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What to do with an ineffective teacher? St. Paul starts with support, and moves to accountability

When Paul Rohlfing moved into his office, he disabled the harsh fluorescent lights set overhead and set up a couple of Ikea floor lamps with Asian-style paper shades. The office would be the setting for a lot of tough conversations. The son of two social workers, Rohlfing knew mood mattered.

One of two business agents with the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, Rohlfing works with teachers who are in danger of losing their jobs. At any given time, he has a case load of about 20 educators who need help navigating a process that, popular lore notwithstanding, can take mere weeks.

Headlines these days are dominated by stories about bad teachers and archaic contracts  that make it impossible to fire them. Fueled in part by stories like those about New York City’s infamous "rubber rooms,” where hundreds of teachers accused of wrongdoing kill time for years, most people think you can’t get rid of bad apples.

But St. Paul is not New York City, and Rohlfing’s office is lined with sports memorabilia, not latex. If the lawmakers and others who currently have teachers in their crosshairs spent a little time there, they might well change their tunes.

“If the people making the policy decisions about this could spend even a day with me, here where the rubber meets the road, they would see things very differently,” Rohlfing said.

Accustomed to collaborating
Among Twin Cities school administrators and union activists alike it is praised as a community where organized labor and district brass do an admirable job of collaborating to make sure the caliber of the teacher corps is as high as possible.

Rohlfing can, and will, wax long about the things the district does right when an underperformer is identified. As a result, he said, many more substandard teachers resign — often with benefits that ease the transition — than are terminated.

But because principals are not required to regularly evaluate tenured teachers, Rohlfing often finds himself working with teachers who are hearing for the first time in years, or sometimes decades, that their performance is inadequate, he said.

Tim Caskey is executive director of human resources for the district. In an interview last week, he declined to say how many teachers are fired each year or to say whether SPPS has a policy regarding how often all teachers are evaluated and by whom.

This year, administrators conducted more than 500 classroom observations in SPPS secondary schools alone, Caskey said. Some 900 of the district's 3,326 instructors teach in secondary schools.

“My expectation from a human resources standpoint is that our principals are in our classrooms working with our teachers, working with our paraprofessionals who are in the classroom working with kids to close the achievement gap,” he said. “We truly believe that the teacher’s performance is essential to closing the achievement gap. We have worked with the union to develop a process to effectively evaluate teachers in the classroom.”

Probation for three years
The process is spelled out in the union contract [PDF]. During a teacher’s first three years on the job, when he or she is on probation, administrators conduct regular classroom observations. New teachers (or veterans new to St. Paul) who are struggling can ask to participate in a peer review program set up by the union.

Once a teacher is awarded tenure, things change. According to the contract, when a principal has concerns about a teacher’s performance, the first step is classroom observation. If the teacher does not meet a set of standards of effectiveness negotiated by the district and federation, they are put on what is known as an informal improvement plan.

The plan consists of two documents, which the principal reviews with the teacher and, often, with Rohlfing or the federation’s other business agent. The first is a form that looks something like an expanded grid, with performance expectations listed on the left and a description of each standard on the right.

In the middle is the teacher’s rating on a scale of 1 to 4. A “solid performance” earns a 3; anything less than a 2 is below standard. 

Specific problems, goals
The second document spells out specific problems observed, exactly what good performance would look like and how it will be measured, assistance to be provided to the teacher and a timeline for re-evaluation, typically four to six weeks.

“The whole process is one of providing support to our teachers,” said Caskey.

Most likely the teacher will be offered a chance to watch an effective teacher, invite one of the district’s instructional coaches into his or her classroom or watch a coach at work. Another suggestion teachers get is to videotape their lessons and review the footage with a coach.

Rohlfing is a fan of videotaping, particularly when a teacher is convinced that he or she is being singled out for harassment or retaliation. If teachers are the subject of a vendetta, the tape is the best kind of evidence. If they aren’t, and have been resistant to feedback, watching themselves on tape can spark an “ah-ha” moment.

“It’s one of the most sobering experiences you can have,” said Rohlfing. “It’s a really powerful learning tool.”

