You’re Fired!

The idea that schools can be fixed by firing teachers has become a fixation. In this episode of Have You Heard, Jack Schneider and I discuss the origins of the idea, which he has helpfully distilled here in this amazing graphic. We hear from three Boston teachers whose schools are about to be turned upside down, the lives of their immigrant students made even more chaotic in these unsettled times. As scholar Tina Trujillo explains, the turn-and-churn model of school reform reflects a larger erosion of the idea that public education is public good. Be sure to listen to the very end of the episode (or skip down to the bottom of the transcript below), where we announce our guest for episode #3. Fine, I’ll give you a hint. She was in the running to be Secretary of Education… If you have a question you want us to ask her, flag us on Twitter at @BisforBerkshire or @edu_historian, or leave a comment here. And if you missed episode #1 of this season, Vouchers: a Love Story, you can catch it on Soundcloud, or iTunes.

Berkshire: Welcome back. I’m Jennifer Berkshire. We’ve been talking about school turnarounds in this episode of Have You Heard and we have a special guest on the line. Tina Trujillo is an Associate Professor at UC Berkeley. Tina are you there?
Tina Trujillo: Hi, I am here. It’s good to be here.
Berkshire: We’ve been hearing from some teachers at two different Boston high schools that are in the process of being turned around. All of the teachers are having to re-apply for their jobs. One thing that came out so clearly is the teachers high level of skepticism about this particular policy path and as you’ve been arguing for some time now, research actually bears them out.
Trujillo: Absolutely, yes. I would say that the warnings about these types of competition-oriented, test-driven reforms, they didn’t start with my work with Michelle Renee. Jack has done great work and pointed to the weaknesses in these theories, historically speaking. Others have looked at this for some time. We have over two decades of solid, empirical evidence that explains the reasons why these types of high-stakes turnaround reforms are destined to fail. We have work that looks at early efforts to reconstitute staff and it shows not just that student achievement did not change, or did not significantly change, gaps in achievement between different racial or linguistic or socioeconomic groups. They don’t change under these models. What does happen is there are other counterproductive effects and I would imagine that those are some of the concerns that the teachers you’ve been talking to intuitively understand about what happens professionally when you completely lay off a staff and change the composition of the faculty and the principal. We have the research that shows us this.
We can also think of this from the commonsensical perspective and not the dominant common sense that we hear so much about –the market mentality and the need to just get tough on schools and have higher standards. Thinking about it from the students’ perspective, what happens when you walk into the school door and every adult looks different and all the teachers are new and there’s a new principal and that principal has enormous challenges facing her or him as far as developing the skills of an entirely new staff immediately to attain some kind of dramatic gains in test-based achievement. It just doesn’t happen. Stability goes down in schools, the climate suffers, teacher churn increases— even the teachers whose jobs aren’t threatened. We’ve seen in DC and elsewhere from other evaluations and research that they voluntarily leave and they’re not necessarily the worst or least experienced teachers who leave. They’re teachers who are demoralized by these types of threats that they know from their own professional judgment, they know that this is not the way that you improve and learn new skills.
Schneider: Tina, I did my best to try to lay out some of the policy assumptions that guide belief in turnarounds and reconstitution. I’m wondering if you could maybe speak for a minute about what you think the logic is and what the evidence base of those who support emptying a school out and then repopulating it with teachers and a new curriculum etcetera, what evidence would they point to and how would you explain the policy logic that underlies that kind of work?
Trujillo: If you think about the original policy logic or the theory of action, if you would call it that, behind school turnarounds and the reconstitution of staff, it comes out of business and industry. In business and industry, there was once an assumption that if you can lay everybody off and use a much more dramatic approach to making big, bold changes in the composition of who is working for you that you can dramatically turn around a company quickly. In the research world, we know from the business and management literature, that that logic didn’t play out there either. Schools have actually adopted an approach that has already been disproven in the industry where it originated.
I think that the theory of action behind school turnarounds and reconstitution rests on a few assumptions. One is that teachers aren’t motivated enough to change, but if they know that their job is threatened, that they don’t have job stability, then they will then know what to do to change and those changes can actually result in significant improvements in student achievement. We also assume that there are better, more qualified teachers available to fill those vacancies just like we assume there are better, more qualified principals to replace those outgoing principals, but we don’t have evidence that this happens. We have evidence that, in fact, the replacements for these teachers are often of an equal quality or lower. We also have evidence that these coercive threats of losing your job or being sanctioned in one way or another, they demotivate teachers, they demoralize them and they push them out. We don’t have evidence that supports those types of assumptions.
