“Bad or incompetent teachers may be verbally or even physically abusive. They may not know the subject matter, or be unable to communicate it. They may be incapable of running an orderly class or may be lazy or burned out. But whatever a teacher’s particular sin or shortcoming, he or she will probably never be fired.”
In a six-page story labeled “A Must-Read Report for Every Parent,” Redbook magazine takes on “bad teachers” in its September issue. The story, by Redbookwriter Ronnie Polaneczky, opens “In public schools today, rotten teachers–whether they’re incompetent, lazy, or even downright abusive–can hang on to their jobs for years. Strong union rules will protect them. Here are the ways to protect your child.”
The article’s focus on protecting children is not unusual for Redbook, but the clearly anti-union story is rare for a magazine whose leading stories in the same issue include “7 Sex Tips He’ll Be Thrilled You Learned” and “Your Breasts: How To Keep Them Healthy, Smooth & Firm.”
Polaneczky’s article recounts horrifying stories of the abuse children take from bad teachers who never seem to get fired. The Carrier family in Oklahoma had their son tape-record one sarcastic, abusive teacher who was still teaching a year later. Though they could ill afford to do so, the Carriers eventually removed their children from the public school and placed them in private school.
“I couldn’t keep my children in a school that allows an employee like that teacher to stay on the job,” says Delynn Carrier.
The Earl family in Indianapolis found that other parents, teachers, and the school principal had known for years that their daughter’s third-grade teacher, with 20 years’ teaching experience, was disorganized, scatter-brained, and incompetent. So she was assigned children whose parents hadn’t known enough to request another teacher.
“The teachers know she’s bad, the principal knows she’s bad, but instead of getting rid of her the school has organized its system around her,” says an amazed Rosemary Earl.
How many “bad apples” are there among the nation’s 2.7 million teachers? NEA president Bob Chase contends there are just a few, which may explain why so few public school teachers are dismissed each year. For example, the Denver Postrecently revealed that only five teachers had been fired in Colorado during the past three years.
But Polaneczky argues that the small number of teacher dismissals is more a tribute to tenure laws than anything else. “While tenure doesn’t actually guarantee a teacher a job for life, it does make the conditions for dismissal–including lengthy documentation, reviews, and appeals–incredibly costly and time-consuming.”
Mary Jo McGrath, an attorney from Santa Barbara, California, estimates that about 18 percent–almost one in five–of teachers are incompetent. McGrath bases the estimate on her own survey of 50,000 administrators nationwide and on her own experience as a specialist who helps schools terminate bad teachers.
“The large number of students who are shortchanged each year by incompetent teachers underscores the importance and seriousness of this problem,” says Stanford University education professor Edwin Bridges in his book The Incompetent Teacher.
But children are not just shortchanged by bad teachers, they are permanently and significantly harmed, according to William L. Sanders and June C. Rivers of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. (See “Bad Teachers Have Devastating Effect on Student Performance,”School Reform News, April, 1997.)
Sanders and Rivers found that students who have poor teachers for several years are likely to achieve at a significantly lower level than comparable students who have had several years of good teachers. But achievement scores don’t bounce back when students are later assigned to good teachers. Although an effective teacher can produce excellent academic gains for his or her students, students who suffered with ineffective teachers early on show lower achievement scores over the long term.
“If an ineffective teacher isn’t dealt with, children can be permanently harmed,” says Sanders.
George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].