More than many other professionals, educators’ identities are tied up in their jobs. Because this may be their first performance review years, when they sit down with their principal some are in such deep shock that Rohlfing’s first job is to take accurate, emotionally neutral notes.

“At the time, all they can hear is the buzz of blood in their ears,” he says. “Being a second set of ears in that meeting is important because the principal is usually trying to tell the teacher about specific changes they want to see.”

Teachers often know that something is off in their classroom, Rohlfing said. But they may have been scared to admit as much or at a loss what to do to identify the problem.

Often their confusion stems from the belief that they are teaching exactly the way they did when they were observed as new teachers. But a weakness not caught then — say, a couple of moments per class period lost to clumsy transitions — may have snowballed over the years into a serious problem.

If intervention helps, teacher stays in classroom
If all of the intervention helps — and both Rohlfing and Caskey are careful to point out that this is the goal of the process — the teacher stays in the classroom. If the person's  teaching still fails to meet the grade, he or she is put on a formal improvement program, which looks a lot like the informal one.

At this point, Rohlfing begins talking to the teacher about options. Whether it’s the cause or effect of the teacher's lowered performance, many are miserable and relieved to hear there are alternatives.

Right now, a provision in the contract allows teachers who are 55 or older and who have spent the last 15 consecutive years in the district to resign with health benefits. Teachers who are fired involuntarily are not eligible, so some who disagree with administrators’ assessment of their performance resign rather than risk losing the health-care benefit. This option will not be available to teachers hired after 2014.

Another option: State law also allows something called statutory pension leave. Teachers willing to pay the cost of their own benefits can take up to five years of unpaid leave. For many St. Paul teachers having problems in the classroom, this is a godsend.

Some use the time to change careers or start small businesses. Some take advantage of another tool and contribute 15 percent of their gross wages for a few years to “buy” their way to a full pension. Some split the difference by having the federation negotiate a package where they announce their intent to resign at the end of their leave.

A third option is to seek a medical leave, sometimes using income from long-term disability insurance. “For people who are struggling in the classroom, it’s common to experience depression,” Rohlfing explained. “Struggling to manage a classroom is very stressful. It’s not fulfilling. We see a lot of depression and anxiety.”

Some contest termination
Finally, some teachers, particularly those who plan to sue or file a grievance, contest their termination. Rohlfing doesn’t see many of those — right now his caseload has just two — but if it’s a member’s chosen course, the union will dig in with them. Those cases can drag on and on, but they aren’t the norm. 

Flawed though this process is, it’s much fairer to teachers and students alike than those in many places. The opportunities for lagging teachers to come up to standard are meaningful, and students and taxpayers typically aren’t forced to pay the price while those who aren’t improving run out the clock in a purely adversarial system.

It’s too bad SPPS’ Caskey declined to characterize the district’s current teacher evaluations, because it seems like there are problems — but also solutions — in the offing. For instance, if the union is to be believed — and Caskey declined to correct them — right now there is no system or policy compelling any evaluation of tenured teachers, regularly or sporadically.

“It’s incredibly unfair to come to a teacher who has not been observed in maybe 25 years, point out three, four, maybe half a dozen issues and expect them to make major improvements,” said Rohlfing.

As a result, teachers who work for principals who view their roles not as building administrators so much as instructional leaders are reviewed much more often than their peers, say Rohlfing and his boss, federation President Mary Cathryn Ricker.

Without regular evaluation, principals may be just as uncomfortable performing assessments as their staffs are undergoing them. Some principals love the interaction and delegate so they can spend enough time in the classroom to provide ample feedback.

Others can call on four “master principals” St. Paul has identified as gifted at providing constructive critiques. These principal coaches can do the observation themselves, but it’s better if the principal who invites them in takes advantage of the opportunity to learn.

Some may never be assessed
In addition to keeping the emphasis on discipline, the lack of universal evaluation protocols means teachers who are deemed effective or even highly effective still may never be assessed. And SPPS has no systematic way of identifying practices used by its best teachers.

Nor is an environment being created where teachers invite each other into their classrooms for constructive feedback. Probationary teachers get peer assistance and review, but the federation would like the practice extended so teachers aren’t working in a vacuum.

