It's absurd to believe anyone wants ineffective teachers in any classroom.
So when President Barack Obama, in a speech last fall at Madison's Wright Middle School, called for "moving bad teachers out of the classroom, once they've been given an opportunity to do it right," the remark drew enormous applause. Such a pledge is integral to the president's commitment to strengthen public education.
But this part of Obama's Race to the Top agenda for schools has occasioned much nervousness. Educators and policymakers, school boards and school communities have questions and genuine concern about what it means. What, exactly, is a bad teacher, and how, specifically, do you go about removing him or her from a classroom?
Many other questions follow. Do we have a "bad teacher" problem in Madison? Does the current evaluation system allow Madison to employ teachers who don't make the grade? Is our system broken and does it need Obama's fix?
A look into the issue reveals a system that is far from perfect or transparent. But Madison school board President Arlene Silveira agrees it's an issue that must be addressed.
"My philosophy is in any organization, everyone has to be accountable for what they do, and teachers are no different," Silveira says. "We have to ensure we have a system that can measure the effectiveness of any given person, and that's my biggest concern right now - not if we should do it but how that should work."
Teacher evaluation and assessment is one of the cornerstones of Obama's new education reform initiative. Race to the Top has states, including Wisconsin, competing to qualify for millions of dollars in education funding.
But regardless of whether the state is awarded any Race to the Top money, or whether a school district decides to sign on to the plan, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction will enact new rules governing how districts evaluate teachers.
The new rules (see sidebar) will require school boards to have an annual teacher evaluation system. Such a system will use multiple rating tools that stress student growth numbers and include observations and examples of classroom instruction.
But the biggest bugbear is bound to be any provisions that deal with "removing" teachers. As it happens, in Madison, teachers rarely lose their jobs.
Madison Teachers Inc. has 2,700 people in its teacher bargaining unit, which includes teachers as well as such professionals as school counselors, librarians and coaches. It is the district's contract with MTI that sets procedural rules for teacher evaluation and discipline, including termination.
According to the district, over the past five years, eight teachers who had taught more than three years (that is, were beyond their probationary periods) were dismissed or left their job involuntarily. Another 93 teachers left voluntarily during or at expiration of their three-year probationary period over the past three years.
In the Madison district, each building principal acts as chief executive of his or her own staff. The principals (and, in the case of high schools, assistant principals) assess how teachers are performing throughout the year. They work with individual teachers to identify and rectify any issues of concern.
The union, meanwhile, works in individual cases to assure that teachers receive due process. MTI executive director John Matthews and his staff advocate for teachers' rights in building-to-building negotiations with principals.
Matthews, who has spent 42 years tackling teacher labor issues in Madison, admits that evaluating teachers can be tough. But he says the system would work best if managers work positively rather than punitively with their staff, and if care is taken for evaluations to be done effectively.
"Principals don't take the time and don't have the time to do quality evaluations," says Matthews.
State statues also build procedural rules into the evaluation system. Under State Statute 188.22, probationary teachers, or those employed less than three years, can lose their job without "just cause." After three years, any recommendation by the district not to renew a teacher's contract would go before arbitration, with the burden of "just cause" proof being on the school district. The law also states that "no teacher may be employed or dismissed except by a majority vote of the full membership of the [local school] board."
Bob Nadler, the district's director of human resources, says teachers can be terminated for certain kinds of misconduct. This could, for example, include misuse of district property, unusual physical restraint of a child, stealing, manipulating time records, excessive absenteeism or coming to work under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
"It would be something that we deem serious enough that we would consider it gross misconduct and there would not be progressive discipline," he says.
In early February, the Middleton-Cross Plains district announced that it had disciplined nine middle and high school staff members and one administrator after finding an email message that contained "adult content." A high school administrator retired, a middle school teacher was suspended on unpaid leave, and a substitute teacher was fired in the incident.
When teachers in Madison lose their jobs, the reasons are usually not clear - at least not to someone on the outside looking in.
Silveira, for instance, says she can't remember why any given Madison teacher has lost his or her job.
