Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The scandalous barriers to firing incompetent teachers

Mark Hemingway links to this LA Weekly story about what it takes in Los Angeles to fire incompetent teachers. Read the entire story, but if you're on blood pressure medicine, you might want to take a pill first.

It took over three years plus a couple hundred thousand dollars to get rid of a 74-year old fourth grade math teacher who couldn't teach the math and couldn't control her class with students engaging in fights right in front of her. Think of all the classes of children who passed through that class year after year and didn't learn anything except that they could misbehave and get away with it.

And this story is typical of what is happening in Los Angeles as teachers unions fight to keep every incompetent teacher in classrooms.
Los Angeles Unified School District, with its 885 schools and 617,000 students, educates one in every 10 children in California. It also mirrors a troubled national system of teacher evaluations and job security that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan says must change. Recent articles in the Los Angeles Times have described teachers who draw full pay for years while they sit at home fighting allegations of sexual or physical misconduct.

But the far larger problem in L.A. is one of "performance cases" — the teachers who cannot teach, yet cannot be fired. Their ranks are believed to be sizable — perhaps 1,000 teachers, responsible for 30,000 children. But in reality, nobody knows how many of LAUSD's vast system of teachers fail to perform. Superintendent Ramon Cortines tells the Weekly he has a "solid" figure, but he won't release it. In fact, almost all information about these teachers is kept secret.

But the Weekly has found, in a five-month investigation, that principals and school district leaders have all but given up dismissing such teachers. In the past decade, LAUSD officials spent $3.5 million trying to fire just seven of the district's 33,000 teachers for poor classroom performance — and only four were fired, during legal struggles that wore on, on average, for five years each. Two of the three others were paid large settlements, and one was reinstated. The average cost of each battle is $500,000.

During our investigation, in which we obtained hundreds of documents using the California Public Records Act, we also discovered that 32 underperforming teachers were initially recommended for firing, but then secretly paid $50,000 by the district, on average, to leave without a fight. Moreover, 66 unnamed teachers are being continually recycled through a costly mentoring and retraining program but failing to improve, and another 400 anonymous teachers have been ordered to attend the retraining.
Think of the money that the LA school district is spending on getting rid of these teachers. Then think of the costs of keeping such teachers in terms of generations of students who learn nothing. But that is how the unions have negotiated their contracts and, in California, the teachers unions are inviolable. It's a lot easier to fire an incompetent city employee than a terrible teacher. But who really does more harm? It's almost incalculable the damage done to all those children by wasting the opportunities to teach them while they're young and thus condemning them a poor education and the lower life opportunities. All to keep the teacher unions happy.

And if the school district does manage to pay off a bad teacher to leave, there is nothing left on the teacher's record to indicate that he or she left a job because they were asked to leave. So they can go somewhere else and get yet another job damaging children. Even if a principal does want to get rid of bad teacher and endure all the paperwork and costs of doing so, the teacher is allowed five bad evaluations before the principal can begin the firing process which then can drag on for several more years. And the children keep getting pushed through these mediocre teachers' classes and falling further and further behind.

The answer is to either change these union contracts. If that is impossible, then charter schools provide an alternative. Teachers at schools such as mine give up their tenure for the opportunity to teach in an environment where we know that incompetent teachers won't be allowed to stay around. When I know that all my peers are putting forth their strongest efforts, I'm inspired to work harder in my own classes. Just think of the opposite message that is spread in school districts like LAUSD where other teachers see mediocrities remaining in classrooms year after year. And then think of all those children subjected to these incompetents with no escape simply because politicians have made a despicable deal with the teachers unions.