Science Education Program: An Enabling Resource for Reform. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, 1991