Tilson vs. Rubinstein Round II

Whitney Tilson and I are engaged in a pretty fierce debate about the key issues in education reform. As he is the only corporate reformer who is willing to engage in a debate, I’m impressed he’s been willing to do this in a public way. Most of them clam up as soon as evidence is introduced to refute their positions. The difference, I think, between Tilson and the others is that he is more fearless. He is willing to say what he thinks, even if it comes off as harsh. He is also not afraid to allow my counter arguments to be heard. I appreciate that.

All of the e-mails from this post and the last one were fired off in a period of about 48 hours. At such a speed I was concerned (as I’m sure was he) that things that were said could easily be taken out of context and used by our critics. We agreed that we would only publicly post any of each other’s words without first checking that it was OK.

To be extra safe, I’ve only been using e-mails that Tilson has chosen to send out to his e-mail list, as I know that he is OK with these being made public. I’m explaining this so that everyone reading knows the context of these e-mails.

Three main issues have surfaced, which are dear to me, in this order of importance: 1) Shutting down schools based, in part, on low standardized test scores, 2) Firing teachers based, in part, on low standardized test scores, and 3) Whether or not charters in general, and KIPP specifically, have inflated test scores based on self-selecting admissions policies, counseling out students who win the lottery before they even get to begin school, and counseling out students who aren’t ‘a good fit’ for the school.

Discussion #5 What percent of teachers are ‘crappy’

Me: What percent of teachers, do you think, are ‘crappy’? And could you break down that percent into the two types 1) Crappy teachers who are choosing to be crappy because they have job security and 2) Crappy teachers who just have no talent for it.
This is a vital question.
Do you truly believe that if we replace bottom 6% of teachers with average ones, achievement will soar? It seems like a very easy conjecture to prove.

Tilson’s reply: I did a totally unscientific survey of my email list a couple of years ago, asking this question:
Based on your experience working in a traditional public school serving primarily low-income and/or minority students, what percentage of the teachers you worked with were (the numbers in the three boxes must add up to 100):
1) Good/great (you would be happy to have your child in the class)
2) Fair, but improvement is possible (you would have reservations having your child in the class)
3) Horrible and unlikely to ever improve (you would NEVER permit your child to be in the class)
Of the 48 respondents, mostly TFA corps members or alums, about half in NYC, the average percentages were 20%, 35% and 45%, respectively. Based on the inner-city schools you’ve taught at, what are your percentages, thinking about the teachers you’d want in a few years for your own two children?
As for the motivations of crappy teachers – do they suck because they aren’t capable of teaching or because they don’t care, are burnt out, don’t like children (at least poor, minority children), or are unmotivated because they know that their union and its ridiculous contract will protect their jobs no matter what they do – I don’t know. What do you think?
For the most compelling description of the type of teacher I’m talking about, see: http://edreform.blogspot.com/2009/07/story-from-trenches-send-me-more.html; here are other stories: http://edreform.blogspot.com/2006/12/people-who-suck-teacher-quality-data.html
To your question about the impact of firing the bottom 5% of teachers, it’s hard to know. But my study of organizations (mostly for-profit companies – that’s my business, finding companies that can turn themselves around) shows that in any organization there are a certain percentage of great people, then there is the significant majority in the middle, doing a decent job, and then there are the lemons. But here’s the key: if you don’t get rid of the lemons, they poison the barrel because they drag everyone down, especially the people in the middle, many of whom will follow the lead of the great people, if they’re “winning” but will also follow the lemons if they’re “winning.”
In any case, we’re about to find out the answer to your question in DC, where 5.1% of teachers were just laid off due to poor performance (http://edreform.blogspot.com/2011/07/dc-teacher-performance-evaluations-are.html).
I don’t have time to elaborate further, but I’ve written extensively on teacher quality – see:
I assume it’s OK to use your questions when I send out my response to my email list?
PS–Here’s some background reading on Ryan Hill and his views on improving teacher quality: http://edreform.blogspot.com/2010/01/ryan-hills-testimony-on-improving.html (Note: to access any web page at http://www.tilsonfunds.com/Personal, you need to enter a user name (tilson) and password (funds)).

My reply: Good / Great: 60%
Fair: 39.5%
Horrible: .5%
If the reality is closer to what I’ve observed, how would that alter your plan? I taught in 4 different schools, 3 were low performing, and I’m basing these numbers on what I saw in those 3 schools. Stuy actually has similar percentages, believe it or not, as others.
I am not making up these numbers to support some kind of agenda. This is really what I’ve seen. Three schools isn’t that many schools, so perhaps I just saw a good group and not a random sampling.

Tilson’s reply: How is it possible that 48 other people with nearly identical backgrounds and experiences saw something so massively different?

