Sunday, November 18, 2007

Hunting Down Bad Teachers

The nationwide focus on quality teaching is curious when compared to lack of focus on quality of physicians, where mistakes lead to people dying. At Friday's ICE meeting, Michael Fiorillo raised a very valid point in comparing the way the US health care and education systems are perceived. He surmised that in reality, the US education system compares rather favorably internationally in comparison to the health care system, where US infant mortality rates are somewhat shameful, among a bunch of other negative stats. Let's say that in poor areas, they are no worse than comparable to each other. Yet, why isn't the Mayor finding a million dollars to root out bad doctors? (I won't even get into the legal profession here.)

I understand the focus on the desire to get rid of “ineffective” teachers but I would love to get people to tell me how to define that. I know plenty of teachers who ended up at private schools and are are considered to be good teachers because the NYC system spit them out due to large class sizes and unruly kids. “Effectiveness” is a relative term. In my first year if I kept the kids from swinging from the lights I was considered effective.

I was part of a group mentoring Teaching Fellows and stories abound of some of them floundering in one school but flourishing in another.

Look at your own schools and from what you can see, what is the % of lousy teachers? Try rating your colleagues in order of effectiveness. Would that list match the administrators’ list? The parents and students’ lists? (I was in Spain 2 years ago at a school where the principal was elected by teachers, parents and kids.) Most bad teachers find a way to migrate out of the classroom, all too often to supervisor’s chair.

There will always be a bell curve of teacher quality no matter what is done and everyone will have some teachers who are great, average and poor. The way to improve quality is to make conditions as ripe as possible for good teaching to take place. But what is occurring is a quota system where principals have to show results in getting rid of some teachers and they often pick on the most vulnerable personality wise, often loners without popular support in the school. In other cases, they pick on teachers who might be good teaching a whole class but struggle in the workshop model. Many have found this to occur when they were slow to adapt to the major changes Diana Lam and Carmen Farina forced down people's throats.

With so many 20-year plus veteran teachers under attack we have to ask, what if they get rid of them all and replace them with first year newbies of unknown quality, many of whom may be worse than the people they are replacing? Are the kids better off?

After the meeting Loretta Prisco sent this item.

A Third of New York’s Worst Repeat Offender Doctors
Continue to Practice Without Licensing Consequences
Statement of Laura MacCleery, Director, Public Citizen’s Congress Watch Division
Nov. 16, 2007
We are shocked – but not surprised – by recent revelations that a New York doctor risked exposing more than 600 people to deadly diseases due to a terrible hygiene practice.
While state health officials delayed public release of the information to patients, the state’s medical board also has let this avoidable public health disaster go utterly unaddressed, incredibly finding no evidence of wrongdoing by the anesthesiologist, Dr. Harvey Finkelstein of Plainview, N.Y.
We immediately took another look at the National Practitioner Data Bank, a record of medical malpractice payments. We found that from 1990 to 2007, only a scant third of doctors with 10 or more medical malpractice payouts had a reportable licensure disciplinary action.
That shoddy record of discipline for the worst offenders deserves a close look by state lawmakers. The “I’ll scratch your back” culture in medicine, in which doctors have claimed they are competent to police themselves, must end before more people are killed by criminal negligence.
To add this insult to patients’ injuries, rather than moving swiftly to address the problem with a subpoena, the state health department took months to negotiate a voluntary agreement from Finkelstein to release patients’ names. Health officials must change their lax attitude and adopt an enforcement mentality, particularly when lives are at stake.

Rate of Discipline Among New York Doctors Who Have Made Medical Malpractice Payments

Number of Payment Reports
Number of Doctors Who Made Payments
Sum of These Payments
Subset of Number of Doctors who had One or More Reportable Licensure Actions
Pct. of Doctors Who Made Payments Who had One or More Reportable Licensure Actions
Pct. of Total Dollars Paid Out Statewide
2 or more
3 or more
4 or more
5 or more
10 or more

Source: National Practitioner Data Bank
[The data above reflects information from entire period reported in the NPDB database, and includes payments (both settlements and jury verdicts) reported from September 1, 1990 through June 30, 2007, according to the NPDB Public Use Data File Format Specifications File (]


  1. There are already huge chunks of untenured teachers with no masters degree in the non-prestigious schools.

    In spite of this, didn't those surveys show that the parents who responded to the survey were mostly very happy with the teachers?

    I know a bit about this doctor malpractice thing and it's more complicated than "more malpractice payments" means "bad doctor".

    For one thing, the more experienced doctors in a practice often take the harder cases themselves, so that the novice doctors can learn on the job for a few years with the easier cases. Harder cases obviously means a less clearcut path to success.

    Also: sometimes there's a 50-50 or less chance of success from the beginning. Let's say the patient pushes the doctor in spite of the bad odds to do a tricky operation. Sometimes it doesn't turn out good, and doctors know that a) they were asked to do it anyway, b) they tried, and c) the insurance $$$$ the patient gets will help to cover some of the post-operative care they'll be needing. These doctors are not "poor doctors" -- they were working against the odds, did their best, and are humble enough to understand that the patient needs a lot of help for the rest of his life, which won't come from the gov't, but from the insurance company.

  2. Good points - they make the point I was trying to make. How come all the factors you mention are factored into judging doctors but teachers are told "No excuses for high class sizes or kids who are learning or discipline challenged?


Comments are welcome. Irrelevant and abusive comments will be deleted, as will all commercial links. Comment moderation is on, so if your comment does not appear it is because I have not been at my computer (I do not do cell phone moderating). Or because your comment is irrelevant or idiotic.