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Kevin Fischer is a veteran broadcaster, the recipient of over 150 major journalism awards from the Milwaukee Press Club, the Wisconsin Associated Press, the Northwest Broadcast News Association, the Wisconsin Bar Association, and others. He has been seen and heard on Milwaukee TV and radio stations for over three decades. A longtime aide to state Senate Republicans in the Wisconsin Legislature, Kevin can be seen offering his views on the news on the public affairs program, "InterCHANGE," on Milwaukee Public Television Channel 10, and heard filling in on Newstalk 1130 WISN. He lives with his wife, Jennifer, and their lovely young daughter, Kyla Audrey, in Franklin.

Why Fire Teachers?

Why Fire Teachers?
By Guest Blogger Thomas C. Reeves

            Recently Washington, D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee fired 241 of the system's 4,300 teachers.  Of the 241, 165 were dismissed because of poor performance, and the remainder were somehow in the classroom without proper teaching credentials.  Rhee wasn't sure how many of the 165 dismissals were directly tied to low student achievement, but this was certainly a factor.  The D.C. system has long been noted for its miserable test scores.  (See the National Center for Education Statistics online for examples, some data showing slight progress, others not.)

            In Rhee's rigorous teacher evaluation system, administrators and "master teachers" visit classrooms, looking for effective lesson plans and examining teacher-student relations.  Each teacher is then sent a report containing tips on improvement and offering coaching to help them along.  Beyond those recently dismissed, another 730 teachers, 17% of the educators, have now been determined "minimally effective."  They won't receive an annual salary increase and, if no improvement is shown quickly, they too will be fired.

            All of this deeply upsets the Washington Teacher's Union, of course.  Before Rhee arrived in 2007, 95% of teachers were rated excellent and no one was dismissed for poor classroom performance.  According to the Wall Street Journal, union head George Parker declared, "I'm not opposed to teachers being terminated, and I don't believe all 4,000 of ours are outstanding.  But our teachers are entitled to an instrument that assesses their performance fairly, and this evaluation system does not."

            Teachers' unions have long defended the tenure system, which gives teachers job security (barring something outrageous) for the rest of their working lives.   Sonny Bunch, writing in The Weekly Standard, notes that "tenure is handed out to virtually every public school teacher after a short wait, typically two to three years. "  When hard times come, seniority rules among the tenured.

            Critics have often attacked unions for protecting the incompetent.  In Chicago, for example, where test scores are dismal (only 28.5% of eleventh graders met or exceeded expectations on a state achievement examination), between 2005 and 2008, a mere 0.1% of teachers were dismissed due to poor classroom performance.

            Conservative observers applaud the Rhee approach to public education, arguing that incompetent teachers rather than low budgets cause bad test scores and large numbers of dropouts.  Moreover, they are keenly aware of the handsome campaign funds teachers' unions routinely turn over to Democrats.

            The Rhee evaluation system needs a second look, however, for within it are some serious questions that need answering.  Let us begin with student test scores.  In the District of Columbia, all those who teach reading and math in fourth through eighth grades face genuine trouble if their students fail to improve: scores on state examinations amount to 50% of the evaluation.  And all of the system teachers, to some degree or another, are in jeopardy if their students fail to improve on test scores. 

            We need to ask whether or not teachers are responsible for the personal and cultural problems that impede education, such as poverty, broken homes, and a culture that glorifies anti-intellectualism and rock bottom cultural standards?  Why study when no one you admire on MTV pays it any attention?  Why read anything when no one else you know does?  (The National Center for Education Statistics reports that reading tests conducted in 2008 showed gaps between White and Black students ranging from 21to 29 points, and between White and Hispanic students, ranging from 21 to 26 points.)  Why not just skip, flunk, or drop out and devote yourself to winning on American Idol, playing video games, having out-of-wedlock babies, shooting hoops, or just roaming the streets looking for trouble? 

            To untold numbers of students, school is a terrible bore and burden, especially to those (dare we say it?) of below average intelligence.  It is torture to inflict algebra or history on a student who has no capacity to learn even the rudiments.  Normal people flee from pain, and so do many students.  In the school year of 2006-07, nearly half of Milwaukee Public Schools students were habitually absent.

            How can the most well-prepared lesson plans and the most pleading teacher make an impact on those for whom school is a nasty waste of time?  The mental passivity and inability, often reflected in grotesque apparel, tattoos, facial hardware, and fierce language, can shatter the goals of any teacher, no matter how sincere and dedicated.

            And then there is the matter of administrators and "master teachers" grading teachers.  How do we know if the "master teachers" aren't using political correctness as a top standard?  And how do we know if the administrators aren't judging teachers by their degree of servility?  As a college professor for forty years, I have seen my share of the rigid ideological intolerance leftist faculty can impose, and many a Dean or Chancellor I have known would have been delighted to be able to fire tenured faculty members who stood up to them.

            I have no desire to see incompetents continue to be on school payrolls, of course.  If teachers are demonstrably lazy, hostile, or uncommunicative, and if they lack an adequate grasp of course material, they should be let go.  But I would feel a lot more favorable toward the Rhee approach if, along with the "master teachers" and administrators, the review process included several educated outsiders to insure a proper measure of objectivity.  Tenure is designed to protect freedom of thought; let's be sure that that flag still flies.  And administrators should respect teachers as individuals and fellow educators, not just as employees.

            Serious changes must be made to improve the public schools, of course.  Pouring more money into school districts appears to have little or no impact.  (A lesson neither the Bush nor Obama administrations acknowledged.)  State and federal standards have shown mixed results, but they're surely better than nothing.  Charter schools and vouchers appear to be promising and are in demand.  Requiring solid college majors (i.e. outside education departments) for teachers seems reasonable.  In our pursuit of excellence, however, let us not have a reign of terror that threatens all public school teachers for problems they may well be unable to understand, let alone solve.   Dedicated, competent, caring teachers should be encouraged and rewarded, not just threatened.  The lives of our children and the content of our culture are at stake.

Thomas C. Reeves is a retired UW-System professor living in southeast Wisconsin. Among his dozen books are Twentieth Century America: A Brief History, and biographies of John F. Kennedy, Joseph R. McCarthy, Fulton Sheen, Walter J. Kohler, Jr and Chester A. Arthur. I am proud to call Tom Reeves my friend.

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