Berkshire: I want to ask you, there’s been, obviously we’re in a very robust period as far as education news. There’s been so much going on that the previous administration’s enormous investment in school improvement grants and the disappointing results that that effort produced got a little bit lost in the shuffle. The responses to that were pretty interesting. I saw, some people were saying, this basically shows that you can’t turn a school around. This is making an even stronger case for-
Schneider: Shutting them down.
Berkshire: Voucher programs. For shutting them down, opening up more charter schools, etcetera. For teachers like the ones that I’ve been interviewing who feel so strongly that this isn’t the right path, what kinds of policies should they be pushing for?
Trujillo: That’s a great question. I share your concern, Jennifer. There’s a lot of discourse right now in education and what’s happening nationally, a lot of rhetoric around vouchers and choice. There are, and this isn’t to oversimplify things, but we know of more productive, more promising policies and reforms. We know that school integration is one of the strongest ways to close different gaps between racial and socioeconomic groups; integration policies are one. Adequate funding is an enormous issue right now and it’s a challenge that schools are facing in all 50 states, the inadequacy of the general funding and the inequitable systems for allocating funds across districts. Those finance systems need to be reformed.
We also know that increased learning time in the form of extended learning opportunities that are high-quality, that that makes a difference in student achievement over the long-term. We have more affluent communities where the families can make up for whatever time that students aren’t in school with music lessons, with summer camp, with after school programs, different opportunities for enrichment. Then we have much more economically, which are also oftentimes racially, isolated schools in communities where those resources don’t exist. We know that extended learning time, high-quality extended learning time, is something that is related to higher student achievement. We know that investments in early childhood education pay enormous benefits over the long-run of the students’ academic careers as well as their long-term life outcomes. We know that reforms that are embedded in more community-based efforts and that engage the community can be sustained for longer. This work comes out of long-standing work out of Chicago and elsewhere, like Bryk and his colleagues have said, they have found that the more the community is engaged with the reform itself rather than being threatened or losing the school entirely, the more likely that that reform is to really be sustained over a number of years.
Schneider: Tina.
Trujillo: There’s also just the issue of timing and giving a reform time to work. I want to hear what you have to say in just a second, Jack.
Schneider: Sure.
Trujillo: Most of the appeal of the turnaround model is that it sounds really sexy and dramatic. You can do something really quickly overnight, but that’s not, and we know from a research perspective and from a practitioner perspective, that’s not the way schools change. Jack you were going to say?
Schneider: I want to make an observation here. It’s an observation about how politics work because you mentioned two kinds of approaches. One is desegregation and the other you gave us a series of research backed interventions that of course cost a lot of money so extended learning or wraparound programs, universal early childhood education, high-quality early childhood education. The observation that I have here is that these things take a lot of political and financial capital and they involve people giving up some of their own private good for the public good. Desegregation, the idea there is that everybody is going to be better off but you may not get to go to the very kind of school that you wish to because there is a greater good that we’re after here.
I just wanted to make an observation that the failures of efforts to marshal people around the idea of the collective good in the sixties and seventies kind of led directly to this approach birthed in the eighties and coming to fruition in the nineties and early oughts which would be we don’t need to give anything up, you don’t need to make any sacrifices, you don’t need to divert your tax dollars to poor kids, you don’t need to send your kid to school with kids of color because we can replicate what works. We can create a good school anywhere. We can have excellence for all and all we need to do let’s look at what works, we’ll get a good building, we’ll get good teachers, we’ll get a good curriculum and of course those assumptions are really easy to make if you’re engaged in this simplistic policy thinking about what makes a school.
Whereas when you’re seeing a school as an ecosystem and as a rich highly contextual place where each part affects all of the others and, for instance, swapping out all of the teaches is going to have a devastating impact on the ecosystem. That’s a very different way of looking at it. I’m wondering if you can comment and then I think we need to move on. Jennifer is giving me the wrap it up look.
Berkshire: I am. I also happened to catch your reference to excellence for all.
