On many measures, the USA is the world’s greatest nation – but this is despite its mediocre schools. Over the past thirty years, American policy-makers have tried to improve matters:

“…education has undergone a series of supposed reforms, including massively increased spending, smaller classrooms, and higher pay for teachers with accreditation or master’s degrees. The number of students is barely greater today than it was in 1983, but there’s been a 57 percent increase in the number of school employees and a 40 percent rise in real per-employee compensation. The list of smaller-scale reforms would cover pages.”

According to Andrew Biggs of the National Review, the results are disappointing:

“SAT and literacy scores have barely budged, and the U.S. remains a middling performer in international comparisons, despite spending much more than the typical developed country. While many schools are strong, education reform as a whole has been an ongoing, expensive bust.”

Time for a different approach? Biggs certainly thinks so – but instead of yet another addition to the long list of attempted educational reforms, he’s more interested in subtraction:

“Here’s the plan: Fire the worst teachers. That’s it. Terminate their employment. Don’t replace them. Simply reallocate their students to other classrooms…

“Economists Raj Chetty and John Friedman of Harvard and Jonah Rockoff of Columbia University have documented the cost to students of having a poor schoolteacher…. [they] estimate that terminating the worst 5 percent of teachers and reassigning their students to average-performing teachers would increase those students’ lifetime earnings by between $130,000 and $190,000.”

This would, of course, increase class sizes – but “there’s very limited research showing that class size matters very much.” A more serious objection is that identifying the worst teachers isn’t an exact science. This is indeed the case, but the research on which Biggs bases his argument allows for a substantial degree of uncertainty:

“…the Chetty, Friedman, and Rockoff calculations assume that teacher assessments aren’t infallible: If we could identify the worst 5 percent of teachers with absolute certainty, the earnings gains to their students would rise to a quarter million dollars.”

As well as the long-term benefit to pupils of getting rid of the worst teachers, there’d be an immediate benefit to the public purse:

“…firing the worst 5 percent of schoolteachers would generate annual savings of around $12 billion from day one.”

Isn’t this all a bit brutal? Perhaps it is, but why should bad teachers be allowed to blight the life chances of children who have no choice in the matter? The most incompetent teachers are like the worst-behaved pupils – unless they’re excluded, they spoil things for everyone else.

Whether in our schools or elsewhere in the public sector, there is the potential here for a grand bargain: to make it easier to get rid of the duds in return for better prospects and conditions for the other 95 per cent.

However, in order to propose such a deal, the politicians need to set a good example – which, in Britain, they have completely failed to do. The promised ‘Right of Recall’ should have given voters the ability to force a by-election when lazy, incompetent or corrupt MPs fail to do the decent thing and resign. As Zac Goldsmith documents herethe Coalition has backtracked on its promises, proposing a meaningless committee of MPs in place of a direct say for constituents.

In short, while the Government should make it easier to get rid of the worst teachers, it must first make it easier to get rid of the worst MPs.

8 comments for: A simple way to make schools – and just about everything else – better: fire the worst people

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