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Why Is It So Difficult To Fire Bad Teachers?

Putting a man on the moon, solving Fermat's Last Theorem, or firing a tenured teacher because of incompetence or even criminal behaviors: which is harder?

While most teachers are good, decent people with the thankless jobs of teaching unruly kids with dwindling resources and ever-increasing class sizes, there are a few bad apples that really ruined school for a lot of children. But why is it so difficult to fire them?

Jason Song of the Los Angeles Times investigates:

Joseph Walker, a former principal of Grant High School in Van Nuys, was sued by a special education teacher whom he tried to dismiss for alleged repeated sexual harassment. A civil jury sided with Walker -- but the review commission decided the teacher shouldn't be fired. The case, now in the courts, has dragged on seven years.

Confronting uphill battles like this, Walker said: "You're not going to fire someone who's not doing their job. And if you have someone who's done something really egregious, there's only a 50-50 chance that you can fire them."

Walker is now principal of Discovery Charter Preparatory Academy in Pacoima, where he said he had fired three teachers so far this year. None were fired during his three years as head of Grant. The difference: His school's teachers are not unionized and can be fired at will.


(Photo: Joseph Walker. Photo credit: Liz O. Baylen / LA Times)

It's too bad that Neatorama is propegating this kind of misinformation.

First, you've got to realize that tenure is not a contract thing. Tenure is a state law thing. It has existed since before teacher had the right to form unions and have union contracts.

Next, you need to understand that for teachers to get tenure they need years(!!!) of good evaluations form their principals. Without those, no tenure.

Next, a big problem is that it is hard to fire anyone with years of good evaluations, especially those with tenure. It's takes truly documenting poor performance, if there are all those good evaluations. Too many principals aren't willing to go through that work, so the follow the easier path of giving good evaluations.

Last, the big differences between teachers with and at-will employees in other fields are that 1) teachers know their their rights (because the union makes sure they know) and 2) rather than sue after being fired they are able to try to settle it BEFORE being fired, with the union representing them. That makes it easier and cheaper for them to challenge poorly documented decisions without have to paying lot of money or dealing with the courts. (That makes it cheaper for the school district, too.)

As for the content of this particular situation. Well, firing a long time employee for *alleged* anything is probably a bad idea. You really ought to investigate to see whether they did it or not. And I don't think that that the charter school teachers were easier to fire because they were not in a union. They were easier to fire because they didn't have tenure -- which, remember, is not a contract thing.
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Teachers, police officers, and college professors are all very hard to get rid of. At one university I attended, a 45 year old professor, moments after all the tenure papers were signed, announced her pregnancy by a 17 year old freshman. Another plagiarized several papers from other countries which yours truly tracked down and translated. They're both still teaching, protected by tenure.
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While I'm no fan of teachers' unions or teachers being over-protected from consequences, it's a two way street here. Without a teacher's union, those same non-unionized teachers are extremely easy targets for abuse from their administration. It's extremely easy at a non-union school to vengefully pick apart a teacher's life- just take five minutes to make a phone call accusing the teacher of some sort of sexual impropriety or other impropriety in the classroom, and that teacher's life can be forever impacted.

With unions: teachers are less performance-monitored, harder to fire and more difficult to punish. "Tenure" and bureaucracy make teachers more able to be lazy, uninspired and useless in their profession.

Without unions: teachers are more underpaid, given inferior benefits, and have little or no defense against ridiculous accusations (that in this possession are very often life-altering). Poor pay, abusive treatment, bad benefits and a dangerous workplace make teachers more able to be burned out, overworked, uninspired and useless in their profession.

