A Bad Apple in the Classroom? Know It To Change It


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Recently, I was part of the Global Economic Symposium held in Rio de Janeiro. This year’s theme was Growth through Education and Innovation; I presented as part of a panel entitled Effective Investments in Education.

My presentation focussed on the fact that a growing and compelling body of research shows that teacher effectiveness varies widely - even across classrooms in the same grade in the same school. Getting assigned to a bad teacher has not only immediate, but also long term, consequences for student learning, college completion and long-term income.

But most education systems do not know how many bad - or good - teachers they have, or where they are working, or whether their performance can be improved. They lack objective data on even the most basic elements of teachers' performance - whether they come late to class or not, how well they keep students engaged, whether they put effort into grading homework and preparing lessons, and above all, how much their students learn.

In the absence of real performance data, good and bad teachers are retained and promoted almost indiscriminately, on the basis of soft and subjective (you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours) performance reports and/or the number of formal degrees or training courses completed - all of which are poor proxies for actual teacher performance. As a result, school systems end up like Washington DC - where in 2007 only 8% of 8th graders were on grade-level in math, but 80% of all teachers were rated as "exceeding expectations".

Getting real data on teacher performance and using it to reward the best, improve the middle, and deal with the worst is the only true strategy for the really big, long-term improvements in education quality that many countries need. Without a solid system of teacher performance evaluation, it is impossible to get promotion and pay incentives right, and make the profession more attractive to high-talent individuals over time. Without a solid system of teacher performance evaluation, teacher training programs waste millions of dollars because they are unable to target the teachers who need it most and the type of help they need the most.

The ability of even low-income developing countries to put in place data-rich, robust and credible systems of teacher performance evaluation is higher than ever today, thanks to declining costs of technology and information. Video cameras can be placed in classrooms to collect regular footage of teachers at work that can be evaluated against clear rubrics; students can work on Khan-academy style homework problems online, generating day-by-day data on how different teachers' 4th grade math classes are progressing - or how well a teacher deals with individual students who fall behind. Annual student assessments - or even biannual assessments as Secretary Costin introduced here in the Rio municipal schools, can provide real-time data on the value-added learning gains that different teachers are able to produce. All of these elements - plus feedback from peers, students, and school directors - can and should combine into rich and comprehensive, yet objective and comparable, evaluations of teacher performance.

It's cheaper than ever, but still not cheap. It's more feasible than ever, but still not easy, especially the political economy challenge of getting teachers' unions on board. We saw a recent strike in Chicago. There is currently union opposition in Peru, where the Ministry wants to introduce a well-designed, comprehensive system of teacher performance evaluation.

The good news is - there are a growing number of good examples - from Singapore, to Chile, to Ecuador, to Cincinnati, Ohio, to Washington DC. And when these systems succeed in identifying the best teachers so that their practice can be shared; identifying teachers who are struggling and need help; identifying those "bad apples" who should never be in a classroom, students gain more than from any other "solution" for improving education.



Barbara Bruns

Lead Education Economist, Latin America and the Caribbean

Aman Farahi
December 18, 2012

It would be interesting to learn how to implement teacher performance evaluations in low-income, low tech, low capacity and difficult contexts such as Afghanistan. Are there any quick measures? Should performance evaluations be tied to Learning Assessments? Surely, there are many bad apples in the system that lead to students having smaller pay packets in the future, and of course signficant stagnations of the IQ in the interim.

kandasamy aiyar sudahagara sharma
December 18, 2012

Children in our area have low rates of approving national examinations. Research has shown that there are several reasons contributing to this problem, among some of them the poor standard of Education, rigid teaching methods, lack of facilities for teachers, poor excess to reading materials & sports, which would contribute to widen their knowledge, attitudes and skills. Although schools are aware of the importance of having at least minimum required rooms for student, good water/sanitary facilities, even small a library and a play ground at the school compound, they don’t have enough resources. Even if there is having least required teachers for the schools or not, they don’t have a place to rest or stay, as they traveled from far away places. Because of that most of the teachers are not willing to come such schools for teaching

December 18, 2012

Subjecting all teachers to a uniform evaluation tool has its own challenges. Teachers have different characteristics; their teaching environment is seldom similar; the school subjects are unique in their own way and the list goes on...and on.

