Sunday, December 20, 2009

Failure Gets a Pass: L.A. Unified Teacher Tenure Under Fire

I'm going to try to do some education writing over the next few days. I still get U.S. News and World Report in hard copy, and the December issue, featuring "America's Top Best Schools," came yesterday. The magazine also features some analysis on the Obama administration's education policies, for example, "Will Obama's School Reform Plan Work?" I'm 100 percent skeptical of President Obama's program (does anyone even know what it is?), mainly because there's been absolutely zero urgency on this front so far -- or at least, from what I've seen compared to the Herculean efforts the Dems have put into bankrupting the country through ObamaCare.

In any case, more on that later. It turns out that this morning's Los Angeles Times has a really interesting piece, which is by no means unrelated to the larger educational crisis in this country. I've read about some of this before, but the Times has a full investigative report up today, and worth a look. See, "
FAILURE GETS A PASS: Bar Set Low for Lifetime Job in L.A. Schools":

Altair Maine said he was so little supervised in his first few years of teaching at North Hollywood High School that he could "easily have shown a movie in class every day and earned tenure nonetheless."

Before second-grade teacher Kimberly Patterson received tenure and the ironclad job protections it provides, she said, "my principal never set foot in my classroom while I was teaching."

And when Virgil Middle School teacher Roberto Gonzalez came up for tenure, he discovered there was no evaluation for him on file. When he inquired about it, his school hastily faxed one to district headquarters.

"I'm pretty sure it was just made up on the spot," Gonzalez said.

There is nothing to suggest these teachers didn't deserve tenure, but the district did little to ensure they were worthy.

A Times investigation found that the Los Angeles Unified School District routinely grants tenure to new teachers after cursory reviews -- and sometimes none at all.

Evaluating new teachers for tenure is one of a principal's most important responsibilities. Once instructors have permanent status, they are almost never fired for performance reasons alone. The two-year probation period, during which teachers can be fired at will, offers a singular opportunity to weed out poor performers.

It is a chance L.A. Unified all but squanders, according to interviews with more than 75 teachers and administrators, analyses of district data covering the last several years, and internal and independent studies. Among the findings:

* Nearly all probationary teachers receive a passing grade on evaluations. Fewer than 2% are denied tenure.

* The reviews are so lacking in rigor as to be meaningless, many instructors say. Before a teacher gets tenure, school administrators are required to conduct only a single, pre-announced classroom visit per year. About half the observations last 30 minutes or less. Principals are rarely held responsible for how they perform the reviews.

* The district's evaluation of teachers does not take into account whether students are learning. Principals are not required to consider testing data, student work or grades. L.A. Unified, like other districts in California, essentially ignores a state law that since the 1970s has required districts to weigh pupil progress in assessing teachers and administrators.

"I can't believe that," said Gary K. Hart, California's secretary of education under Gov. Gray Davis, when told of The Times' findings. Tenure "is not something that everyone off the street who wants to be a teacher should be granted."

"The saddest part is that the most critical element of whether our children are successful is being ignored," said Julie Slayton, the district's former director of research and planning and now a USC professor of education. "It's ridiculous and should be changed."

On Thursday, Supt. Ramon C. Cortines announced that change was coming. After hearing The Times' findings more than a week ago, the superintendent pledged to scrutinize probationary teachers more closely so poor instructors are ousted before they become tenured.

"Too many ineffective teachers are falling into tenured positions -- the equivalent of jobs for life," he said.

An easy path to tenure is not unique to Los Angeles. Schools across the country have failed to grade teachers, even their rookies, and rarely dismiss poor performers. In response, the Obama administration has made teacher accountability a key requirement in the competition for $4.35 billion in education grants.

Some of the nation's major school districts, including in New York City and Washington, D.C., have already made significant reforms, such as requiring multiple evaluations by expert teachers or objective evidence of student growth.

A task force in Los Angeles has only begun to consider such sweeping changes, which would go well beyond the pledge Cortines made Thursday.

"It's a sign of how backward things are that the superintendent has to make this kind of clarion call," said Ted Mitchell, chairman of the task force. "There is a little Alice in Wonderland quality in some of this: You mean you haven't been doing that?"

Lots more at the link.

As for L.A. Unified, the district sounds totally unprofessional (and unserious). I recall my tenure process at LBCC. Probationary faculty are on a four-year cycle. Year-three is an off-year, and year-four feels like a perfunctory graduation year to tenured status (by that time it's probably too late to let someone go -- that is, most of the serious liabilities would have been seen earlier). So, it's the first and second year reviews that are critical for weeding out the unqualified.

And I know that this is an extremely emotional process. There are huge emotional, personal reasons for making the process less rigorous. I mean, who wants to fire someone? But it's got to be done. Some teachers just should not be in the classroom. There's a temperament to good teaching, and because, ironically, it can take so long for qualities of excellence to emerge, the first couple of years under evaluation become even more crucial. In fact, the Times had a report on just this last week. See, "Controlling a classroom isn't as easy as ABC." But I'm going to hold off on further comment for now. As much as we have to hold teachers accountable for their performance, we can't minimize the heightening crisis of the culture that's making education the last priority for too many kids. A lot of this has to do with technology, as I will argue later (the wireless culture of music and phones is in the classroom and killing learning). But that's something for later, and I'll have lots of personal examples from my teaching, as well as a guest essay (or two) from a student this semester who I found out was a phenomenal writer.

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Dave said...

I have many conservative friends who, without so much as batting an eye, pack off the most precious things in their lives and hand them over to the clutches of government to be "educated."

I have, on occasion, inquired as to why they do this day after day, year after year.

The response I get is always something along the lines of, "Well, our government school is okay. It's everyone else's that is screwed up."


Funny, as most Americans feel the exact same way about their congress critters, too, yet here we are, just three days removed from a Senate vote that will most likely bring an end to the America that has existed for the last 233 years.