My reply: Because most teachers that they see as horrible (not capable of improvement) I see as capable of improvement. You didn’t have a category that was horrible but capable of improving, so I had to rate those people in your ‘fair’ category. I think about 10% of the people would belong to that category. Still far from the 45% they have, but still 20 times more than my .5% for incapable of improvement.
Other relevant stats, by my estimation, % of people who get brought down by the horrible teachers: 0%. % of people who get brought up by the amazing teachers 5%.
I promise you I’m not making up these numbers to be a pain. It’s really what I think. I’m going to speak to my friend who is a principal in The Bronx and get a sense of what he thinks. There’s a chance I’m remembering with nostalgia about what it was like. I taught in Houston from 1991-1995, so that was 16 years ago. I’ll admit my numbers could be skewed by that.
Another factor is that there were teachers I assumed were horrible because of their negative attitude in the teachers’ lounge but who were actually good teachers. We don’t get to see the teachers teach much, so it is hard to judge how good they are. I know these negative teachers were good because some of my students who had them showed me what they were doing in that class, and I was pleasantly surprised. At the high school I taught at in Houston, there was just one teacher who I felt should be fired — had not chance for improvement.
Teaching is a self-selecting field. Most bad ones quit since when you are bad, the kids torture you. There are easier ways to make $30K than being abused by kids all day. There are a few bad teachers who manage to make it easy for themselves still, by having very strong discipline, but that is pretty rare. Kids want to learn so they make life miserable for teachers who aren’t doing a good job.
Funny how in D.C. all those fired teachers taught poor kids. I’d say, though, that, on average, the teachers of poor kids are better than those who teach in the wealthy suburbs. It’s like major league hitters are better than high school hitters even though a good batting average in the majors is .300, while a good high school player might bat something like .600.

Tilson’s reply: ALL of the evidence is to the contrary – see my presentation. Poor kids get totally fu*ked when it comes to teacher quality, any way you want to measure it.
Re this: “Because most teachers that they see as horrible (not capable of improvement) I see as capable of improvement. You didn’t have a category that was horrible but capable of improving, so I had to rate those people in your ‘fair’ category.”
You seem to care why teachers suck and see the best in even teachers who have completely given up on kids are aren’t even attempting to teach them – you know, like the ones who are basically running a movie theater (surely you’ve been in the schools in which you walk down the hall or past the auditorium and they’re showing movies all the time – and not the History Channel – think Karate Kid). I think it’s a high crime to do this and anyone who does this (including the principal and asst principals) should be subject to immediate termination – and I don’t really care to hear the lame excuses about how hard the job is, how badly behaved the children are, how unresponsive the parents are, etc.
My bottom line: deliver results in the classroom for kids, or go find another profession. There is no shortage of college-educated adults who would be grateful for that job, especially in this economy!

My reply: That depends. Are we talking about the original Karate Kid or the 2010 remake?
No, honestly. Teachers showing non-education related movies should be disciplined. Principals can prohibit them from using the equipment if they abuse it. Principals have to do their jobs to keep people honest. It is too bad that people (not just teachers) have to be forced to do the right thing sometimes, but it is human nature to try to get away with what you can, unfortunately.

Tilson’s reply: BTW, my comments, word for word, apply to principals and asst principals as well: leadership quality is as important as teacher quality – you gotta have both, and I believe in accountability for ALL adults in the school building. There is just as high of a % of crappy principals as there are crappy teachers, and they too often have unions that protect mediocrity (or worse). Did you know that the Newark principal contract limits principals – MANAGEMENT! – to only 29.5 hours/week?!

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8 Responses to Tilson vs. Rubinstein Round II

  1. Ed Antoine says:

    First, very much appreciate you guys debating publicly like this. Will read more, and comment again.

    To Whitney – concerning the evaluation of teacher quality: To ask TFA corps members makes zero sense. You are asking the rookies to rate the pros.

    Gary’s comment: “… there were teachers I assumed were horrible because of their negative attitude in the teachers’ lounge but who were actually good teachers. ”

    This is HUGELY important!

    Unless you are dealing with a trained observer, they are very like to be swayed in their opinion by irrelevant characteristics – like personality, and how they treat you (the observer).

    Case in point, a good friend, two years out of college, working for a major consulting. He told me how INCREDIBLY STUPID the CEOs he spoke with were! Maybe they weren’t as nice, polite or well spoken as he expected. I doubt they were stupid.

  2. E. Rat says:

    I don’t trust Tilson’s metrics when it comes to deciding which teachers are bad. I’d like to see him admit that teaching in a high-needs school is a very different job than teaching at, say, a private boarding high school.

