It's complicated: Washington Post profiles district efforts to dismiss a teacher

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How far should job protections go? What does good teaching look like? 

On the front page of the Washington Post today, reporter Emma Brown explores the complexities of teacher tenure and dismissal in profiling the dismissal case of teacher Violet Nichols in the region's largest school district, Fairfax County Public Schools. The story is well worth a read.

Here are some takeaways worth pondering: 

1) In a system where few teachers are dismissed a year (2 tenured teachers out of 14,000 teachers in 2012), it is hard to not feel like Nichols is being singled out, particularly because schools historically have not taken action to dismiss teachers deemed struggling. (Also Nichols is African American and her principal is white; Nichols' defense is she is being discriminated against.) If conversations about performance were more routine, this story would look and feel very different. 

2) Teacher evaluations are subjective, at least in how they have traditionally been performed. The basic data that the district does have on student achievement--which isn't value added--suggests that Nichols' students perform no differently from other students at the school. But if we could see the gains students achieved in Nichols' classroom, then we'd have a better understanding of whether the methods she uses were effective. Here data could have a role in coming to her defense--not exactly the argument we usually hear about value added data. 

3) Principals and districts should have the right to decide who works for them. But in public education, it isn't just up to the boss whether or not a teacher keeps her job. Arbitrators, school board members and even the courts (and in this case, the general public) get to weigh in.

4) Fairfax offered Nichols a secret deal, according to the Post coverage. If another principal is willing to hire Nichols, then Fairfax is willing to sweep this whole dismissal episode under the rug. They'd also give her a satisfactory recommendation if she transfers to another school district. It is quite possible Nichols could do fine in another school, under another principal. Should she be given that chance?  Some might argue that this is simply an example of the dance of the lemons...if, of course, Nichols is in fact a lemon. 

Emily Cohen