So... it goes both ways. Neither is that great. Let's keep that in mind.
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Teacher here: full disclosure, member of the NEA. I am grateful for the union, mostly for contract dispute resolutions. I have worked with teachers who, while not criminal, are super lazy, have burned out years ago, don't help kids learn anything, and then when their 2nd graders end up in my 3rd grade, I'm suddenly responsible for closing the gap in their NCLB test scores. That's more common and more ambiguous than the criminal contingent; I think everyone's had the unfortunate experience of being taught by someone who clearly doesn't care any longer. I am currently licensed and want to get hired in my new state; due to budget cuts in every district I will not have a job come Sept. but lots of burnt out teachers will stay on. Pretty sad.
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Unions are a good thing, but I've had enough crappy teachers over the years (both in elementary/high school and college) to hate on them.
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@alexx - job protection is the direct result of union battles in the early 20th century. Before then, teachers could easily be fired for both valid and frivolous reasons. So, union protection was a reasonable reaction to the then egregious employment conditions (not just for teachers, but for factory workers and the like).

But now, the pendulum has swung to the opposite extreme. Surely unions realize that it's in their best interest to get rid of bad apples , but if you read the article, protecting its members against dismissals - regardless of the severity of the infractions - is the way of many modern teacher unions.

Sure school administration deserves some of the blame, but the process of firing a bad teacher (which surely exists as anyone who has ever gone to school can attest) is so stacked against them that it's bordering on being ridiculous.

From the article:

The district wanted to fire a high school teacher who kept a stash of pornography, marijuana and vials with cocaine residue at school, but a commission balked, suggesting that firing was too harsh. L.A. Unified officials were also unsuccessful in firing a male middle school teacher spotted lying on top of a female colleague in the metal shop, saying the district did not prove that the two were having sex.

The district fared no better in its case against elementary school special education teacher Gloria Hsi, despite allegations that included poor judgment, failing to report child abuse, yelling at and insulting children, planning lessons inadequately and failing to supervise her class.

Not a single charge was upheld. The commission found the school's evaluators were unqualified because they did not have special education training. Moreover, it said they went to the class at especially difficult periods and didn't stay long enough.

Oh, and by the way, the "many years" you spoke of before a teacher gets tenure is 2 years in California, 3 years in other states. That's hardly "many years" on the job.
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First, I didn't write "many years." Do a search on the this page for the work "many" and you will find that you used it three times, and I used it once ("too many principals"). If you have to make up quotes to make your point, you might not have a good point in the first place -- which in this case was that I was defending tenure or the tenure process. It happens that I agree that tenure is probably given too early nationally, and that it certainly is too early in California.

Second, there is a difference between ensuring a teacher keeps his/her job and defending his/her rights. Unions are legally bound to defend their members rights, and that is part of why unions can negotiate things that might be illegal in a non-unionized setting (e.g. age restrictions). The union may not sell out a member. The union MUST protect every members' rights, regardless of the accusation. Think of it as being like a right to an attorney in court, if that helps you. Every defendant is legally entitled to a zealous defense. Every union member is entitled to full representation by the union.

Third, if the commission is not doing its job well, that's not the union's fault. The commission is a product of state law, not of the union contract. If the board is set up improperly, talk to the state legislature and the state DOE and perhaps the LA school district. The commission does not work for the union. The union does not adjudicate these decisions.

I believe, and I think that most large teachers unions believe, that it is in the interests of their membership that the profession of teaching be held in high esteem. Heck, while students suffer in the long term if a teacher does a bad job, it is his/her fellow teachers that suffer most in the short term. Bad teachers set a tone, and the kids take that tone to other classrooms. Bad teachers leave kids underprepared for future classes, and those later teachers have to pick up their slack. Most large teacher unions know this. In New York City, for example, the local union has tried repeatedly to do what it can to speed up the process and even to offer training (I think) to principals in how to document teacher performance.

This is my core criticism of your post: You took a piece that tried to lay out why it is so hard to fire teachers -- a piece that looks at many factors -- and reduced it to simply blaming unions. That is not an accurate representation of the LA Times piece, a piece that itself has a couple of methodological issues. You didn't offer that your snippet was fair from representational of the whole piece. You also didn't mention that this piece only looked at LA, as opposed to an entire state or the entire country.
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