Who gets to decide, and why would they think such labels have any place in our education system?
In a January 14 memo, SAISD leadership called on principals to identify those teachers at their campuses who they deem to be “irreplaceable”. It’s the second time that the Office of Talent Management has made this request, the first occurring at this time last year. The window for submissions closed on February 1, so by this point, every one of the district’s teachers will have been judged “irreplaceable” or “replaceable” (should we say “expendable”?) by their campus leaders.
Feels good, right?
The concept of the “Irreplaceables” comes from the work of The New Teacher Project - an education think tank with close ties to the billionaire-led “education reform” movement. TNTP have been increasingly involved in district policy over the last two years, and their thinking is ever-more obvious in district leadership policies, and training strategies.
Who are TNTP?
The New Teacher Project is a teacher training and curriculum organization founded by Michelle Rhee - of Teach For America, school voucher, and school privatization fame. Rhee is an arch advocate of ‘disruption’, by which she has always meant privatization, and for the deskilling and devaluing of teachers (especially of urban youth of color).
Oh, and incidentally, she’s also fanatically anti-union, and was a total failure as Chancellor of District of Columbia Public Schools from 2007 to 2010.
“Michelle Rhee, a Teach for America graduate… taught for only three years at urban schools in Baltimore before founding a non-profit organization, The New Teacher Project (TNTP), where she spent the next 10 years. Under Rhee’s leadership, TNTP promoted the idea that since good education came from good teachers, the way to improve education was to facilitate the firing of bad teachers and ease the process of hiring good ones. This program dovetailed with national trends like marginalizing teachers’ unions, expanding the role of standardized tests (as with the Bush administration’s punitive No Child Left Behind Act) and whittling away at public school systems through charter schools, voucher programs and mass school closures.”
And, as Carol Caref, Ph.D., and Kurt Hilgendorf have detailed,
“TNTP (formerly known as The New Teacher Project), is known for attacking tenure for teachers and promoting the myth that “bad teachers” are a major reason for poor student performance. Daniel Weisberg, TNTP’s CEO, is on E4E’s executive board. E4E is also heavily supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation—the “big three” donors to organizations pushing anti-union agendas.”
No surprise then that TNTP’s controversial and contested study would form the basis of the latest divisive leadership idea to come from SAISD’s privatization-friendly board and leadership.
Who are the “Irreplaceables”?
The “Irreplaceables” were first identified in a TNTP report published in 2012. The report argues, correctly, that school leaders make little effort to retain effective teachers, many of whom leave their schools, and, often, the teaching profession entirely.
The report’s focus on teacher retention is welcome, and should be celebrated. As should some of TNTP’s recommendations, including explicitly telling teachers that they are valued and asking them to remain in their roles (great insight! Tell teachers that they matter and that you value them!!! Wow! Worth. All. The. Money.).
But other conclusions are less robust, and cannot be separated from the clear ideological premises that underpin them.
According to TNTP, up to 20% of teachers at a campus may be classed as “irreplaceable” - teachers whose students learn more, are more engaged, and who, if they leave a campus are extremely hard to replace.
But what about the other 80% of teachers? At a time when we’re constantly hearing about a teacher shortage across the nation, are these “replaceable” teachers really expendable? What is the rationale behind failing to encourage all teachers to remain in the classroom?
It almost feels as though Talent Management and TNTP don’t believe that most SAISD teachers deserve to be working in the district’s schools; that their hard work and years of service of low-income communities of color in San Antonio don’t matter.
The Office of Talent Management tasked campus principals with identifying the irreplaceable teachers at their campuses, using, as far as we can tell, highly subjective, and extremely vague criteria:
“These data will be used to support campuses in their efforts to retain its [sic] valued educators.”
But while this data is robust enough to determine whether a teacher is deemed “irreplaceable”, according to Talent Management, it will not be used as an evaluative tool, and will have no bearing on decisions about whether to retain or fire a teacher:
“Please note, this survey is for information-gathering purposes only and not associated with any formal teacher evaluation processes or instruments or any decisions regarding continued employment.”
But how can “expendable” status not correlate with a higher risk of falling foul of future reductions in force or adverse decisions regarding continued employment if “Irreplaceable” status means that teachers are worthy of efforts aimed at their retention? Doesn’t that necessarily imply that teachers not designated “irreplaceable” are effectively identified as being those first at risk of losing their jobs?