Schneider: Yeah that’s a plug.
Berkshire: I’m pretty sure you were plugging one of your previous books.
Schneider: Oh yeah. I get a dollar for every one that’s sold but so the question that I’ve got is do you see any hope for revitalizing the common mission of education, education as a public good and getting people politically motivated around the kinds of reforms that we know work so integrated schools, universal Pre-K, high quality Pre-K, providing schools with all of the resources they need even if it is additional services to give kids equal opportunity?
Trujillo: I think you are hitting on one of the largest challenges that is facing public education right now, Jack, and that is thinking about a common good or a collective good or a public good. Thinking about education as a public good, that is no longer the dominant way of thinking about public schools. We now have generations, decades, of test-based reforms and discourse around schools that very much focuses on individual achievement and individualized attainment of different educational resources and goals and things like that. What we have, then, is a society that is very much socialized to think in terms of me, not in terms of us, not to think about education as something that is a common good. Thinking of education as a public good means sometimes making certain sacrifices or doing something that is going to benefit the broader collective or the community or society, and not only thinking about my individual children and what is only best for my children, instead of thinking about what is best for the group.
I see that in my students. My students who have never taught before the era of high-stakes testing and accountability, they don’t yet have well-developed notions of what a common good is or how public education in this country is an inherently communitarian concept. They talk about-
Schneider: And of course-
Trujillo: They talk about themselves and their identities in terms of their students’ test scores. A good example is I had a student just last year where we were reading John Dewey and we were reading about progressive education and his critique of John Dewey was that John Dewey didn’t establish benchmarks and that Dewey was not explicit about his measurable results.
Schneider: Measurable gains. You’ve got a Teach for America core member on your hands there.
Trujillo: He dismissed Dewey and these notions of progressive education because they didn’t fit into this schema that he had developed as a teacher who has only worked in this very individual-focused, individualistic, test-based, competitive culture of public schools. I cut you off, Jack. What were you going to say?
Schneider: No you didn’t cut me off. You kept me from cutting you off. You had a clear line to the goal line there and you were not going to be tackled.
Trujillo: Sorry.
Schneider: I was just going to add that, of course, people say that the Secretary of Education doesn’t have a tremendous amount of power but of course Betsy DeVos who is a big supporter of choice and particularly of vouchers, has the power of the, it’s a mini-bully pulpit, but to foster this vision of education as a private good, as a market commodity that people can shop for.
Trujillo: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah.
Berkshire: Tina Trujillo I want to thank you for letting us pepper you with questions. If people don’t know your work, they should look you up. Tina Trujillo at UC Berkeley. Tina, hang out on the line for just a second because Jack and I are foreshadowing our next episode and I think you’re going to be very interested. Jack do you want to do the honors?
Schneider: Sure.
Trujillo: I’m excited.
Schneider: Coming up on episode three for those who have managed to sit through two episodes will be a special guest, Michelle Rhee will be joining us. If our listeners want to brush up, they should rewatch Waiting for Superman or at least check out the famous Time Magazine cover with Michelle Rhee holding a broom on it. If people want to send us questions in advance, things that they would like us to talk about, they can tweet those at us using the hashtag #haveyouheard or directing them @bisforberkshire or @edu … I believe it’s an underscore.
Berkshire: You’re an underscore.
Schneider: I’m underscored. Edu_historian. Jennifer Berkshire and Jack Snyder. Tina if you want to give us a question that you should be thinking about before our conversation with Michelle Rhee, we will put you on the spot here.
Trujillo: Oh, at this moment? Okay. There are quite a few questions that I think are important to ask Rhee at this point. I think talking to Rhee about her record and the lack of positive results in her record, that’s a conversation that could be rehashed, but I think we already know what happened in Washington DC. I’m more interested in whether she is considering the decades of evidence that point to the lack of promise behind the types of reforms, choice-based reforms, that she promoted and that she continues to promote. I think moving forward at a national level, that is an enormously important question to ask of anybody who is engaged in the national scene on educational policy. These notions of choice and competition-oriented reform—if you look at the evidence, and do not just stick to ideological beliefs, we don’t have the evidence to support them. Is she expanding her considerations of the roles of teachers unions, of community-based reforms, more democratic investments in schools and communities? Because that’s where the evidence lies.
Berkshire: Excellent questions all. We will be back in a few weeks. I’m Jennifer Berkshire.
Schneider: I’m Jack Schneider.
Berkshire: This is Have You Heard.


