One of the great challenges facing public education nationwide is forcing ineffective teachers to find new careers. Laws and union contracts that grant tenure, make seniority the key factor in layoff decisions and create drawn-out firing processes make it almost impossible to rid schools of inadequate instructors.
The best-case scenario — and it’s not good at all — often is the so-called “Dance of the Lemons,” by which bad teachers are regularly shipped off to different schools because they can’t be fired. More often than not, these teachers end up in schools with large numbers of low-income, minority students. It’s not a coincidence that these schools also have poor records of achievement.
However, if a California judge’s ruling is upheld — it will be appealed — and better still if it spreads, public school systems across the country finally might be able to stop the music for this dance. As reported by the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu on Tuesday struck down the tenure and seniority system that has long protected California public school teachers. Judge Treu ruled the laws governing job security were unconstitutional because they harmed predominantly low-income, minority students by allowing incompetent instructors to remain in the classroom.
And education leaders wonder why so many families are fleeing to charter schools that can replace teachers at will?
The judge wrote that the protections “impose a real and appreciable impact on students’ fundamental right to equality of education. The evidence is compelling. Indeed, it shocks the conscience.” The Times reported that the 16-page decision, if upheld, would end the process of laying off teachers based solely on when they were hired; strip educators of extra job safeguards not enjoyed by other school or state employees; and eliminate the current tenure process, under which instructors are either fired or win strong job security after only 18 months of teaching.
This problem is not limited to California and, in fact, has been present for years within the Clark County School District, where tenure was almost always granted after just one year until 2011. At that point, the Nevada Legislature passed reforms that included a three-year probationary period, revoking tenure from teachers who had multiple poor evaluations, and requiring that seniority can no longer be the only factor in determining layoffs. But even these good steps lack teeth, because administrators can fire ineffective tenured teachers only after three years of poor evaluations, and the seniority provision is still subject to collective bargaining, meaning unions can negotiate the factors in layoffs — seniority foremost among them.
But should the California ruling stand and spread to the Silver State, it would turn the tables on unions and the education establishment, who’ve long claimed systems are broken solely because they don’t have enough money. In fact, they’ve filed lawsuits in states from coast to coast over school funding and asked courts to order increased spending, no reforms attached. These cases have had mixed results while ignoring the issue of teacher competence and the personnel policies that have condemned many urban schools to failure. This week’s ruling has the potential to refocus the funding debate on the creation of systems that hold teachers accountable for poor performance.
This is not to advocate for a system in which a young teacher is hired and quickly fired after a year of some struggles. Rather, education systems need to have good mentoring, training and professional development. These types of interventions — resulting from a credible evaluation process — can develop excellent teachers. And nontraditional teacher training and licensing programs, such as Teach for America, can place highly motivated educators in at-risk schools, where they can make the biggest difference. (Not surprisingly, teachers’ unions aren’t especially fond of Teach for America.)
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan supported the California ruling, yet had exactly the wrong response to it, citing the need to “support our best teachers and match them with our neediest students” — in other words, shuffle star teachers out of schools where they’re succeeding. Imagine the “Dance of the Lemons” in reverse, where schools with lots of parental involvement, fewer disciplinary issues and high achievement are rewarded with less-effective educators. Hey, those kids will do just fine without great teachers, right?
Judge Treu nailed the issue in his ruling: Getting rid of bad teachers would give schools a chance to hire better replacements, and would give low-achieving, low-income minority students — such as the tens of thousands of Spanish-speaking Clark County students who aren’t proficient in English — a shot at a better life.
The percentage of teachers who are causing academic harm is small, to be sure. The vast majority of teachers here and elsewhere are dedicated professionals who do the public a great service. But every teacher, every administrator knows that poor performers are out there. They know some teachers are better than others, and that a few are downright awful and should be doing something else. It is a tragedy that these educators are allowed to count down the years to retirement and set back scores of children by denying them the ability to reach their potential. Why do K-12 systems have tenure at all?
This fall, Nevada voters will decide Question 3, a brutal margins tax on business to boost school funding. The petition’s backers say more money will fix everything. Judge Treu’s ruling indicates otherwise. Absent major reform, money alone is never going to improve our schools.