It is better to first identify strengths of each teacher which can be explored for better performance before using a lot of resources to ascertain teacher's weaknesses.

Breaking Hindi News
February 12, 2013

This is the reality of India, but Now India is getting more educated and socially which is the best happening in our country.The Right to Education Act has virtually outlawed all examinations and standardised testing of any kind.

February 15, 2013

I agree with you all. Excellent post. My other comments on this subject are on my website

Nachiket Mor
January 10, 2013

Dear Dr. Bruns,

The sad reality is that this key point seems to be obvious to most nations around the world but not to our policy makers in India. The Right to Education Act has virtually outlawed all examinations and standardised testing of any kind. And, unfortunately while parents do give a lot of value to education, they tend to thnk of poor performance of their wards as their fault and not that of the education system at all.

Would be eager to hear if you have any thoughts on how we may get a real debate going on this issue in India.


Nachiket Mor

February 16, 2013

I think there is a witch hunt going on to place all blame on teachers for the decline in students meeting standards. I have been teaching for three years in Chicago Public Schools. I received my Masters after completing an alternative certification program. My bachelors had been in marketing and public relations. I decided to become a teacher after having my four children and having done a lot of substitute work, primarily in a private Catholic school. I went in eager to make a difference and feel I am very motivated. I am usually the last one out of my school and put in many extra hours to different committees and initiatives to try and better our school.

I love my job but the demands for showing accountability are becoming ridiculous. I think there is a lack of respect for our profession and all that it entails. I understand the need for accountability but instead of just having dealt with the bad apples from the beginning with evaluations and observations as you would any other employee in an industry, all teachers are being put through the ringer.

I am seeing many good teachers feel overwhelmed and stressed with increased testing for our students, learning new teaching strategies, monthly observations, additional professional development during our free time. It is ridiculous. Having worked in a few other industries, including the busy corporate affairs offices of a worldwide advertising agency, I know that the work I see teachers doing is above and beyond that of many other industries. And yet there is an attack to treat teachers as the cause of societies decline.

There are so many factors for children learning. Yes, teachers can make the biggest impact. So wouldn't it make more sense to treat this profession with more respect rather than less? Putting cameras in the classroom is not saying I believe in you and your preparation to do a great job. Would you work for an employer who put a camera in your office?

It is ridiculous. There are many ways teaching can be improved. I am sure of it. But
right now there is a witch hunt which if it continues is going to clearly run all sensible teachers out from teaching or becoming teachers. Even administrations are feeling frustrated.

In our school district, we will have our state test, ISAT, in less than a month. I have third grade students who are in a dual language program. They have to demonstrate their knowledge of the entire third grade year by March. Who decided
that it would be wise to test our students three months ahead? In New York and other states, it is in May. Is it any wonder why our state scores much lower? Furthermore, we now learned there is a proposal to raise the cut off scores on determining the students who meet, exceed, or fall into failing to meet the standards. Therefore, by next year more students will possibly appear to be failing instead of meeting based on raising these expectations. How is this wise?

Our school fell into probation by one point this year. We did the research and looked at the data and where we were hit hardest was by one class that was under performing and has been for several years. It was our seventh grade class which brought down our score from the previous scores in science. Well, those teachers were replaced and the students are now in eighth grade. Extra teaching resources have been brought to try to work with our struggling students and change the culture which exist in this class which has proven under performing.

