“Firing Your Way to the Top:” Musing on the Role of Women (and Draft Dodgers) in Eras of Excellence in Education and Predictions About a Dire Future

For decades (from the 20s into the early 60s) we pointed proudly to an exemplary public school system – ironically the heart and soul of the system was women – women who were discouraged/prevented from entering the fields of medicine or law or finance. One of the few professions open to women was teaching. The “best and the brightest” women in the country became public school teachers.

In New York City the Board of Examiners, an organization created as a result of the end of the nineteenth century urban reform movement (see Pendleton Act, 1883), created rigorous civil service examinations; the result was that those who passed, regardless of gender or religion, filled the classrooms in New York City with highly qualified teachers.

Kate Rousmaniere’s “City Teachers: Teaching and School Reform in Historical Perspective“,  relates the impact of the range of “education reform” in the 1920’s and teacher reaction and resistance.

The Great Depression added to the pool. The Board of Examiners exams – written, oral and performance, tests, selected the top performers for entry into the school system.

Henry Hillson (see article here), a classmate of Nelson Rockefeller at Dartmouth, ended up as a teacher in the 1930’s. and, as many of his colleagues rose through the system to leadership positions. Jules Kolodny, one of the founders of the teacher union had a law degree and a PhD in economics. Ed Gottlieb, was principal of PS 161M, chairman of the War Resister’s League and a conscientious objector during the Second World War. Ed, once a neighbor, always believed he would never have become a principal without the Board of
Examiners process. He was an exemplary principal – eons ahead of the school system in his approach to teaching and learning.

The end of World War 2 and the GI Bill allowed veterans to attend college and a new class of teachers, veterans who had fought their way across Europe and the Pacific entered the school system.

I remember a new teacher who was impressed how the tough kids in Irwin Berger’s class sat quietly and did their work.

“Mr. Berger, how do you get these kids to concentrate and do their work?”

Berger: “It’s a lot easier than crawling around on Guadalcanal.”

The war in Vietnam and the draft drove another group into schools as teachers: draft dodgers. Teachers in high poverty (Title 1) schools were granted draft deferments. Should we volunteer or wait to be drafted and fight in Vietnam, flee to Canada, or, become a teacher? Once again, many highly qualified individuals, who had no intention of entering the teaching force, became teachers. Some moved on at the end of the war, while others made teaching a career.

For the next thirty years the world changed, for too many teaching became a last resort job.

The pay of teachers was poor, opportunities in other professions abounded, and, the feminist movement opened up jobs for women. The result was quality of those entering teaching diminished.

In 1995, if I remember correctly, 17% of all NYC teachers were “provisional,” which meant they couldn’t pass the low level required state pre-service teaching exams.

Schools in high poverty neighborhoods frequently had vacancies throughout the school year. Teachers taught out of license – math and science teachers were few and far between. New teachers tried teaching and quit – some within days, or weeks or a few months. The teacher churn was continuous.

The upside of the downside: the 2008 crash suddenly made teaching a desirable profession, at least until the economy improved. Good paying jobs in finance and banking disappeared. Today hundreds of prospective teachers apply for every teaching job.

In a few years the economy will turn – it always does … the nature of economic cycles. As the job markets improve the current world of teaching will become much less desirable.

At an Aspen Ideas Festival panel the potential Republican contenders for the Vice President slot discussed a range of topics – including education.

Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana, described, almost with glee, his educational views. Teacher unions are the enemies, tenure must be abolished or sharply curtailed, teacher assessment and salary by test scores, choice, meaning charter schools or vouchers expanded. His proposals were met with approval by his colleagues on the panel.

In an expanding economy will a “Jindal” school system attract “the best and the brightest” into teaching?

The New Teacher Project released a study of teacher attrition, referred to as “The Irreplaceables .” the study faults principals for not differentiating among high and low performers and urges the adoption of policies to retain high achievers and force out low achievers,

the study focuses on the experiences of the “Irreplaceables”: teachers so successful at advancing student learning that they are nearly impossible to replace. It finds that schools rarely make a strong effort to keep these teachers despite their success—and rarely usher unsuccessful teachers out.

Aaron Pallas and Clare Buckley demur, Why Teachers Quit, And Why We Can’t Fire Our Way To Excellence, is sharply critical of the New Teacher Project study. The reasons why teachers consider leaving are not surprising,

… student behavior and discipline — matter a great deal. Teachers are more likely to consider leaving their classrooms if they believe they aren’t getting adequate support from their principals, and if they believe the school doesn’t function well as an organization. Good leadership is not randomly distributed among schools; on average, New York City teachers report less satisfaction with the leadership in schools serving high concentrations of low-achieving, high-need students.

The core of the studies deal with identifying high and low performers and how the school system should respond,

The key divergence between the two studies is that the TNTP report sought to identify high-performing teachers — whom the authors labeled “irreplaceables” — and low-performers. These groups, the TNTP authors believe, are stable; a teacher identified as a high-performer early in his or her career is likely to stay that way, and low-performers, although they may work just as hard, unfortunately rarely get better.

 Rather than try to provide extensive support to struggling teachers early in their careers, TNTP argues, it’s more efficient to invest in retaining the “irreplaceables,” and to counsel out — or move more aggressively to push out — low-performers who may well be replaced by teachers who will be “better.” To date, the authors suggest, principals have not been this strategic, leaving who stays and who leaves pretty much up to chance.