    I’d also note that many Teach for Americans and alums aren’t really the best judges of teaching. Having gone through Institute, I’ve seen brand-new, untrained first-day CMs denigrating master teachers doing demonstration lessons. Much of what looks like ‘bad teaching’ to someone inexperienced isn’t. Moreover, I think there’s a tendency to anyone who sees themselves on a mission to save schools to have a hard time honestly reflecting on teacher quality. If you’re on a mission to fix something, it has to be broken, right?

  3. MavorW says:

    Let’s test Whitney’s beliefs. Rich kids get the best teachers. So, Whitney, take some of you millions and double the salaries of the teachers who teach rich kids. Have them move to the ghetto/barrio and see what happens. I have seen this happen in LAUSD when Jr. highs were configured to middle schools. Many, if not most, of the teachers who had been teaching rich kids started to complain about the kids, the previous teachers of the kids and the parents of the kids. They tried as quickly as possible to transfer back to a rich elementary school.

  4. CarolineSF says:

    Has Tilson ever, even once in his life, set foot in a public school except on a staged dog-and-pony-show visit?

    I engage in online debate with people whom I already know are absolutely unbending at times — for two reasons: 1) Other people are following the debate and might learn. 2) I think occasionally I’ve convinced someone that one or another aspect of their fads is too shaky to defend. (Being a veteran of the Edison Schools wars of 10+ years ago, I had plenty to work with there.)

    Debating with TIlson is getting pretty far into outer space, though. Good luck!

  5. H says:

    In response to:

    As for the motivations of crappy teachers – do they suck because they aren’t capable of teaching or because they don’t care, are burnt out, don’t like children (at least poor, minority children), or are unmotivated because they know that their union and its ridiculous contract will protect their jobs no matter what they do – I don’t know. What do you think?

    In my experience, most teachers know who the “bad teachers” are at their school. I don’t have any percentages of how many I think are bad, fair, and good. But, I can say that from my experience, the teachers who I would have categorized as “bad” were not lazy, slacking bums relying on their union membership and contract to give them an easy work-free ride each day.

    Actually, all my teaching has been done in a right-to-work state, where there is no union protection (of the kind you speak). But, guess what!? There are still some bad teachers.

    For the most part, in my opinion, the bad teachers I knew were bad because they didn’t know how to be good. Either their teacher ed. program didn’t work for them, or they weren’t necessarily the brightest or quickest people, or they began teaching in low-performing schools and have never seen what a good school and good teacher looks like and they simply do not know. Often, these “bad” teachers are given positive reviews/evaluations by their administrators each year because the admins don’t take the time to try and weed out the “bad” teachers through performance review. So, for years, these “bad” teachers have been receiving positive (or satisfactory) feedback on their evaluations and they don’t realize they are doing something wrong. For real.

    There are maybe only a handful of teachers that I can think of that, in my opinion, that would not benefit from additional trainings and education, clear expectations from administrators, constant feedback and review, and in general more support. Most teachers who I think of as “bad”, I strongly believe could improve given the above circumstances. For those that I don’t think could improve, I agree they should be laid off…but not without the opportunity to improve via the additional support, education, review, and trainings as I previously described.

  6. H says:

    Also- I have doubts about using mostly TFA-members as a source for data on who the precentage of bad, fair, and good teachers in their schools is somewhat troubling.

  7. Cal says:

    The obvious way to test Tilson’s statements is to look at schools that teach a large number of both economically disadvantaged and non-economically disadvantaged kids. If the teachers are terrible, then all the kids should be doing poorly, right?

    Fortunately, there are lots of these schools in California, particularly in the Bay Area.

    I chose Sequoia High School because I’m familiar with it and because I know it has heterogeneous classes (no honors), but you could choose any number of schools and get similar results.


    Just 14 and 16 percent of Sequoia High School’s economically disadvantaged kids score proficient or higher in algebra and geometry.


    34 and 47 percent of non-economically disadvantaged kids score proficient or higher in algebra and geometry.

    Twice as many in algebra, close to 3 times as many in geometry.

    Same teachers. Same classes. At the same time. No honors, no separation.

    How are the same teachers teaching all the same kids together in the same classrooms getting such different results?

  8. B says:

    Tilson’s methodology is laughable. It’s downright preposterous. Asking TFA corps members to rate veteran teachers that they’ve never actually seen teach. Did you expect them to say any different? They’ve been spoon-fed this anti-union vitriol for years; of course they’re going to spit it out back out on cue.

    The sad truth is that anti-union forces in this country have been able to co-opt well-meaning educators in their quest to deregulate and free-market-ize America on a grand scale. If that sounds conspiratorial to you, then you are simply unaware of the history of labor and anti-labor movements in this country, and the almost-insane extent anti-labor forces will go to in this country in order to eradicate unions.

    Try Philip Dray’s recently published history of labor unions for an idea.

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