Blogging for Reform: First, let’s fire all the teachers…


I’m going to start this post as  I will end it, referring to my recent adventures observing Larry  Ferlazzo’s Theory of Knowledge Class, this week. Why bring up the particular in this discussion of one of the global issues in school reform? Because, at the end of the day, no matter how good an idea sounds when you share it in your think tank boardroom, what happens in classrooms is where the success of your ideas will be measured. Although it often seems that bad ideas have a much longer shelf life than good ones.

The observation? It was great. Was the class perfect, no, it was day before the start of a week off. Was the lesson perfect, no, and I made some suggestions to Larry about things he could do. BUT, it was pretty damn good, and there was a lot for me to see, and think about. As usual, about 2/3rds of the way through, I had to sit down, and just stare for awhile. Observation (and all the recording I was doing) is pretty exhausting work.  But it was worth it.

Why? Now, I’m going to go ” big”. One of the big issues in education reform is teacher effectiveness, and the idea that maybe what we need to do that is “fire bad teachers”.  Look at this article in Newsweek, which speaks fondly of the mass firings at Central Falls, RI but also has a reference to the fact that Finland attracts the top 10% of it’s graduates to teaching. The thing is, Finland didn’t get to that point by firing teachers, but this points out the major differences in how the United States looks at “reform” and how this is approached in other countries.

In Finland, they sought over time to improve everyone, all teachers. In the United States we seem to be stuck on either getting everyone better than average, or getting rid of all the teachers that aren’t. (Evaluation: A personal perspective | Reflections on Teaching)

Part of that no doubt has to do with their more socialist society, and our more corporatist one.  As a former co-worker opined:

Maybe we should be looking into the “trust-based school culture” that Finland adopted back in the 1990s. But that would also mean addressing our problems with children living in poverty. That doesn’t happen in Finland. We have six times as any kids per capita living below the poverty line. That might be why we approach school reform in the United States like a corporation. In Finland, they treat their schools like places where kids go to learn things. Go figure. (Entropical Paradise: Race To The Finnish)

But the cold, hard demographic facts make what is being proposed a non-starter, because the fact is that there are just too many teachers needed to take the “hatchet” approach (not that this is stopping some folks like Eric Hanushek):

That means we’ll need to replace around a half million teachers, perhaps more, every single year (retirees plus “normal” attrition). And this may last for several years.

If this scares you, it should. A half million teachers is roughly equivalent to one-third of the annual graduating class of every college and university in the U.S. combined. If every single Ivy League graduate in a given year decided to be a teacher, this would cover only a fraction of the annual demand. So, beginning very soon, there might be a pretty serious strain on the teacher “bench” – it’s a good bet that we’ll have a tough time replacing all these leavers/retirees without a decrease in the quality of the applicant pool, especially in low-performing schools and districts.And this doesn’t include any possible uptick in the number of teachers fired based on performance.

But those who clamor for the systematic firing of a significant proportion of teachers every year have a responsibility to address the replacements issue. Some do, but most do not.  In the former category is economist Eric Hanushek, who regularly proposes that the “bottom” 6-10 percent of teachers be dismissed every year, based on their students’ test scores.  When he estimates how this would affect aggregate performance, he assumes that replacements will be of “average” quality (once again defined in terms of test scores). (Shanker Blog » How Deep is the Teacher Bench?)

My sense now is that they may try to finesse this with proposals like “online” schools, but someone has to look at all that student work and give feedback, otherwise the results will be predictably lousy.

Finland succeeded because they did something much harder than firing teachers. Something like what I did with Larry Ferlazzo. They worked on slow, but consistent, and ongoing improvement. If you don’t believe me, look at this former principal/superintendent who was all for cleaning out “deadwood”, but began to see that developing teachers was a more fruitful route. We could try to fire our way to better teachers, but I have a feeling it would be like bombing our way to peace, and as impossible as the more scatological part of that well known metaphor.

This is not an argument for how things are. I’ve expressed my ambivalence for the current system of evaluation (Evaluation: A personal perspective | Reflections on Teaching). Instead this is about working with peers to become better. What is it that Larry and I did? First, we trusted each other. As Larry has trusted me, I would trust him to do the same sort of observation and public post about my teaching. Given the current state of education in general, my district and school in particular, I don’t think I would be at all comfortable doing this with my administrators. I’d like to get there at some point, but at this point, evaluation is more about judging, and not as much about improving. Until the dagger of judgment (like questionable newspaper rankings), and consequences (being fired) are taken from our necks, what incentive do we have to participate in a program like this, and if we are forced to, will we ever “trust” enough for it to really work?

  • Entropical Paradise: Race To The Finnish
  • Evaluation: A personal perspective | Reflections on Teaching
  • My Observation of Mr. Ferlazzo’s Theory of Knowledge Class Fall 2010 | Reflections on Teaching
  • Education Week: Is Firing Teachers the Answer?
  • Shanker Blog » How Deep is the Teacher Bench?
  • Despite capital region layoffs, a teacher shortage looms – Sacramento News – Local and Breaking Sacramento News | Sacramento Bee
  • 10 Comments to

    “Blogging for Reform: First, let’s fire all the teachers…”

    1. November 22nd, 2010 at 7:42 am      Reply Nicole Says:

      I hadn’t given much thought to our American version of reform versus education reform in other societies. It’s true, though. We are capitalist. We seem to be approaching education reform, the same way we approach organizational reform–slash-and-burn, lay off, and then rebuild. Are we really aiming for better education or a more savvy business when we approach education reform that way? Really interesting food for thought. Thanks for the post!

    2. November 23rd, 2010 at 1:17 am      Reply David B. Cohen Says:

      Well done, Alice! Thanks for posting in such detail. (If for not other reason, then because Hanushek drives me crazy, and this post articulates exactly why).

