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Firing Bad Teachers, Just Try

Posted on | May 10, 2009 | Comments Off on Firing Bad Teachers, Just Try

The sound you hear is the lid being pried off Pandora’s Box.  Jason Song’s Los Angeles Times investigation of efforts to dismiss teachers in California makes public what practicing educators have known for decades: that it is almost impossible to fire a tenured public school faculty member for teaching badly.  Song’s articles are the most viewed on the Times web site in the past week; they induced more than 1,200 comments from readers.  The second installment about “housed” teachers, who have been removed from the classroom but get full pay for sitting at home, is just as dramatic.  The third installment is about teachers and administrators accused of abuse, some of whom are still on the payroll.  And more is on the way

While the set of practices involving layers of procedural due process make some sense to people inside of the educational bureaucracy, they reveal a public education to be an institution badly out of touch with reality and at odds with its central mission.

I’ll not try to retell Song’s story.  I encourage you to read for yourself and come to your own conclusions.

Song’s reporting shows the system’s deficiencies in the most extreme cases where teachers accused of gross misconduct are either returned to the classroom or put on paid leave, but it says almost nothing about its failure to either remediate bad teaching or remove those who simply cannot or will not teach effectively.  The whole system needs an overhaul, not just altering due process for the most egregious cases, although that would be a start.  Here are half a dozen points to consider:

First, it is important to think in terms of a coherent system of human resources programs: recruitment and initial training, close monitoring of novices, professional development built into the job, and intervention for veterans whose teaching has deteriorated or whose behaviors are unacceptable. Good recruitment and training make discipline and discharge more defensible and less necessary. Not having a coherent system in place creates unintentional cruelty. The existing system requires a highly adversarial procedure to remove a teacher. As one educator commented, “if you weren’t crazy when the process started, you certainly will be by the time it ends.” Song’s article illustrates this process in the extreme, and the naming of the teachers involved adds an additional layer of cruelty.

Second, all of these elements of a coherent system are part of what is, or should be, negotiated with the teacher’s union.  In United Mind Workerswe describe how to organize around quality teaching, and there are good examples from around the country.

Third, insuring quality teaching is union work, or ought to be.  The American Federation of Teachers pronounced itself in the teacher quality business a decade or more ago.  While a flood emails in response to Song’s stories rightly pointed the finger at the LAUSD administration for not moving to dismiss bad teachers, in a profession cleaning house is a responsibility of the profession.  If UTLA wants to represent professionals, it needs to represent teaching as well as represent teachers.  A. J. Duffy’s comment that there are no bad teachers, only incompetent administrators, won’t wash, nor will the notion that all that needs be done is to better train administrators.

Fourth, there are proven ways for unions to engage teacher quality without giving up due process protections for teachers who have been unfairly accused of misconduct, or hounded by mean-spirited or incompetent administrators.  And the union is right; LAUSD has its share of these, maybe more.  Tough minded peer review programs work in scores of unionized school districts around the country.  LAUSD and UTLA have negotiated a peer review system in its contract, but it goes largely unused, I suspect because neither party trusts the other sufficiently to make it work.  On Patt Morrison’s show on KPCC last Thursday (May 7),  Duffy said that UTLA had urged the school board to expand peer review.  It should.  If only the board and union would learn, there are good examples from Toledo and Columbus in Ohio, Rochester, New York, and Poway, California.

Fifth, to move teaching quality front and center in how teachers are evaluated, data on student performance needs to be linked to teachers.  The California Teachers Association continues to fight a data system that would allow school systems to link student results with individual teachers.  However, any individual school district could construct such a system tomorrow with existing district rosters.  None have.  While there are good reasons for teachers to fear simple-minded test score accountability, outcome accountability is inevitable, and it is a serious strategic error for the CTA to stonewall.

Sixth, this does not mean that we should pay teachers according to test scores.  There are huge practical barriers to a linking teacher salaries and student test scores, not the least of which is that schools, teachers, and parents want a broader range of outcomes.  But to ignore student results when evaluating teachers is dereliction of duty.  If teaching is “what matters most” to student success, then schools and the teaching profession must evaluate teacher effectiveness.




May 10, 2009




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Charles Taylor Kerchner is an Emeritus Professor and Senior Research Fellow at Claremont Graduate University. My daily musings appear in the blog. The archives of my EdWeek blog are available via link under the 'On California' head. Some of my photography can be seen by clicking on 'Gallery.' And numerous links to academic work and other research and commentary can be found by clicking on 'Projects.'


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