You see this is what people who don't teach fail to understand. Teaching is not just a matter of you being a fabulous knowledgeable teacher to pour the knowledge into these kids brains. Students play a role. Parents play a role. The community plays a role. Motivation and having a reason and a purpose to learn (hint: career or jobs waiting for them)plays a role. The classroom and school culture plays a role as well. The bar continues to be raised for teachers and unfortunately there is only so much we can do to help our students understand the value of education. However, I think we would be doing a greater service to our students if we too were being valued in our professions for the education we have attained. Put a camera in our classroom and it is like seeing a camera in the grocery store. What does that say: one that the management doesn't trust the employees or that it doesn't trust the customers? It is an insult to the administration who made the decision to hire us. It is insult to the universities which helped prepare us.

There are many factors to student learning and so much emphasis on teacher performance. I would really like to see the role that poverty and students being worried about their ability to eat and have a safe home plays in their ability to concentrate and focus on school work. I do believe that people in survival instinct are less able to perform well in school than those whose basic needs are met. I think politicians and people with the power and time to look where to invest their time in order to improve education, should truly look at improving the economy and insuring our kids come to school fed and safe. They should make sure their are more job opportunities available for them and their parents. They should work to decrease the problems with drugs and violence in their communities. Their should be more work in giving parenting classes so that children are not abused or neglected due to ignorance from their parents. We have classes required to get a drivers license and nothing to become a parent.

We as teachers pay the price for all that has been neglected. Now there is even talk about us being trained to be armed in order to fight off an intruder in the school. Listen, this is not where we want society to go. I am sorry but our children need to be safe and nurtured. My role as a teacher is to teach and I hope that I can teach my students the value of education and also the values of good citizenship. We need to stop this push for only passing test scores and look at the issues which are turning our society more violent. People need to take a step back and reassess their value system. Our school dropped into probation due to test scores and yet we improved in our scoring of how safe our students felt at the school. To me, that is a huge victory. What if society also valued these gains?

What if our goal was not just to score high in reading and math or science? What if our goal was to seek to help children find their strengths and we helped them nurture them and guide to what careers will make them most successful and happy? What if we could help them learn valuable social skills so that they can have successful relationships with peers and through out their life? What if we can teach them how to become involved in their community and become leaders to take on the challenges they will face in the future? What if we could inspire them to be creative and take challenges in their assignments? What if we could praise them for their great interpersonal skills as much as their academic skills because we know that will help them later greatly in life as well?

Education needs to reform and there is a shift happening. But it really needs to be more about the children and the society we need and less about a score card to compare test scores. I would hate to become a country like China where suicides are common due to kids not make exams.

Mishele Newkirk-Smith
January 17, 2013

Developing an evaluation tool that truly measures learning outcomes over a school year instead of a snap shot in time has been very difficult to do for most schools. Many problems are not identified until the end of the semester. It is impossible to go back in time and correct the problem. Continually sharing student progress data with departments and teachers can be an effective tool to improve teaching.

I work for a large virtual school as part of the leadership team. The data I am able to pull helps 'paint' a picture of the effectiveness of my teachers. I can instantly view pass rates among a group of teachers and compare teachers covering the same subject. When I notice one teacher having a great deal of success, I can have the conversation with the teacher to find out what techniques are working and pass them on to the rest of the group. When I notice a teacher is struggling, I notice the trend right away and can intervene . This type of continually reporting and feedback can help separate the Good Apples from the ones who need a little more coaching.

January 23, 2013

that is my observation seeing my girls going to high school and seeing some of the teachers during parent teacher interviews. They are many wonderful teacher out there who strive to know that their students are learning and doing good, some on the other hand don't really care and seem to be happy when the child doesnt understand and seem to ridicule them in from of other classmates. Teacher forgot long time ago, that we trust them to do their best to bring out the best in our children and build their healthy self esteem so they can't contribute to our society fully. There is a lot we as parents can do, but our children are looking out for directions from other as well.

obat kuat
April 06, 2014

This is the reality of India, but Now India is getting more educated and socially which is the best happening in our country.The Right to Education Act has virtually outlawed all examinations and standardised testing of any kind.