    3. November 23rd, 2010 at 9:21 am      Reply Carlos Rico Says:

      It’s unfortunate that education policy is being dictated by people who do not have a strong education background. It is important that we all work together to influence what is happening. Thanks Alice, your continued advocacy for public education.

    4. December 2nd, 2010 at 5:48 pm      Reply Edward Manley Says:

      Ms. Mercer’s blog has no merit. Firing all teachers, Finland, or the moon’s influence on public education isn’t even worthy discussing. I guess we could fire the students too. Teachers are merely employees and do what they are instructed to and students are the customers. Fire the customers? And poor students can’t learn…provide the evidence to prove it?

      US public schools are a failed system because they are accountable to no one and poor leadership, including Boards and administrations, and outdated teaching methods. I suggest studying the models, like a private school or a public school that was taken over by an outside entity and turned into an example of success.

      • December 3rd, 2010 at 5:20 pm      Reply alicemercer Says:

        Thank you for proving my point about the strong corporate tendency in American education reform, and the barriers this presents to adopting models that have been used effectively in some of the same countries that reformers like to point to as successful.

        • December 6th, 2010 at 6:29 pm      Reply edwardmanley Says:

          Unfortunately, and it saddens me say it – but the US public education has gone too far down the road to turn back and correct itself. And I have looked so very hard to find glimmers of hope too. There is no motivation for change. The essence of national intend is very honorable but the individuals and groups that control state and local districts are so dishonest, and fail the children so badly.

          The only light that I see, is the day when the individual funding for the child is tacked to his or her back and travels with them. Then and only then, will a school district become competitive, respect their customers and fight to maintain their customer base.

          • December 19th, 2010 at 12:06 pm      Reply alicemercer Says:

            Dear Mr. Manley,

            Sorry for the late approval and reply to your comment. I’ve been on an unplanned “hiatus” from blogging as holiday and other obligations took over.

            I’m trying to avoid a conflict here that seems rather inevitable about what is “good” education reform. I feel like we are having two parallel conversations. I argue that market-based reforms will not work, and I cite the studies and analysis from both sides; Hanushek in favor –, and Matthew Di Carlo at the Shanker Institute pointing out the demographic problems with this.

            Your argument seems to be limited to the general, my blog is without merit (the entire blog? I post on things besides ed policy, did you take the time to read it?), American public education is failing, and the solution is to have parents/students be able to take the money with them (vouchers?).

            The solutions offered are all things that have been found to have no merit: Milwaukee vouchers — no change (, charters according to CREEDO — 17% better than similar public schools and 37% perform worse (

            To make your arguments, you could point to work from folks like Hanusek, etc. but I have a feeling that you are not familiar with this territory,and don’t even know who the “players” in this line of inquiry are. Because of that, this conversation is becoming “non-productive”. Based on my comment policy, I’m going to end it (

            Since you’ve been polite, and refrained from personal attack (although I would have preferred you refer to my ideas as being without merit, rather than my whole blog), I will give you the last word in the conversation. You can send a reply to this, and as long as it meets the rest of the comment guidelines, I’ll post it.

    5. December 24th, 2010 at 6:39 am      Reply Quentin Says:

      In some respects, you are correct. If we fire teachers and cut down on their job security without providing them with any additional incentives, then surely we will reduce even further the number of talented people seeking to enter the profession and further demoralize the good teachers currently working. “Fire first” reformers who want something (reducing teacher job security) for nothing are wrong, and should be dismissed.

      But what about situations where reduced job security is accompanied by vastly increased compensation? I know many educators who would happily trade their tenure for the chance to earn a 6-figure salary. Part of our problem right now is that many talented people stay away from the profession because we are so underpaid. Shifting from a strictly seniority-based compensation system to one which rewards results could help to draw these people into the profession.

      Admittedly there are problems with merit pay (I for one think it should be based on a comprehensive evaluation including, but not limited to, testing data, which helps to solve those problems). But introducing it – and giving teachers a much-deserved across-the-board raise as well – would help to eliminate a lot of the problems caused by decreasing teacher job security.

      Because fundamentally, we do need a way to get rid of people who aren’t getting the job done. But it can’t be something for nothing – we also need to find a way for the people who ARE getting the job done to get the compensation they deserve.

    6. January 15th, 2011 at 2:46 pm      Reply edwardmanley Says:

      The MPS voucher info, dated 2-08, is outdated (see below). The Stanford study regarding charter schools as a parental choice option is nice but charter schools are only a small portion of the answer to public education problems. They are merely band aids that serve a political need.

      “MPS, voucher students boost graduation rates
      Kids in choice program still 17% more likely to finish, study says”
      By Erin Richards of the Journal Sentinel
      Jan. 10, 2011 |

      Think tanks like the Hoover Institute are good – but no sort of internal reform is going to happen within a public educational system because the motivation to change is not there. Hanushek’s opinion is just that, an opinion. A good argument, pro or con, can be made for anything. It’s must be doable and implemented.

      I frequently walk the corridors of a state dept of ed and statehouse advocating for school-aged children and educational policy change. I have a fair understanding of how the system works. It’s about money, not educating children.

    7. August 8th, 2011 at 7:13 am      Reply Online High School Says:


      Great article. Luckily, Larry, was kind enough to post a link to your article on his site. I’m an avid reader of Larry’s articles and now I think I’ve found myself another great blog to follow.

      I’m currently working for an online high school and you are 100% correct when you talk about how teachers need to view the students work and also give feedback. Without this, how are the student ever going to learn and improve themselves?

      Anyways, I won’t bore you with my comment. Again, great article and you’ve just won yourself a new fan!



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