“Teachers have always had opinions about their coworkers and right now those opinions are whispered in the teachers’ lounge or in the parking lot after school,” said Rohlfing. “What we need is a meaningful way to help them share their thoughts about areas for improvement and also what they see as strengths.”

SPPS earlier this month announced a strategic reorganization that might deliver many of the changes on the federation’s wish list, although here again, Caskey was unable to supply many details. Over the next three years, the plan also will place more emphasis on teacher evaluation. What that looks like is a work in progress.

As part of her Strong Schools, Strong Communities initiative, Superintendent Valeria Silva announced a move to centralize many administrative functions and require principals to begin functioning as instructional leaders.

The district and union have a solid track record of working together to create meaningful policies. And given that both are seeking more accountability — in part to change a culture where assessment is often viewed as a punitive measure, not a ground-level strategy — there’s reason to think change is coming.

“The principal objective of the strategic plan is to close the achievement gap,” said Caskey. “There’s a lot of stuff that’s underneath that, but we are really focused on that.”

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Comments (19)

Conveniently excluded from this article is any specific number of teachers who are actually terminated. The oldest teacher joke: "What do you do with incompetent teachers? You make them administrators working to figure out what to do about incompetent teachers."

For a good primer on this, spend one dollar to rent "Waiting for Superman" http://www.waitingforsuperman.com/ at a http://Redbox.com After watching the documentary try watching it again with the directors commentary.

For me the most stark proof of the problem was a clip from the Simpsons cartoon TV show where a teacher stops teaching the minute they get tenure.

Teachers.

This articles seems to indicate that when teachers are harassed and bullied by a principal it is a valid harassment meant for an "ineffective" teacher. Recently harassments have been on the rise in St. PAul for highly qualified teachers all in their 50's who have a little less than 15 years with the district, the magic number for early retirement. I find it interesting that the "union" deems this logical and valid, and that teachers are resisting growth. I have taught for 25 years and have met many teachers. Very seldom do you meet a teacher resistant to constructive criticism. I can only think of one in all those years, and that teacher was fired. The "union" is not supporting the teachers who have been harassed or offered to fight for their rights to retire when they are ready, not when the district can't afford them anymore. If Mr. Rolfing's office is so welcoming, then maybe he should welcome in these many, many teachers who have come to the union for help, only to be turned away. This has nothing to do with the documentary "Saving Superman" but everything to do with "Saving St PAul".
The article states" Rohlfing doesn’t see many of those — right now his caseload has just two — but if it’s a member’s chosen course, the union will dig in with them". Get out your shovel, PAul!

Hi Mr. Lang;

It's not so much that those numbers were conveniently excluded as this is such a political hot potato that the head of the district's human resources department literally would not discuss it. However, I think we can do a little back-of-the-envelope guesstimating--which I apparently didn't do a good enough job telegraphing in this piece. If the union's two business agents have caseloads of about 50 members a year and only a couple of them at any given time appear likely to proceed to a contested termination, then I think we can infer that the majority of teachers resign--albeit over a period of time--using one or more of the soft-landing cushions their contracts provide for.

I was surprised that SPPS administrators were so reluctant to provide numbers. Those cushions and the resignations they facilitate would seem to suggest that SPPS does this better than most. And in large part because the district and union have such a collaborative relationship and are both focused on making sure kids have great teachers.

It is good to see someone recognize meaningful efforts to improve teaching, instead of promoting garbage like Waiting for Superman. While it certainly is a compelling movie, almost everything in it is false.

Michelle Rhee, the former D.C. Schools superintendent who is featured in the movie, got her "credentials" by means of a fradulent resume and presided over the firing of a lot of teachers by means of arbitrary and inaccurate test scores. The district now has to rehire many of the teachers with back pay because of the incompetence of this so-called education reformer. The purported solution presented in the movie is charter schools, but what is omitted is that most charter schools actually perform worse than traditional schools. While it does point out some real problems with public schools (i.e. the New York rubber rooms) its mostly a hit piece on public education.

