This post is going to focus on a short part of this 8 minute video - from about the 7 minute mark to just shy of the 8 minute mark. John Stewart makes a joke about how it's wrong to pick on bad teachers when the working world is filled with crappy employees (he cites how incompetent fast food restaurant workers can be) and Diane Ravitch responds with an anecdote about how a principal stated that in her 15 years supervising 300 teachers, she only had one bad teacher, who she fired. Her point being that the number of bad teachers is so minuscule that it has nothing to do with education problems.
First, I understand that John Stewart was making a joke, and I do in fact have a sense of humor. I realize that a serious rebuttal to a joking statement can make you seem like an ass, but I'm going to try anyway. If I go to a fast food restaurant and have a totally incompetent server, I have lots of options, most of which I can do right away and have very little negative impact beyond the cost of the meal in question, and my blood pressure rise if I really get steamy about it. I can talk to the manager. I can avoid this specific server if I ever see them again. I can avoid a specific location of the chain. I can boycott the whole chain. I can write a letter to corporate management. Again, there are no big long-term problems with any of these approaches.
I'm going to say here in BIG LETTERS - this is a theoretical discussion based on years of different schools and talking to different parents. THIS IS NOT about a specific situation that I am going through in a school we are now attending.
Let's contrast the fast food problem with a horrible situation with one teacher. A parent probably won't figure this out for a while in the school year. At that point, there are most likely other teachers and classes that are going well. Pulling a kid out of a school for bullying might be able to be done quickly, but for a poor teacher? Not so much. You're lucky if it can happen in a year, and at that point the teacher is in your kid's past, so why bother? In a fast food restaurant, the management is often willing to come up with something to make the customer happy, not so much the administration in schools. If several parents come together and cite a problem, it seems to make administrators more defensive. I think the political ramifications of throwing a fit while leaving your kid in the same classroom is pretty obvious. These are worst case situations, but even scaled down you can see why, for parents, a bad teacher has bigger ramifications then a bad fast food server.
The idea of 1 in 300 sounds nice. It's not my experience. I'm not saying that training and support couldn't bring the numbers down to that level, but as a customer, that's not my concern or business. In my job we have performance reviews, counseling, moving people to positions where they can do less harm, pushing people to quit, out and out firing as options, and I've seen all happen. It's scary and unpleasant, but some people need to go, or at least be isolated so they don't screw everything up.
I'm not saying that poor teachers are the biggest problem in education. Compared with collapsing buildings, kids living in poverty, and underfunded school systems, it's probably a distant fourth. On the other hand, it's the one direct interaction with the system that happens every school day. With a job as important as teaching, that impacts kids so directly, we need to acknowledge that bad teachers do exist and cause real problems.