Lat Spurs Discussion About Firing Teachers

by | May 5, 2009

Last week, the Los Angeles Times ran a blockbuster of an investigative story about how hard it is to fire tenured public school teachers. "The path can be laborious and labyrinthine, in some cases involving years of investigation, union grievances, administrative appeals, court challenges and re-hearings," the Times reported. "Jettisoning a teacher solely because he or she can't teach is rare. In 80 percent of the dismissals that were upheld, classroom performance was not even a factor."

The fact that firing a tenured teacher is nearly impossible isn't news, but the Times story is causing a stir. Yesterday, the newspaper ran a follow-up article reporting that, based on the outcry over the initial piece, school officials in Los Angeles are "call[ing] for legislation easing the firing of teachers." Already, unsurprisingly, the local teachers' union has announced it will fight the move. Much of the debate over the article has taken the form of he-said, she-said: Many readers point to the union as the problem, the union blames the city, and teachers accused of incompetence say administrators victimize them. 

But, squabbling aside, what might a reformed dismissal system look like? I asked a few education policy experts for their thoughts. Cindy Brown, vice president for education policy at the Center for American Progress, emphasized that better teacher evaluations are the key to more efficient and effective dismissals. "You need to have a good data system that links student achievement to individual teachers, and you need to look at the value a teacher adds to a student's learning," Brown explained. (The Obama administration has been pushing for data systems.) Evaluations should also look at more subjective factors that can only be gleaned from careful, regulated observation. "Evaluations have to be much more serious undertakings than they are now, where a principal might stop in a teacher's room once a semester," Brown said. "Principals might not have time. They should have master teachers, or mentor teachers, or retired teachers doing the observations and writing them up with rubrics, looking at the same things in every classroom." Then, when it comes time to take up grievances against teachers for their classroom performance, school systems will have reliable data in hand--as opposed to the rumors and finger-pointing they often grapple with now. "Due process rights are something that should apply in any kind of personnel situation, even one with test data and formal evaluations," Brown said. "[But, under a reformed system], both sides can present their case."

Rae Belisle, president and CEO of EdVoice, a California-based education advocacy group, said that, in the Golden State specifically, there are too many layers to the formal dismissal process--piled on by both the state legislature and individual school districts. Streamlining it would mean less confusion and make administrators more willing to invest in the process when they are dealing with underperformers, as opposed to compelling other schools to hire them (a problem I discuss in an article in this week's print edition). "If you look at our education code in California, it's very detailed when it comes to labor relationships with teachers," DeLisle said. "If you have a process that has a lot of little steps and you miss one step, that makes it hard [to engage in]."

There is no silver bullet for fixing dismissal systems. But it has to start with better teacher evaluations and clearer grievance procedures. Otherwise, bad teachers will often remain in classrooms without consequence--except to students.  

--Seyward Darby

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