Instead of looking for easy answers like frauds like Rhee and the Waiting for Superman crowd are promoting, districts should be employing the type of strategies being used in St. Paul. As the article points out, there are no "rubber rooms" here.

Principals need to evaluate/coach their staff. Maagements job is to manage.

Having worked as a public school teacher and in the private sector, I chuckled at the statement, "Management's job is to manage."

In my private sector experiences, most "managers" have proven as ineffective at evaluating and coaching those they manage as any school principal ever was. There are all sorts of reasons why people get moved into management positions, but more often than not, the "Peter Principle" proves to be far too true.

In the private sector, people who are gifted at ingratiating themselves with current upper management get promoted until they reach a level which is beyond their competence. Then they are left in that job where they maintain their position by "kissing up" to those above them and "kicking down" at those beneath them on the ladder, while no actual "coaching" takes place. The manager, having few if any actual gifts for managing other humans and for eliciting their best, most creative levels of performance, only uses their position to throw their weight around and punish those who aren't "performing".

Meanwhile, reliably hiring and cultivating new employees who will be able to perform is a complete crap shoot.

We only need look at the way all the necessary facets that used to keep American Businesses at the top of the heap and American-invented, -designed and -built products among the most sought after in the world - all of which were fostered by excellent management - now being increasingly lost while our current incompetent management class pursues their "kiss up, kick down" management style across the entire economy, refusing to look in the mirror to evaluate or improve their own performance in order to increase profits, but choosing, instead, to throw their own employees and the entire middle class of our nation under the bus, so to speak, not "managing" their businesses at all, if they are even capable of comprehending what good management means.

They want to run the country in ways that parallel certain schools that have shipped all their troubled students out the door to other schools (or no school) in order to maintain that school's (appearance of) high academic "performance" (most private schools and many charter schools for instance). For an amusing public school example, rent the old movie "Pump up the Volume."

In my experience, there are also many reasons people (mostly teachers) seek the education they need in order to gain their administrator credentials. Some have wonderful ideas and ideals about how to help a school function more effectively.

Some are looking for a position in which they can throw their weight around with impunity (mostly at students).

Some just move up the ladder for no particular reason, except that it's the next step on the income ladder in most schools.

Far too many principals demonstrate no particular skills or gifts for coaching teachers in how to teach better, nor any particular skills in dealing with the students of their schools (the credentialing process doesn't require such things).

Of the four principals I knew well, two of them were truly excellent and diligent at evaluating the teachers in their small town schools (even though there was nothing that required or encouraged them to do so after teachers were tenured). Both followed procedures very similar to those described in this article.

The other two were lacking in the strength and empathy needed to even notice that some of their teachers were functioning very badly, let alone to assist those teachers in learning to do better or move them out of their jobs if those ineffective teachers were unwilling or unable to do better.

Both of these latter principals used the "you can't fire a teacher once they've got tenure" B.S. as something to hide behind so they wouldn't have to make any attempt to manage their ineffective teachers.

In one case, BOTH elementary teachers in the system at a particular grade level had for many years been creating such a negative classroom environment that the two of them had single-handedly made an entire generation of those who grew up in that community hate school.

I made serious enemies among that school's administrators, a school where my children were students while I worked there in the private sector, because I made it clear in the community that those two very destructive teachers could, indeed, be evaluated, required to improve, and if they did not do so, terminated.

Conversely, however, the two most ineffective teachers I ever knew were protected by the communities in which they taught (under the same two principals), because they were the coaches of popular sports teams. The community would have demanded the firing of any principal who attempted to put pressure on those coaches to be better teachers (and in small towns, principals have NO contractual protections such as tenure).

Of course a major fly in the ointment of the need to evaluate and coach teachers is the fact that far too many small town principals find their days taken up dealing with troubled and troubling students (and far too often, these days, their equally troubled and troubling parents).

Most smaller schools would need a second administrator or teacher specialist to handle the issues of teachers and quality instruction, but because of budget cuts, most schools are cutting the already miniscule size of their administrations and sharing administrators across buildings and systems, all of which makes it far LESS likely that teachers will be evaluated, coached, and/or encouraged to leave the profession if they prove incapable of doing the job well.