Dan Nerad, the district's superintendent since 2008, says teachers generally get canned because of performance issues. These usually fall into two categories: failure to follow good teaching practice or inability to manage a classroom effectively.
Madison school board member Marj Passman, who spent 25 years teaching in Madison schools (and before that in New York state classrooms), says it's rare, but obvious, when a teacher is not effective: "We know who the good ones are, and there is no doubt in our minds who the bad ones are."
But Passman says it's outside the norm when a teacher loses a job, because most are worth keeping and developing through improvement plans and professional development. "The vast majority in Madison are good teachers. We really are very fortunate in this district. They're well educated, and they're good."
Nerad agrees that it's wiser to help teachers who need help improve and that the goal of evaluations should be to help teachers do better, rather than punishing them for falling short.
"Teaching is tremendously challenging, demanding and rewarding work," Nerad says. "The reality is, we're dealing with people's children. Expectations are naturally very high that we do well by them. Our teachers are highly committed to improving their practice. I see it in all sorts of ways."
While Passman says the process to remove a teacher for non-legal issues can take about three years, Nerad declines to ascribe a timeline.
"These situations vary by individual situation," Nerad explains. "Part of our commitment has to be to improve practice. We identify problems, create a plan of improvement, monitor and assist. If it doesn't work, we look at options such as non-renewal."
School board member Beth Moss also thinks it makes sense to "shore up," rather than kick out, struggling teachers: "We've already invested time and money in this person, and it's in our best interest to help this teacher overcome issues, rather than tossing that person out and bringing in someone new."
But for some people, Moss concedes, being a teacher is "not a good career choice." And that's when a decision may be made not to renew a contract.
But even in such situations, teachers do not have to go quietly into that good night.
In 2001, Latinos United for Change and Advancement Inc. in Madison alleged that Mercedes Salinas, who taught at Franklin Elementary School, was set to not have her contract renewed because she taught about Latino culture instead of other lessons related to her English as a Second Language job. The group, in documents, says it supported Madison Teachers Inc.'s grievance against her removal.
Salinas' contract was not cut, according to the district, but she left of her own accord in 2006.
Some parents of students in Madison think there are not enough checks and balances to hold teachers accountable. They think the system is more interested in protecting the rights of teachers than those of students. And they fear that speaking out will bring repercussions for themselves or their children.
When Alan Sanderfoot's daughter was a freshman at East High School, she took an English class with Kia Conrad, who taught in the Talented and Gifted Program (TAG). He charges that Conrad spent class time reading horoscopes, among other things, instead of engaging students.
"When I started complaining about this, there was a long history of complaints that had gone back several years with other parents," says Sanderfoot. "It's so hard to get any changes."
Eventually, Conrad did wind up teaching another class and no longer teaches that particular TAG English course. Conrad says she was not reassigned, but rather decided to take another job.
"I chose to go back to teaching older students, which I missed," she says. "I chose not to work in that environment."
Sometimes, the school board hears from parents whose child has had a bad classroom experience. In January, David Stockwell spoke before board members during their regular session, saying he refused to send his son to school after he had been ridiculed by his teacher. (The teacher allegedly asked students in the class to raise their hands if they thought Stockwell's child was "annoying.")
"[My child] was singled out for humiliation," Stockwell told the board, saying he felt teachers and administrators were unresponsive to his concerns. "I have worries about [the child] going to school and how else he may be hurt. We will not allow our [child] to go back into this disruptive and hostile classroom environment."
Silveira says that this particular situation has been rectified, and that most personnel matters that come before the board are passed on to the superintendent and his staff.
The district's formal complaint and concern process asks parents and others to first talk with the teacher. If the situation is not resolved, the complaint can be taken to the building principal and then to the assistant superintendent overseeing the school. Complaints can also be filed using a form found on the district's website (PDF).
The district keeps records of these formal, anonymous complaints. It provides school board members with an annual report stating the number and nature of the written complaints and how they were resolved. According to the district, 22 complaints were filed in this way over the past two years. They dealt with such issues as grade challenges, inappropriate treatment at school, allegations of improper supervision and insufficient responses to school issues. Of these, 18 complaints were closed.