Pallas and Buckley are concerned with the “stability” of scores, the wide variance from year to year. Gotham Schools reports on the phenomenon,

It’s completely possible, for instance, that a teacher judged as less effective one year will be judged as very effective the next, and vice versa.

As we reported … when the NYU economist Sean Corcoran looked at New York City’s value-added data, he found that 31 percent of English teachers who ranked in the bottom quintile of teachers in 2007 had jumped to one of the top two quintile by 2008. About 23 percent of math teachers made the same jump.

In an irony Pallas and Buckley quote Arne Duncan,

It’s true that teacher professional development is often weak and ineffective, and, particularly in the early career, probably requires a more coherent strategy and division of labor than currently exists in most school districts. But that’s not a convincing rationale for giving up on professional development for all teachers in favor of the quick termination of those teachers who don’t hit the ground running.

There’s a reason revolving doors are frequently out of order.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan famously said, “You can’t fire your way to the top.” TNTP apparently disagrees. For once, I agree with Arne — mark the date.

If we hope to retain and attract teachers as the lure of higher paying jobs grows greater, as the economy improves, school districts will have to adopt policies that reward teachers, not through monetary awards which can never compete with the world outside of teaching, but through job satisfaction policies. (See excellent article summarizing the literature on “pay for performance” by Harvard’s Susan Moore Johnson here ).

High functioning collaborative organizations in which the employees, teachers, play a meaningful role in setting policy, this includes hiring and discharge of fellow employees and establishing curriculum, Opportunities to meet with colleagues regularly, and, most importantly, effective leadership and school leaders who are models of effective teachers of teachers as well as leaders of students. Leaders who are demanding, collaborative and fair-minded, and, school communities that take responsibility for results.

As the economy improves and the job market expands who will want to enter a profession that espouses “firing your way to the top,” that is punitive at every turn, with diminishing pension benefits?

Then again I saw this avatar at La Guardia Airport  giving instructions to arriving passengers … hummmmm.


6 responses to ““Firing Your Way to the Top:” Musing on the Role of Women (and Draft Dodgers) in Eras of Excellence in Education and Predictions About a Dire Future

  1. Eric Nadelstern

    We need to completely rethink how we recruit, induct, develop, retain, evaluate and compensate teachers. At a time when most young people are expected to have 5-7 diffent jobs, if not careers, during their working lives, what are the implications for our human resource strategies? Are there peak productivity years for teachers, and if so, how do we align our compensation strategies? Do we need a career ladder for out best teachers, and what should it entail? How do we identify and separate those who should not be teaching?

    The future of public education in America rests on our ability to answer these and other critical personnel questions.

    And let’s not forget the enormous contribution that Teach for America has made by attracting new talent to the profession in recent years.


    • While the questions you ask are all important we must beware: there is no evidence that modest raises will retain teachers. As you are well aware teachers stay when you feel “ownership” in their pratice, in their school. In highly effective schools the sum of greater than the parts – the school leader creates a climate in which teachers, and students, thrive.


  2. And how many of that 17% or so remained after, say, 5 or 10 yrs? How many were ELLs?

    Grad Ed courses certainly went from being PD-like and jokey to being more like actual grad courses during the last decade. But do you have any hard evidence of there being a dearth of talent in NYC, besides the call for babysitters and security guards rather than educators in some of the neglected and dangerous schools?

    I would contend that society’s esteem for teachers and its care for all schools and teachers (working conditions) outweighs the impact of major events like wars and economic recoveries, not the rise of feminism, though — too big, I think. But society’s esteem cycles off of the condition of education. If conditions are bad, esteem drops, conditions worsen. Some of what the deformers are doing and some if what our esteemed Eric has done and said is truly damaging.

    Now, if you really want to start talking about conditions, consider why ghettos remain in this day and age. Is education really a solution or a strategic cop out? Granted education will lift some out of class levels, but not all who succeed go for the green. And not all succeed so superlatively. And does anyone really think assimilation and acceptance is so simple from any of various ends? Big business, small business, local politics, City Hall, small communities, larger societies, cultural preservation, cultural adaptation, etc.?


    • “Some of what the deformers are doing . . . is truly damaging.”

      Referring to the actions and agitprop that denigrate teachers. Nothing is as damaging as their policies and what they are doing generally.


  3. Foil Jacqueline

    Once again I think you have articulated the problems quite effectively.


  4. Re: avatar

    I’m sure long ago people thought, gee, if only these texts were loaded with worked examples and colorful pictures, students would learn by themselves; if only there were interactive online courses, students would learn by themselves; if only we had a big interactive screen on which you could run animated lessons, videos, etc., students would learn by themselves.

    If anyone produces an avatar or robot that can merely feign artificial intelligence sufficient to teach a class (field questions, ask questions, field answers, explain and correct appropriately) it will be a huge breakthrough beyond just education: science, industry, governance, medicine, social work, ART!, police work . . .
    The world will not be the same, and it’s likely everyone will have to level up. Difficult to say what way general education will go, but there will always be a tremendous need for it and the human touch, probably more than ever. If, however, we actually create true artificial intelligence that rivals our own, all bets are off.


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