Of course when a "hidden in plain sight" agenda of the Republican Party is simply to attack public education as a smoke screen for continuously cheapening it while not caring that the desire for cheaper schools means you will eventually completely dismantle them, as an excuse to cut funding in order to punish the "bad performance" you claim to see so clearly, then blaming teachers for the fact that you've made it impossible for the public schools to function effectively.

Sadly, this very destructive approach has generally made for a snake oil cure that the public is willing to intoxicate itself with by consuming it ad infinitum, ad nauseum.

But the hangover we'll all have when we wake up and find that the public education system hasn't become "leaner and more efficient" but has died for lack of resources is going to be massive and the migraine it will give the entire state will last for at least a generation.

Perhaps we might want to sober up before we "hit bottom," educationally, by clearing out the cupboards, dumping the snake oil down the drain, smashing the bottles it came in, and driving out of town and out of our state, those who have sought only to enrich themselves as they built their careers in lying through their teeth about their snake oil's "benefits" in order to get us to swallow it down without caring that it might very well kill us.

Teacher assessment is a difficult task and generally is not done with exacting measures. The public believes good teachers get good results in terms in student learning. But do all children learn equally well? Obviously not. What we need to consider when evaluating teacher performance is the rate of students learning relative to their baseline of performance. This would entail assessment devices that actually assess what students are supposed to learn in school rather than what large testing corporations purport to measure. If an individual student's achievement is then determined on the basis of classroom learning, it wold be quite straightforward to look at the trajectory of that learning over time and how that varies with individual teachers.

It is great that we have a discussion on this. Bring on the comments!

That said, if you haven't seen it go commingle with the "commoners" at a Redbox kiosk and spend a dollar to watch "Waiting for Superman" including the DVD "extras".

What was "deafening" was the almost total media silence following DVD release of "Waiting for Superman". Last summer I got a free Redbox code commemorating on billion rentals. "The people" can watch "Waiting For Superman" but the Star Tribune had only one editorial following the DVD release. The silence was defening.

I go way back to the 1970's when it comes to making schools work. The first black head of a large urban school district was Marcus Albert Foster who wrote a book forwarded by Alex Hailey (Roots) "Making Schools Work".
Marcus Foster was assassinated by the Symbionese Liberation Army (kidnapped Patricia Hearst) a white leftist group.

I was impressed enough by Marcus Foster's rare book to put it online at (duh!) http://MakingSchoolsWork.com (click on my name on the top for link)

This was written in the early 1970's before unions got a foothold. It is extremely relevant even today.

One wonders where to begin here…

To start, I taught social studies in a public high school in an “inner ring” suburb in another state for 30 years. I was quite good at it, if students, former students, parents and other school district patrons are to be believed. I retired quite a few years ago, and I’ve never been in a St. Paul classroom, or any Minnesota classroom.

Perhaps the most obvious point – not limited to Minnesota – is that the vast majority of the people making education policy in the legislature typically have only one very tenuous qualification for doing so – they went to school. Beyond that, their expertise is basically zero.

Second, virtually every school district in the country has a probationary period similar to that in St. Paul. Three years is kind of standard, but I’ve heard of districts shortening it to two years, and a few districts extending the probationary period to five years. In any case, the vast majority of teachers are not at their best during their first two years on the job, and there’s plenty of research to support that. Experience in the classroom is indispensable, and in most instances “practice teaching” provides only a carefully monitored and limited taste of the real thing. No one gets to walk into a classroom with instant tenure, and there’s plenty of opportunity for the powers-that-be to make judgments about someone’s ability to establish rapport and communicate with children long before they’ve acquired tenure.

Third, no district should have a policy whereby tenured teachers are not evaluated. That one almost knocked me out of my chair.

Fourth, to repeat what ought to be painfully obvious, but apparently doesn’t suit the prejudices of some: Tenure does not guarantee anyone a “job for life.” All tenure does is guarantee that due process will be followed if your performance has been found lacking. Yes, it makes firing a teacher a little more difficult than it is in the Minnesota corporate world, where “employment at will” means the boss can tell you to clean out your desk without even the courtesy of mentioning why, but ineffective teachers lose their jobs all the time. Beth’s estimate in her response to Gregory Lang gets at this point.