  1. Public good has a specific definition for economists, and public school does not fit that definition. For an economist, a public good must be a) not rival, that is your consumption of the good or service has no impact on my consumption of the good or service, and b) not excludable, that is you can not be prevented from consuming the good or service.

    School based education is certainly excludable. We see this every day in the admission requirements for individual schools. We see this with tuition charges for private K-12 schools and virtually all colleges and universities. School based education is also rival when congested, that is when class size increases beyond a certain point the education becomes worse for those already in a class when yet another student is added to the class. The argument in favor of small classes is based on the rivalness of education.

    Education is not a public good, rather a club good, that is a service that is excludable and rival when congested. It is also a good that provides external benefits to others as I am more productive and live a better life if the people around me are more educated. That is the basis of the argument to subsidize education, just as it is the basis of the argument to subsidize public transportation (where your riding the T will free up a space for me to park, make the road I am driving on less congested, and make my air cleaner because your not driving your car.)

    These external benefits from education, however, do not depend on the structure of the institutions doing the education. I am better off because my neighbors are educated, but it does not matter if they were educate at private schools like Sidwell Friends or charter schools like Community Roots Charter School or traditional public schools like PS 321 in New York City.

    1. You seem to be arguing that the ability of a wealthy group to set up a competing structure disqualifies the public good from being the public good. By that definition, the private police force hired to protect expensive property argues against the public good of a police force. A private militia argues against the public good of a military. A private health care policy repudiates medicare. In each case, citizens can be prevented from consuming the better service although they can not be prevented from consuming the public one to the extent that it exists.

      You also seem to be arguing that when a public good can no longer provide the same level of performance that it once did (such as when defunding results in rising class size) that it is disqualified from being considered a public good. You don’t argue that a public good should always maintain sufficient funding to meet the criteria for being good for the public. You seem to be saying that there is really only private interest and varying ability to rip out personal benefit.

      Your second point, to the extent that there is external benefit derived from an educated public, is that the benefit to you is unrelated whether that school is private, public or charter. I would argue that this is untrue since it is obvious that the education and opportunity provided by these three institutions are not equivalent. The nature of socialization and education absolutely depends on the structure and means of the institution doing the educating. The Sidwell graduate and the No Excuses charter graduate couldn’t be any different in terms of their socialization, education and opportunity. Therefore, your neighbors are not equally prepared for participation in the marketplace merely because they all receive something we call schooling. Moreover, it is of profound social consequence to you should the preparation of your neighbor conflict with your definition of a better life. One need only look at the preparation of Hitler Youth to recognize that education is more than a delivery system and that we all have a vested interest in it beyond some idea of it as a neutral criteria of employability.

      1. Audrey,

        What I attempted to do was to present the definition of public good used by economists and show that education does not count as a public good under that definition.

        Let me use your example of the military to illustrate the difference. Protection from invasion, which I take to be the importance of the military, does qualify as a public good using the economist’s definition of public good. If my neighbors are to be protected against invasion by a foreign military force, there is no practical way that the foreign military force can be allowed to invade my house and prevented from invading my neighbors houses, so I can not be excluded from that protection. Protecting me from being invaded by a foreign military force does not lower the amount of protection provided to my neighbors, so that protection is not rival.

        Contrast this to school based education. If my neighbors are allowed to attend Maple Middle School, I can still be prevented from attending Maple Middle School, so it is excludable. If everyone in my town attends Maple Middle School, class size would be large so adding additional student would lower the learning that goes on the the classroom, so school based education does become rival. Education does not qualify as a public good using the economist’s definition of a public good.

        It would be useful if you would give the definition for a public good that you are using when you speak of school based education as a public good.

        As for my second point, do you know if the people around you have attended a private primary school, a charter primary school, a magnet primary school, or a traditional public school? Have they attended a private high school, a charter high school, a magnet high school, or a traditional high school? Did they go to a private or public college? A private or public graduate school?

        My own educational history is a private kindergarten, a traditional public school through the third grade, a magnet like program from fourth through sixth, traditional public junior high and high school, private college and public university for my PhD. Do you think you my students can tell that I went to a traditional high school and my colleagues students can tell that they went to a private high school? Do you know what kind of schools your professors attended? Does it matter?

        1. Dear Teachingeconomist,

          I moved this out of the thread because who wants to read a narrow column? but it is a response to your response. Thank you for the opportunity to think about this topic.

          I looked up your definitions to better understand your point. First, it is not the case that all public goods are absolutely nonexcludable and nonrivalrous. So, we can breathe a sigh of relief there. There are many examples of public goods that are reduced by use such as roadways, dams and sewers which decay over time. There are also public goods which in a given set of circumstances are excludable (especially if underfunded). If there is a fire in two separate parts of town and only one fire truck.. or two crimes and only one police car… or two foreign incursions but only one set of troops available… someone will do without the good. So to that extent the public good can be both rivalrous and excludable.

          To look further at education, every child can go to a public school if not a particular public school. I see no reason why structured delivery of the public good is exclusionary. As a definition, they have all received their measure of the good.. even if only in theory. Using your argument about the public defense… a given community is defended by troops but they are not defended by all troops or even the troops they might prefer. Some troops will defend the neighboring town. It does not exclude the public defense from being a public good that particular troops are defending particular pieces of earth and not all pieces of earth simultaneously.

