When Teachers Don't Make the Grade
Governor says his plan will streamline the rules for getting rid of poor educators. Critics say the proposition won't work and might backfire.
By Duke Helfand and Joel Rubin
Times Staff Writers
July 31, 2005
Principal Faye Banton can walk through the classrooms of Edison Middle School in South Los Angeles and quickly identify her weakest teachers. But Banton knows she can't dismiss them without a drawn-out fight.
"It takes much too long to get rid of them," she said. "There is a real need for change."
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger believes he has the solution: a voter initiative that would extend the probationary period for new teachers and change the rules for firing veterans who perform poorly.
But critics, including the state's association of school boards, say the governor has missed the mark. The initiative would not achieve his popular goal and might, in fact, make removing problem teachers harder, they say.
Schwarzenegger, whose initiative will appear on the state ballot in a Nov. 8 special election, says the issue is simple.
"If you have someone who does not perform well in any job … you are able to get rid of that person. And we cannot do that" with teachers, he said.
Large numbers of government employees and workers in many unionized businesses share job protections similar to those of teachers. Unlike college and university professors, public school teachers do not receive lifetime tenure.
But the idea of reducing teachers' job protections is popular with many principals and parents concerned about the difficulty of removing poor-performing instructors. A Field Poll last month found broad support for the teacher measure among registered voters, with 59% supporting it and 35% opposed.
Under state law, school districts can dismiss teachers during their first two years on the job without providing any reason. After two years in the classroom, teachers earn the more protective "permanent status." Before dismissing a permanent-status teacher, district officials must meticulously document poor performance over time, formally declare the intention to dismiss the teacher and then give the instructor 90 days to improve.
Schwarzenegger's measure — known as the Put the Kids First Act — would authorize school districts to dismiss teachers summarily during the first five years.
The initiative also would simplify the process for dismissing teachers with permanent status, allowing district officials to fire a teacher after two consecutive unsatisfactory evaluations without declaring their intentions in advance or waiting 90 days.
Dismissed teachers would still be entitled to a hearing before an administrative judge and two credentialed teachers from outside their district. State law empowers such panels to uphold or overturn teacher dismissals.
The struggle to remove underperforming teachers is a familiar frustration in California school systems. Schools often provide extra training and mentoring for teachers who receive unsatisfactory evaluations in an effort to help them improve and stay on the job.
But rather than hassle with dismissing a teacher, which can consume hundreds of hours, some administrators shuffle problem instructors from school to school in a practice known to school officials as the "dance of the lemons."
The Los Angeles Unified School District has attempted to dismiss just 112 permanent teachers — or about one-quarter of 1% of the district's 43,000 instructors — over the last decade. Some were fired, but most resigned or retired.
"It takes two to three years to effectively remove someone who is not helpful to children in the classroom," Los Angeles schools Supt. Roy Romer said. "That's too long."
Banton, the Edison principal, agrees. The current evaluation system rarely results in the removal of a teacher from the classroom, she said.
"If there is a problem with a teacher, you need to get on it right away," Banton said. "I have a few teachers who shouldn't be in the classroom because someone else before me didn't do what needed to be done."
However, critics of Schwarzenegger's plan say it would not fix the problem.
Leaders of the California School Boards Assn. and other state education groups say the wording of the initiative could backfire because it requires two back-to-back negative evaluations. A marginal teacher could remain in the classroom for years by occasionally earning satisfactory evaluations, they say.
Schwarzenegger's aides disagree. They say the initiative would augment the existing dismissal system, giving school districts another tool to deal with underperforming teachers.
Critics also say the idea of lengthening a teacher's probationary period from two years to five ignores a far more serious problem: Many qualified teachers quit early in their careers, particularly in urban districts, including Los Angeles. About one-third of the teachers hired by the Los Angeles Unified School District in the 1998-99 school year left within five years, according to the district's most recent figures.
"If this is [Schwarzenegger's] education cornerstone, then he has failed," said state Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell, who signed the ballot argument against the initiative. "It shows the total absence of any thought of a comprehensive plan for education."
Some rank-and-file teachers say they recognize the need to simplify the dismissal rules for problem teachers, whom one instructor labeled "lost causes." But many teachers worry about losing legal protections that insulate them against the whims of principals.
"Yes, we need reform, but it doesn't sound like the governor has a good way to do it," said math teacher Carol Silva, who has spent 23 years at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles. "I would like to see the procedures streamlined for people who will not change. But to just have two warnings and you're out, I don't like that. It could make it very arbitrary."
Art teacher Lisa Kantor bristled at the governor's call to extend the probationary period. As a probationary teacher, Kantor said, she is careful not to offend her principal at Hollywood High or anyone else on campus. Making the probationary status five years, she said, would only increase that sense of insecurity.
"You feel extremely vulnerable," said Kantor, 35. "You know to a certain degree that you're disposable. So you don't speak up at staff meetings, you don't get political, and you mind your Ps and Qs."
Schwarzenegger remains adamant about the five-year probation period.
"Two years is not enough time" for teachers to prove themselves, he said. "Let's give the teacher a chance in five years to really make it … and then have that job security for life."
The state's powerful teachers unions have temporarily increased dues to raise millions of dollars to fight Schwarzenegger's initiative and others on the November ballot that could slash education funding and curb union fundraising.
They call the teacher employment initiative an attack by Schwarzenegger on public education.
"Gov. Schwarzenegger is trying to destroy public schools and teachers," said California Teachers Assn. President Barbara Kerr. The initiative is "not going to improve achievement, not going to lower class sizes, not going to put more textbooks and materials into the classroom. It's going to hurt our students."
Both of the state's teachers unions — the teachers association and the California Federation of Teachers — have joined unions representing firefighters and other groups in mounting a television advertising campaign condemning Schwarzenegger for fostering a "phenomenon of anger" against teachers and other public employees.
It is a fight with national ramifications, as union leaders in Washington, D.C., warily eye California, fearful that Schwarzenegger's initiative could spread.
Officials from the National Education Assn. and the American Federation of Teachers said they were planning to channel money and other resources into California in the months leading up to the November election.
"California is an important state," said Edward J. McElroy, president of the teachers federation. "When things happen there, they have a tendency to echo in other places. Anyone who has an interest in hiring and retaining good teachers … will look at this as harmful."
Changing the personnel rules for teachers was not part of Schwarzenegger's original education agenda.
Instead, earlier this year, the governor promoted merit pay for teachers. His administration scrapped a proposal on that subject after learning it would have inadvertently prevented schools from firing teachers who commit criminal acts and engage in other misconduct, educators said.
And so the governor went looking for another education measure to put on the November ballot. He seized on a plan, aimed at changing hiring and firing practices, that was circulating through Sacramento, aides said.
Critics in Sacramento believe the governor was driven by a desire to divert attention away from another initiative on the November ballot that would reduce funding for schools. But Schwarzenegger's aides said the governor was motivated only by a desire to fix a system that in his view protects inferior teachers at the expense of schoolchildren.
"The governor believes that the overwhelming majority of all of California's public school teachers are highly skilled and dedicated public servants," said Todd Harris, one of the governor's political consultants.
"At the same time, everyone knows that there is a small percentage of teachers who frankly don't belong in the classroom," he said. "It's as simple as that."
Comment. One idea not considered in this story. What evidence do we have that Principals are skilled or competent to judge teachers? There is little or no evidence.
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