Feature

How to save struggling schools

The principal of Public School 49 in Queens, New York attributes the school's turnaround to “getting rid of incompetent teachers.”

Ray FismanSlate.com

When Anthony Lombardi took over as principal of Public School 49 in Queens, N.Y., a decade ago, says Ray Fisman, just 37 percent of fourth-graders read at grade level. Today, 90 percent do, and that startling turnaround has made PS 49 one of the nation’s most improved schools. How did Lombardi do it? The most important change he made, he says, was “getting rid of incompetent teachers.” It’s now clear, after years of testing at schools around the country, that some dedicated and talented teachers can raise test scores, year after year, while others cannot get students to learn. Unfortunately, when schools hire new teachers, they can’t tell whether they’ll turn out to be talented and dedicated, or merely mediocre. By the time their proficiency—or lack thereof—is demonstrated, teachers have qualified for tenure that protects them from being fired. At PS 49, Lombardi had to force a third of his teachers to transfer to other schools in order to get grades up. “Firing bad teachers may seem like a rather obvious solution” to the problem of underachieving schools—but it’s one that teachers’ unions vehemently oppose. The choice for society, then, is simple: Is tenure more important, or our kids’ futures?

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