Fourth, one of the interesting things about K-12 education is that the people doing the evaluating are typically people who either don’t want to be teachers, or who were not very good at it. Or both. There are exceptions, to be sure, and I had a principal for several years – an ex-Marine officer who brooked no nonsense, but also waxed euphoric about Shakespeare’s sonnets – who had been an English teacher for at least a decade before he got his administrator’s certificate. The point, however, is that he no longer wanted to teach, so he became an administrator. I was also evaluated by a former teacher of driver’s education, who was, shall we say, not exactly a scholar. He was unprepared to pass judgment on the lessons being presented, since it was often material to which he’d not been exposed in, oh, twenty years or so. I was also evaluated by an assistant principal whose approach to facts was that the ones not suiting her worldview and vocabulary were largely ignored, which made for some interesting, if not terribly enlightening, conversations.

Peer review seems to me a necessity. If the powers-that-be just can’t pry their fingers from the controls, then OK, maybe it’s used as a supplement to whatever the “official” evaluator might conclude, but teachers know full well who’s doing a good job and who isn’t, and frankly, the kids know better than any of the adults in the school. Good teaching is an art, not a formulaic exercise. People with potential can be coached, and taught techniques that are effective. Some people, no matter how intensive the coaching, are never going to connect with their students, and they need to find another line of work.

Finally, this whole arena strikes me as yet another case of focusing attention on the teacher, justified though it may be in some instances, while ignoring completely the role that the student, not to mention the family environment and the larger society, plays in the whole educational enterprise. Teacher-bashing is fashionable at the moment, but that doesn’t make it accurate or helpful. Relying on an episode of “The Simpsons” as “proof” of anything displays a certain inability to grasp what’s in the article. Satire is frequently on-target, “The Simpsons” especially so, but a cartoon series on TV doesn’t actually prove anything.

Greg, if the silence was deafening in response to Waiting for Superman, it may be because it was about as relevant to education reform in this country as Avatar was. Anyone involved in public education who is actually interested in reform recognized that the movie was total crap. Unfortunately, the movie resonates with people who are into bashing public education or just too stupid to know better.

If you want to see an "documentary" full of falsehoods and praise for incompetent "reformers" who wasted millions of taxpayer dollars on arbitrary and illegal firings, then Waiting for Superman is for you. If you are more interested in facts and actual education reform, and not as interested in simple (and false) solutions and cheap entertainment, then you might want to choose another Redbox option.

This article is a good summary of the problems with Waiting for Superman:

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2010/nov/11/myth-charter-school...

My favorite part is where it talks about the charter school in the movie kicking out all of its students because of bad tests scores a few years ago. I guess that is one way to get your numbers up.

This is a link to someone who actually checked on Michelle Rhee's claims of significantly improved test scores while she was teaching:

http://gfbrandenburg.wordpress.com/2011/01/31/the-rhee-miracle-examined-...

With her actual performance, she might have been fired under her own testing standards. That didn't make the movie, though.

This one is a link to a story on a recent ruling (the actual ruling is linked in the story) that a number of teachers Rhee fired while running the DC schools were fired illegally, and have to be reinstated with back pay:

http://www.myfoxdc.com/dpp/news/dc/arbitrator-rules-dc-public-schools-mu...

That's a great use of taxpayer money.

This one just came out today:

http://www.usatoday.com/news/education/2011-03-28-1Aschooltesting28_CV_N...

It turns out a DC school touted by Rhee as a success achieved that success by fudging its test scores. Here is some text if you don't want to follow the link:

"A USA TODAY investigation, based on documents and data secured under D.C.'s Freedom of Information Act, found that for the past three school years most of Noyes' classrooms had extraordinarily high numbers of erasures on standardized tests. The consistent pattern was that wrong answers were erased and changed to right ones.

