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Fire Half of Them

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Last Monday, in a speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, President "Fire Half of Them" Obama demanded that states identify schools with graduation rates of 60 percent or less. To qualify for federal School Turnaround Grants, school districts would have to take drastic action. Among the options would be firing the principal and at least half the staff of a troubled school.

New York City Mayor Michael "Bizarro" Bloomberg and his sidekick Joel "The King" Klein must have been jumping up and down with glee. They already pledged to improve Gotham city schools by getting rid of the incompetent teachers who are undermining the education of our children. It is a laudable goal, but the problem is they do not seem to be able to find that many. According to the New York Times, last year they managed to fire three out of 55,000 tenured teachers.

Even when you add to the three tenured teachers who were fired, the ten teachers who were charged and left voluntarily, the nine who were retrained and reinstated, the one who was deported for immigration violations, and the fifty cases that are still pending, that only brings the total to 73 possibly incompetent tenured teachers out of a total of 55,000, which is about .1%. Boy, have they uncovered the root cause of the problems affecting our schools.

And it is not as if Bizarro and the King are not trying. Of the 55,000 tenured teachers in the school system, only 1.8% received an unsatisfactory rating by their principals in 2008. This is after Bloomberg and Klein threatened to remove school principals if their schools performed poorly on state assessments and promised them substantial bonuses for improved test scores.

Bizarro and the King, as always, are quick to place the blame for their own incompetence elsewhere. In this case, they argue state laws that enforce due process are interfering with their ability to summarily remove teachers they do not like.

Due process, a fundamental right guaranteed by the United States Constitution, might be slow, but blaming it in this case is pretty lame excuse. Bloomberg has been mayor for more than eight years. If there were a large number of incompetent teachers in our schools they should have been discovered and removed a long time ago. His complaint reminds me of another "American leader" who spent his presidency searching for but never managing to locate "weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq.

In over 50 years as a student, teacher, and teacher educator, I have seen more than my share of incompetent teachers. But I suspect Bizarro Bloomberg, King Klein, and President "Fire Half of Them" and I do not use the same criteria to identify them. I have a friend who always asks when evaluating a public school teacher, "Would I want that person to teach my child?"

I think this is probably the best measure to use, although Bizarro and the King would have difficulty applying it since they never sent their own children to public schools. Meanwhile, the President's daughters attend an elite and expensive private school.

As a teacher educator, former teacher and student, and as a parent and grandparent, I value teachers who respect students as people. That means listening to them when they speak or sit silently. It means respecting children and being interested in their lives and identities. It also means making demands on them to learn and to act appropriately in different situations and with different groups of people.

The best teachers are good communicators and have a deep love of learning that they share with their students. They are also willing to stand up to school administrators and government officials like Bizarro, the King, and the President who advocate the latest gimmick "solutions" that will never work in practice.

In my experience, "teachers" who constantly prep students for standardized tests rank at the bottom on the scale of good teaching. Would you want that person to teach your child? I am sure Bloomberg, Klein, and President "Fire Half of Them," if they were honest, would say "NO WAY!"