Jonathan Chait

Do Bad Teachers Exist At All?

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Diane Ravitch, the converted anti-education reform apostle, rages against teacher-bashing:

For the past week, the national media has launched an attack on American public education that is unprecedented in our history. NBC devoted countless hours to panels stacked with "experts" who believe that public education is horrible because it has so many "bad" teachers and "bad" principals. The same "experts" appeared again and again to call for privatization, breaking teachers' unions, and mass firings of "bad" educators.

The scare quotes seem to imply, do they not, that there is no such thing as bad teachers. If so, that would make teaching the only profession in the world exempt from incompetence.

Ravitch proceeds to argue that it really is easy to fire teachers:

The claim that "tenure" is a guarantee of lifetime employment is a canard. Professors in higher education get lifetime tenure, but teachers in K-12 schools do not have lifetime employment: they have the right to due process if the principal wants to fire them. Teachers get due process rights only after a principal agrees that they have earned it. The reason for due-process rights is that teachers have been fired because of their race, their religion, their sexual orientation, or because a supervisor didn't like them. Teachers with due process can be fired, but only after a hearing by an impartial hearing officer.

Ravitch's portrait of a system that smoothly processes teacher terminations, weeding out only clear bias, is hard to square with cases like, oh, this:

Mohammed’s case was the first to reach arbitration since the introduction of an initiative called Peer Intervention Program (P.I.P.) Plus, which was created to address the problem of tenured teachers who are suspected of incompetence, not those accused of a crime or other misconduct. P.I.P. Plus was included in the contract negotiated by Klein and Weingarten in 2007. The deal seemed good for both sides: a teacher accused of incompetence would first be assigned a “peer”a retired teacher or principalfrom a neutral consulting company agreed upon by the union and the city. The peer would observe the teacher for up to a year and provide counselling. If the observer determined that the teacher was indeed incompetent and was unlikely to improve, the observer would write a detailed report saying so. The report could then be used as evidence in a removal hearing conducted by an arbitrator agreed upon by the union and the city. “We as a union need to make sure we don’t defend the indefensible,” Weingarten told me. Klein and Weingarten both say that a key goal of P.I.P. Plus was to streamline incompetency arbitration hearings. It has not worked out that way.

The evidence of Mohammed’s incompetencefound in more than five thousand pages of transcripts from her hearingseems as unambiguous as the city’s lawyer promised in his opening statement: “These children were abused in stealth. . . . It was chronic . . . a failure to complete report cards. . . . Respondent failed to correct student work, failed to follow the mandated curriculum . . . failed to manage her class.” The independent observer’s final report supported this assessment, ticking off ten bullet points describing Mohammed’s unsatisfactory performance. (Mohammed’s lawyer argues that she began to be rated unsatisfactory only after she became active with the union.)

This was the thirtieth day of a hearing that started last December. Under the union contract, hearings on each case are held five days a month during the school year and two days a month during the summer. Mohammed’s case is likely to take between forty and forty-five hearing dayseight times as long as the average criminal trial in the United States. (The Department of Education’s spotty records suggest that incompetency hearings before the introduction of P.I.P. Plus generally took twenty to thirty days; the addition of the peer observer’s testimony and report seems to have slowed things down.) Jay Siegel, the arbitrator in Mohammed’s case, who has thirty days to write a decision, estimates that he will exceed his deadline, because of what he says is the amount of evidence under consideration. This means that Mohammed’s case is not likely to be decided before December, a year after it began. That is about fifty per cent more time, from start to finish, than the O.J. trial took.

While the lawyers argued in measured tones, Mohammeda slender, polite woman who appeared to be in her early fortiessat silently in one of six chairs bunched around a small conference table. The morning’s proceedings focussed first on a medical excuse that Mohammed produced for not showing up at the previous day’s hearing. Dennis DaCosta, an earnest young lawyer from the Teacher Performance Unit, pointed out that the doctor’s letter was eleven days old and therefore had nothing to do with her supposedly being sick the day before. The letter referred to a chronic condition, Antonio Cavallaro, Mohammed’s union-paid defense counsel, replied. Siegel said that he would reserve judgment.

It is so difficult and draining even to fire the worst of the worst that there is a name given to the process by which principles try to slough off their under-performing teachers onto other districts: The Dance Of The Lemons. You can chip around the edges of the evidence supporting the reform movement and the simple narrative of "Waiting for Superman," but Ravitch's propagandistic response is simply embarrassing.

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