          You could argue that a wealthy community could command better troops and more immediate and enthusiastic defense. But, is this an argument for club membership or a description of the corrupting impact of privilege? Given the low college completion rates of charters and the high career advantage of private feeder schools, I think we can agree that all education is not equal and that where you receive it does matter. Is that an argument against education as a public good or evidence of the way in which the empowered insure their advantages even in the consumption of a public good. Should we reduce our definition of the public good to only those things which can’t be gamed? The list would be awfully small at that point.

          To your point that I would not know which schools a given person in my community attended.. if that is true, it’s only if I’m not paying attention. If you look at Success Academy, for instance, which produces very high scores on 3-8 state tests, they are able to get few of their students into specialized high schools (which will confer lifelong advantage) and they don’t even publish their regents pass rate (which we all know they would if they could.) So, we can infer that a no excuses charter will not produce advantages past a 3-8 state test score and that I will be able to recognize those alumni by their lesser advantages in the marketplace.

          We also can look at advantages as are derived from certain selective public high schools and feeder private schools which lead directly to tier one private colleges all which confers lifetime career benefits. Many more students will get into Harvard from Boston Latin, Stuyvesant or Phillips Exeter than will from Joe Public School. DoI know where a child came from based on where they go? According to research by the Equality of Opportunity Project More students from the top 1% of the income scale than from the entire bottom 60% attend Darmouth, Princeton, Yale, Penn and Brown. Would you make a bet on those odds? I would.

          I can attest to how advantage works out over time. Having occasion to know plenty of ivy graduates, It’s not necessarily that they possess the better brain or more ambition than their public university counterparts. There is a whole system of gatekeeping going on in the Ivy franchise. I worked in the Barnard Alumnae office while getting my masters degree. It is explicitly in their self interest to promote their brand by preferencing other members and they do a good job of insuring that their alums can get entry in any field of their desire where another alum has purchase. I also remember with (some personal bitterness, I admit) attempting to get an interview as a cub journalist after several years of being an editor of my college paper) at a major newspaper (probably a naive move). Their interest in interviewing me was filtered directly through which school I attended. The first and last question they asked me was which school I attended. As soon as they heard my State University pedigree, I could not show they my work or meet with anyone. So, does it matter. If you read the bios in any desirable profession including that of tenured university professors, you’ll find that the right tee shirt predominates. Undoubtedly, you already know it. As a friend of mine who received her MFA in Art from Yale once noted, “It was worth the lifetime debt because absolutely every single commission I ever received came to me through my Yale connections.”

          Is education an example of club membership? Is it exclusionary and rivalrous? Seems so. But, if so, it is not because it is not a public good, but because of the conferring advantage of privilege in an overly free market economy. It adds insult to injury to not only confer that advantage but then use it to exclude the public good from even being defined as such. So, after thinking about it, I disagree with you. It continues to be in the public interest that the public is educated, that their education not be a constraint upon their pursuit of happiness and that good that it confers to them as citizens and to society as a whole be sufficiently supported by public dollars.

        2. Audrey,

          My apologies for taking so long to respond. I hope you check in and see the response.

          First, I still think it would be helpful if you would state your definition for a public good. When you say “Is education an example of club membership? Is it exclusionary and rivalrous? Seems so. But, if so, it is not because it is not a public good…” it is clear that you are not using the economist’s definition of a public good. By that definition, a club good is no more a public good than an orange is an apple. It has nothing to do with choosing to exclude some people and admit others, but with the ability to exclude anyone at all.

          Perhaps another example would be useful. A lighthouse warns all ships in an area of a dangerous rock. We can not, even if we desired it, choose some ships to warn and others not to warn of this rock. Individual ships can not possibly be excluded from this warning.

          Contrast this with school based education. We can, and do, exclude students from attending almost all of the schools in the country. We could, if we choose, not allow a student to attend any school and keep schools open for everyone else. We can not choose a ship not to see the lighthouse without turning the lighthouse off and preventing every ship from being warned about the rock. Schools are excludable because we have the power to allow some to attend and prevent others from attending while lighthouses are not excludable because the only possible way to prevent a particular ship from seeing the light is to prevent all ships from seeing the light.

          Excludability does not depend on funding levels, but the nature of the good itself. Lets take your example of fire protection example, a classic one used in an economics class. In cities, it is not possible to provide fire protection to the the residents of apartment 3A without also protecting the residents of apartment 2A or 4B or 3C as well. Your concern about the ability to simultaneously put out multiple fires is a not a question of excludability, but rivalrousness: does putting out my fire mean that your fire can not be put out.

          Can you set out how you define a public good so we can see which goods might be classified as public goods and which not?

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