* * *

Erasures are detected by the same electronic scanners that CTB/McGraw-Hill, D.C.'s testing company, uses to score the tests. When test-takers change answers, they erase penciled-in bubble marks that leave behind a smudge; the machines tally the erasures as well as the new answers for each student.

In 2007-08, six classrooms out of the eight taking tests at Noyes were flagged by McGraw-Hill because of high wrong-to-right erasure rates. The pattern was repeated in the 2008-09 and 2009-10 school years, when 80% of Noyes classrooms were flagged by McGraw-Hill. On the 2009 reading test, for example, seventh-graders in one Noyes classroom averaged 12.7 wrong-to-right erasures per student on answer sheets; the average for seventh-graders in all D.C. schools on that test was less than 1. The odds are better for winning the Powerball grand prize than having that many erasures by chance, according to statisticians consulted by USA TODAY."

Just change the wrong answers to right before the tests are scored. Much easier than kicking all the kids out to get the test scores up. Geez, I can't imagine why anyone is concerned about using test scores to evaluate and fire teachers.

Thank you Ray Schoch! You've covered the bases well. And the point is, there are MANY bases. Education is not as easy as manufacturing widgets. It can't be easily measured by charts, graphs or standardized tests. Certainly quality schools can't be graded on the number of teachers they have fired. Having worked in the public sector, I commend St. Paul schools for working on alternate ways to steer appropriate people to a career change (although I cringed a bit at medical leave...). Write off NYC and DC as horror stories, but give credit to the many school districts, individual principles and peer teachers who do a decent, if not perfect, job of fairly evaluating teachers and dealing with the results.

A suggestion for devotées of “Waiting for Superman”: go to your local library, or to a local bookstore – if there are any left – or to Amazon.com if there aren’t, and read a copy of Diane Ravitch’s “The Death and Life of the Great American School System.”

She has spent her professional life examining American education, and was an advocate of charter schools for quite some time. Recently, she’s reached the conclusion that charter schools have strayed far afield from their original rationale, and instead of providing innovative experiments from which public education might learn, they’ve turned into competitors, often with the urging and financial support of folks who, to be generous, do not have the welfare of those at the bottom of society at heart.

She also deals with the sort of teacher-bashing that’s prominent in “Waiting for Superman.” It’s a propaganda film, essentially hostile to the society-wide mission of public education, which is why its reception, especially in education, has been less-than-enthusiastic.

My first link - the review of Waiting for Superman - is an article by Diane Ravitch.

How hard is it to distinguish great teachers from lousy teachers? Do we really need to rely on complicated testing algorithms? As a student, I and my friends could very easily tell the great ones from the lousy ones. Does the principal really have such a hard time knowing what the kids already know?

Beth, I applaud your efforts to get numbers from the school administrators on actual firings. You don't have the resources to push the question but basically everything public employee is a public record.

As to the handling of bad employees in education and civil service there is way to much "punting", kicking the problem down the road. In my last year before civil service retirement we got a very good private sector department head. I explained to him my retirement game plan less than one year away (so he could "punt" with me, I stayed two weeks after my planned retirement to help with a work rush).

He actually checked and found that one of the largest local government agencies had no codified termination procedure. I retired before the crash but it seems that this agency is using the "gotcha" approach, things like security card logs versus time cards. Not good for morale. (and not right)

I applaud the union reps efforts to be assertive. If this "kicking butt" works, that is great but what if it doesn't?

If readers avoid Redbox with your first rental with an email address (don't worry they don't share) you get a free rental code so you can rent "Waiting for Superman" for free! Gosh darned! What a deal!

And yes, I did OCR scan and put Marcus Foster's book online almost a decade ago. Click on my name for a link.

Thanks for your time Ray. I suspect that you were a very good teacher.

Dan posted:
This article is a good summary of the problems with Waiting for Superman:

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2010/nov/11/myth-charter-school...

I read the article which made no mention of the New Yorks schools "rubber room" (three years with pay to terminate) or tenure (I mentioned the Simpsons clip in Waiting for Superman" because that skit would not have worked if made out of "whole cloth" with no relation to what people has actually experienced.

Those on the left are very easy to debate because they tend to "pull a Chomsky" and use selective exclusion.