Contested conclusions from a single piece of disputed research, produced by an organization with clear ties to anti-union, neoliberal, pro-privatization interests is presented as if it were an indisputable, objective piece of scientific research, consistently repeated and reproduced.
How strong is the research?
There’s a second major question that needs to be addressed about the TNTP study - how robust are its conclusions?
Those of us who work in education are used to hearing that “research says….”, and that “the evidence suggests that….”, but too often conclusions emanating from contested areas of study are presented as being cut-and-dry, even as serious and substantive critiques emerge. It seems that concentrated private power, and, especially, the backing of rich, privatization-friendly benefactors drive dominant discourses about what count as research-based conclusions in the education sector at least as much as does serious scientific study.
And such is the case with the “Irreplaceables” study. Contested conclusions from a single piece of disputed research, produced by an organization with clear ties to anti-union, neoliberal, pro-privatization interests is presented as if it were an indisputable, objective piece of scientific research, consistently repeated and reproduced.
The truth is that it is anything but.
As Matthew Di Carlo has explained, a deeper dive into the data behind the “Irreplaceables” study shows that the research fails to identify teachers who are consistently “irreplaceable” - consistently in the top 20% of district teachers - over the course of multiple years of teaching. In fact, what Di Carlo, senior research fellow at the non-profit Albert Shanker Institute in Washington, D.C., found was that very few teachers maintained the performance that led to their classification as “irreplaceable” from year to year.
As he notes: Based on the data points used by TNTP to classify teachers as irreplaceable, “a full 43 percent of the NYC teachers classified as “irreplaceable” in 2009 were not classified as such in 2010.”
43% of those classified as “irreplaceable” in New York in 2009 were not longer in the top 20% of educators, no longer “irreplaceable” the next year?
But they’re the best and brightest. They’re the “good teachers”, the ones that districts should be trying to retain as they fire the “bad teachers” who prevent our young people from achieving.
And it gets worse.
Over the course of a four-year period, the number of teachers initially classified as “irreplaceable” who maintain that designation is tiny. In only a four-year period, a fraction of a teaching career, most teachers’ performance fluctuates markedly - their identification as “irreplaceable” far from stable or reliable.
As Di Carlo explains, "Yes, there is still a cluster of teachers who had a top 20% rating in 2005-06 and have one again in 2009-10. BUT… many… uh… most of these had a much lower rating for at least one of the in between years!"
"Of the thousands of teachers for whom ratings exist for each year, there are 14 in math and 5 in ELA that stay in the top 20% for each year! Sure hope they don’t leave!"
Di Carlo’s work is instructive. It shows us that long term teacher effectiveness cannot be predicted accurately on the basis of the kind of limited snapshots of data being used by SAISD. Teacher performance varies depending on a myriad of factors, many of them beyond the control of teachers, principals, and district leaders. Those teachers who excel one year may struggle the next - different students, different assignments, varying numbers of preps, changes in variables outside the workplace. And those who struggle one year, deemed expendable by their campus and district leaders, may excel under different circumstances. There are simply too many variables involved in teaching to isolate teacher performance and identify certain individuals as worthy of “irreplaceable” status, and others as “disposable”, “expendable”, or even “RIF-able” on the basis of such limited, short-term data.
Is there an alternate hypothesis?
Teachers work in teams.
Because learning is a collaborative endeavor. Teaching is the work not of individual “irreplaceable” or “expendable” teachers, but of teams of professionals committed to the multi-year task of educating students to succeed not just as workers, scholars, or employees, but as citizens of a democratic society.
And student success is the product of entire communities - teachers, students, parents, bus drivers, cafeteria staff, custodians, counselors, administrators, support staff, and many others - all pulling together in the service of our young people. To chalk student success up to some teachers, and not to others is absurd, and speaks to the extent to which education in modern America has become atomized, competitive, and business-oriented to the point of pathology.
Are some teachers more effective than others? Sure. Do such disparities in effectiveness persist over time? The data doesn’t support such an assertion.
Should we be accepting simplistic definitions of “irreplaceable” and “expendable” teachers and using them to determine who should be hired and fired?