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Is it too hard to remove incompetent teachers?

By Theresa Harrington
Monday, November 28th, 2011 at 3:17 pm in Education.

On Nov. 9, the Contra Costa Times published the following editorial: “Removing teachers for incompetence is far too difficult.”

Later that day, I received a copy of a rebuttal sent to the Times from Mike Langley, president of the Mt. Diablo Education Association teachers’ union. Since the rebuttal has not yet been published in the Times, I am reposting the editorial below, along with Langley’s response, so blog readers can weigh in.

“Contra Costa Times editorial
© Copyright 2011, Bay Area News Group
Posted: 11/08/2011 04:00:00 PM PST
Updated: 11/09/2011 11:29:15 AM PST

Most education experts agree that the quality of teachers is the most important factor in the level of education students receive. A 2006 Brookings Institution study of Los Angeles public schools concluded that having a top-quartile teacher rather than a bottom-quartile teacher four years in a row would be enough to close the considerable black-white test score gap.

Yet it is nearly impossible for principals and school districts to dismiss a poorly performing or even a totally incompetent teacher.

Only a tiny percentage of teachers are fired for any reason, and few of them are for lack of competence. In 2009-10, the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing received 5,723 reports of teacher misconduct.

Law enforcement accounted for 94 percent of them, and only 202 credentials were revoked that year.

While the vast majority of teachers are dedicated professionals, as is true in any other profession, there are incompetent educators.

Unlike most other professions in the private sector, however, firing a teacher for poor performance is comparatively rare. That, in part, is because of the expensive, tedious and timely process that is required before a teacher is dismissed or loses a credential.

An extensive Los Angeles Times study in 2009 found that building a case for dismissal is so time-consuming, costly and draining for principals and administrators that many say they don’t make the effort except in the most egregious cases.

The vast majority of firings stem from blatant misconduct, including sexual abuse, other immoral or illegal behavior, insubordination or repeated violation of rules such as not showing up on time.

Firing 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.

Certainly, teachers thought to be incompetent deserve due process, including a chance to reform. Clearly, however, it is far too difficult to get rid of bad teachers in California, which provides protections that go beyond what educators receive in many other states.

While we think seniority and tenure regulations should not be dismissed altogether, they should not be so rigid that it is virtually impossible to remove incompetent teachers or lay off poorly performing senior teachers.

The decision should rest primarily with principals, who need to have more control over their schools.

What is needed is a better balance between job security for teachers and the ability of school principals and districts to remove poorly performing teachers.

Today, there is an unacceptable imbalance in favor of the former to the detriment of California students.”
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Here is Langley’s response:

“Your editorial on 9 November 2011 concerning the difficulty in firing teachers missed the mark on a number of levels. As an educator with twenty-three years of experience, I have participated in the evaluation process and might help your readers understand the reality behind the myths entwined in your editorial. Although currently I serve as President of the Mt. Diablo Education Association, I have classroom experience at the middle and high school levels and have twice been selected to be a full time mentor teacher. Two years of my mentorship involved evaluating beginning teachers.

The process in California makes it relatively easy to prevent incompetent teachers from staying in our classrooms. For the first two years of their employment in a district, they are on probation and can be dismissed without cause. Simply saying that a teacher is not a good fit is enough for a principal to non-reelect, or deny permanency, for any teacher. The very process of beginning to teach moves many teachers out of the profession. They quit if it is too difficult or time consuming. After two years on probation, the teacher is granted the right of due process before they can be terminated for cause. This simply means that the administrator must identify shortcomings in a teacher’s performance, offer an opportunity to improve and then terminate the teacher if they do not become proficient. The complaint that it is difficult to show cause means that the administrator can’t take time to actually go into the classroom and observe the teacher for twenty minutes two times in a year and identify poor practice. Then they must follow up and take corrective action. It prevents administrators from firing teachers for refusing to change valid grades, for using an electronic grade book in addition to the district grade book to communicate with parents, for reporting cheating on standardized tests, and for trying to place special needs students in a more appropriate setting. These are all events that happened to proficient teachers who were suddenly rated unsatisfactory.

