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Flap of the Week: Close Schools, Fire Teachers

Posted on | March 2, 2010 | Comments Off

Being either cunning or careless, President Obama this week gave the nod toward supporting the Central Falls, Rhode Island, superintendent who announced that he would close a failing high school and fire all the teachers who staffed it.  The American Federation of Teachers, which represents the teachers at the school, and the National Education Association–the nation’s largest teacher union–immediately criticized the action, and the AFL-CIO has joined them. Randi Weingarten, the AFT president, called it another example of scapegoating teachers.

In one sense, this was a fight that the President should have ducked, but in another, the notion of emptying out failing schools and restaffing them is a key part of Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s managerial pattern and the path he followed as the head of Chicago’s schools.  There will be a lot more tough talk about getting rid of bad teachers.

In Los Angeles, Superintendent Ramon Cortines announced that he expected his principals to toughen evaluation standards, particularly for teachers in their second year after which tenure would be granted.

Earlier, Cortines announced that he would close and restaff Fremont High School.  Teachers would have to reapply for their jobs.  However, the teachers not selected would retain their jobs and be transfered to other schools.

In Florida, the legislature is considering changes in teacher tenure.

The current fight is important on its face, and its implications enormous.

Teacher unions have begun to negotiate contracts that support more drastic reforms at troubled schools.

But behind all of this is an historically ineffective system of teacher evaluation, and a teacher education system that does not match the movement from a novice to a master teacher.

But the political instinct is to punish teachers more than it is to fix the system. At-will employment–where a worker can be terminated for any reason or no reason at all–has long been a managerial ideal, and much private sector employment falls into this classification. And this makes the security of teacher tenure look plush and unwarranted to outsiders. Expect more trench warfare.

Instead, we ought to look for amendments to the current system. I wrote about some of these last year when Jason Song disclosed the virtual impossibility of firing tenured teachers in the Los Angeles Times.

One idea that has been around for nearly 30 years is getting a new lease on life. Teacher peer review has shown itself effective, not only in removing bad teachers but in fostering a more effective teacher development and formative assistance program.

It may even come to Los Angeles. Last month United Teachers Los Angeles President A.J. Duffy and vice presidents Julie Washington and Gregg Solkovitis endorsed an enhanced peer review program for Los Angeles Unified teachers. The new L.A. Compact–a creation of business, the schools, and the unions–supports it too.

This is a development worth watching. It’s better to put an effective system in place than repeat Central Falls.

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About

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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