Parent complaints can factor into teacher evaluations, if they uncover serious misconduct and lead to a district investigation, Nadler says. But, mostly, the concerns are rectified on a case-by-case basis and don't become part of the evaluation system.
The top gauge for how teachers are performing has always been how students are doing at school. But this measure has not been used to directly evaluate teaching. Race to the Top stresses the need to develop a comprehensive set of data to track student achievement. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan calls data and tracking "absolutely fundamental - it's a building block."
Following Obama's speech in Madison announcing the $4 billion Race to the Top grant program, Wisconsin lawmakers swiftly lifted a law that prevented student data from being tied to teacher evaluation. But while the new law (Senate Bill 372) will develop a plan that stresses evaluating teacher performance to improve student gains, it prevents student test data from being used to fire or discipline teachers.
For 17 years, the state has used the controversial Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Exam as its benchmark for student achievement. The test, which in recent years was used to comply with the No Child Left Behind education law enacted under President George W. Bush, will be defunct in about two years.
State Schools Superintendent Tony Evers says the state is developing a broader test that uses a "balanced assessment system. [It] combines a variety of assessments to give a fuller picture of educational progress for our students and schools."
Using multiple data points is a step in the right direction, according to Nerad, who says data need to be well rounded in order to inform decisions in areas of curriculum. But he believes that using numbers for a singular purpose is wrong: "Data should be used, but none of us would want to be judged on the outcome of student tests."
MTI president and West High chemistry teacher Steve Pike agrees, saying, "An individual test score is a snapshot of what that student is doing at that particular minute. Overall, the individual test scores are not a measure of the student's ability. Using student achievement to evaluate teachers and base their pay on that is fraught with all sorts of perils."
Further, Pike warns, data collection and recording could take up valuable teacher time with administrative tasks.
Matthews, meanwhile, resents the implication that Obama just wants districts to "get rid of dead wood" instead of strengthening education by supporting educators.He also calls changing state education law for a slice of the Race to the Top pie "baloney": "The state needs to get out of the business of running schools."
Moss is open to changing teacher evaluations, but is not sure how the district should go about improving on the current system.
"Another level of evaluation may be a good idea," she says, "but we have to be very, very careful that it's fair and that we think about each teacher and each staff member's role. It would take time and would certainly have to have staff buy-in as well."
For her part, Silveira thinks this is a conversation that must happen.
"The discussion has to center on what is a fair system and then how would we do it, if we did it," she says. "I think we're going to have to have the discussion at some point, and I think the discussion will have to happen between the superintendent and John Matthews about looking at different systems and expectations. Race to the Top may drive that."
New rules for grading teachers
A new evaluation system for both teachers and principals in Wisconsin schools will be required for all school districts under new state laws passed last fall. But it remains to be seen how these new rules will affect teacher evaluation systems in individual school districts.
In its application for federal Race to the Top funds, the state says it will require each school district to "develop or implement a rigorous, transparent and fair evaluation system for teachers and principals that differentiates effectiveness using multiple rating categories." Such plans will become "a mandatory subject of collective bargaining."
Under the new law, districts can work with teacher unions and "other related stakeholders" to come up with their own evaluation system. Each system must take into account data on student growth as a "significant factor." But under legislation passed late last year by state lawmakers, student test data can be used to evaluate teachers but not fire or discipline them.
If a district doesn't want to come up with its own system, the state suggests it use an existing plan. These include the Gates tools for teacher evaluations, a program of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the New Teacher Center formation assessment system and the Teacher Advancement Program. Some of these models incorporate merit pay schemes.
In Wisconsin, new evaluation models will use existing Wisconsin Educator Standards and other professional standards. But the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction says any new evaluation system will not be tied to changes in current compensation systems.
Eric Camburn, a senior researcher at the UW-Madison Center for Policy Research in Education, says simply offering teachers more money if their students perform better on tests is not a sustainable solution.
"Improving the quality of teaching is very difficult," notes Camburn. "It can take long, sustained efforts, and it appears that intensive professional development and specific blueprints for change are more likely to foster change than simply providing general performance targets for teachers."