I agree that the quality of the teacher has an impact on student success. But one must be careful how you measure success. Also, quality of the teacher is not the cause of student success nor is it the cause of student failure. The current movement toward narrowing and standardizing curricula to quantify the complex task of the learning experience has been in place to some extent for over a decade. Yet the increase in students failing to meet arbitrary goals is placed squarely on the head of the classroom teacher. Your ‘education experts’ who have championed methods that have no relationship to children’s developmental readiness should look more closely at their theoretical, statistical models to confirm their efficacy in actual practice. One of my peers was being guided in a practice by a consultant hired to raise test scores. When the teacher asked the expert to demonstrate, the consultant admitted that she was only dealing with theory and had never actually attempted the method in a real classroom. Needless to say, she beat a hasty retreat.

Many of our educational leaders, administrators, have had only a minimum of practical classroom experience. They are applying standards and generating expectations based on a paper or a guru’s magic bullet meant to solve the most complex problem in todays’ society. If one can’t change all the factors that impact the ability of children to learn, it seems the appearance of progress trumps doing the hard and controversial work that would allow some equity in our system. Being out of the classroom for as little as three years can distance an educator from reality in a rapidly changing world. Yet we depend on the opinions of experts who have not taught a lesson, or dealt with real students for decades.

Finally, I must address your mixing the concepts of layoffs with terminating for poor performance. Eliminating poor performance should be the focus of administrators every day. They should be coaching, mentoring and evaluating the teachers on their sites. Those who can or will not improve should be terminated. This cannot be done by administrators who lack the skills of teaching and who do not understand how adults learn so that they can teach the teacher. Layoffs are an economic phenomenon that occurs in times of reduced income for the schools. The temptation to lay off more experienced teachers is driven by cost savings. It is not driven by quality. Inexperienced teachers are not better than experienced teachers as a group. Every year one teaches gives the teacher more skills.
Any teacher who does not admit that they are better in their fifth year than they were in their second year of teaching is someone who is not getting any better at their craft. In our local district layoffs occur because of economic uncertainty. If there was some economic stability, all good teachers would avoid layoffs and all poor teachers could be terminated during probation.

Michael D Langley
President, Mt. Diablo Education Association”

Are you satisfied with the current system?

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  • g

    Fudging on budgets and misleading cash flow reports to get better ratings–hmmmm.

    Isn’t that what Enron did? I think the SEC frowns on that.

  • Theresa Harrington

    When Dick Nicoll was interim superintendent, then-Trustee Paul Strange criticized the San Diego school district for building cuts into its budget that hadn’t been made, just to get a positive certification. He said it was important to actually make the cuts before showing them in the budget.
    Clearly, the tides have turned.

  • g

    Will Bryan Richards be embarrassed enough to refuse to cook the books the next time he is told to do so? Will the Board be embarrassed enough to refuse to simply sign off on everything that is put before them without taking the time to actually understand it?

  • Theresa Harrington

    Technically, it’s not “cooking the books,” since the district is telling the public what it is doing. However, it is misleading, since it suggests that the district has more money in reserves than it actually does.
    If the district is unable to negotiate the furlough days, it will need to subtract those assumed reserves from the budget.

  • Doctor J

    Theresa, just because you footnote with an asterick, doesn’t mean you have followed “Generally Accepted Accounting Practices” by including assumptions that MUST be negotiated. And its not just furlough days, it was also unapproved [at that time] SIG grants and who knows what other contingencies. This house of cards is going to collapse, who will be to blame for it ?

  • Theresa Harrington

    School Services of California told me that it is fairly common for school districts to include cuts that haven’t been made yet (although I don’t know how common it is to include cuts that still need to be negotiated). Some districts merely state their intention to make a certain dollar amount of cuts, with the assumption that discussions for identifying the cuts are underway.
    However, School Services said assumed cuts that need to be negotiated must be removed from future budgets if the negotiations don’t look like they will pan out.

  • Doctor J

    @TH #56 It depends if the cuts are “within the contol” of the agency or not. Clearly cuts that need to be negotiated with a union are not within the control of the agency. Its just a phoney shell game that sends most people to prision for doing it.

  • Theresa Harrington