Wednesday, February 17, 2010

LAUSD's Dance of the Lemons Why firing the desk-sleepers, burnouts, hotheads and other failed teachers is all but impossible

Speaking of stop the presses, STOP THE PRESSES!!!  Run, don't walk, to read this cover story in the current LA Weekly, LAUSD's Dance of the Lemons.  It is as well-researched, devastating and totally infuriating as Steven Brill's "Rubber Room" New Yorker article ( that was the single best ed reform article of 2009, and rivals The Atlantic's article last month, What Makes a Great Teacher? (, for that award so far this year.  Dance of the Lemons (aka Pass the Trash) refers to the horrific way in which teachers who suck – the ones so bad that everyone knows who they are – are passed around every year from school to school, usually ending up victimizing the most disadvantaged students (the ones, of course, who can least afford such teachers).  The problem underlying this utter disgrace is the absolute impossibility of removing any tenured teacher short of conviction (not indictment) of a major felony.  Mere incompetence, screaming and cursing at children, etc. are not enough (if you think I'm exaggerating, read this story from the trenches:


Thanks to various Freedom of Information Act requests, the author of this LA Weekly story tracks the Mad Hatter's Tea Party of trying to remove even the worst teachers in LA (this problem isn't limited to LA by any stretch of the imagination).  Here are some key excerpts:

Recent articles in the Los Angeles Times have described teachers who draw full pay for years while they sit at home fighting allegations of sexual or physical misconduct.

But the far larger problem in L.A. is one of "performance cases" — the teachers who cannot teach, yet cannot be fired. Their ranks are believed to be sizable — perhaps 1,000 teachers, responsible for 30,000 children. But in reality, nobody knows how many of LAUSD's vast system of teachers fail to perform. Superintendent Ramon Cortines tells the Weekly he has a "solid" figure, but he won't release it. In fact, almost all information about these teachers is kept secret.

But the Weekly has found, in a five-month investigation, that principals and school district leaders have all but given up dismissing such teachers. In the past decade, LAUSD officials spent $3.5 million trying to fire just seven of the district's 33,000 teachers for poor classroom performance — and only four were fired, during legal struggles that wore on, on average, for five years each. Two of the three others were paid large settlements, and one was reinstated. The average cost of each battle is $500,000.

During our investigation, in which we obtained hundreds of documents using the California Public Records Act, we also discovered that 32 underperforming teachers were initially recommended for firing, but then secretly paid $50,000 by the district, on average, to leave without a fight. Moreover, 66 unnamed teachers are being continually recycled through a costly mentoring and retraining program but failing to improve, and another 400 anonymous teachers have been ordered to attend the retraining.

This problem isn't common in all government jobs – just teachers:

Just a few blocks from LAUSD's skyscraper headquarters, Los Angeles City Hall's approach to firing public employees provides a stark contrast to protections enjoyed by teachers, also public employees. Despite civil-service protections, City Hall fires from its 48,000-plus workforce of garbage, parks, street-services, engineering, utilities and other employees more than 80 tenured workers annually. During the past decade, in which LAUSD fired four failing teachers, 800 to 1,000 underperforming civil service–protected workers were fired at City Hall. City Personnel Department General Manager Margaret Whelan says nobody is paid to leave. She was dumbfounded that LAUSD is paying to dislodge teachers, saying, "That's ridiculous. I can't believe that. Golly, it makes no sense. Some are not even mediocre, they're horrible."

Caprice Young, founder of the nonprofit California Charter Schools Association, was LAUSD school board president until 2003. She saw, behind closed doors, what the public can't: the "dance of the lemons," a term that broadly describes controversial tactics LAUSD utilizes to cope with tenured teachers who can't teach but, under the current system, cannot be fired. Those tactics include not only paying them to leave, but quietly transferring bad teachers to other, unsuspecting schools or repeatedly and fruitlessly "retraining" them while they continue to teach, sometimes harming the educations of thousands of children.

The bottom line, attorney Collins says, is that "in other professions, if it's not working out, it's easy to get rid of employees." But in the LAUSD, "if you have a poor-performing teacher in the classroom with 30 kids year after year, that's a lot of kids impacted. You can't get fourth-grade back."


More on Dance of the Lemons and the retraining program (which is of course a joke):

Angry principals and administrators, like the retired Basalone, say there is "no excuse" for LAUSD's practice of waiting for teachers to fail five evaluations, as with Buria, before trying to fire them. Robert Bilovsky, principal at Berendo Middle School, says it's "ridiculous. ... Why have an evaluation system if you're not going to use it?" Duffy says the district is at fault if a teacher with five below-standard evaluations is allowed to remain in the classroom.

Clearly feeling the sting of recent criticism for failing to fire teachers accused of sexual and physical misconduct, Cortines, in an interview with the Weekly, says that he recently ordered principals to begin dismissal proceedings against tenured teachers after just two consecutive below-standard evaluations.

"I've cut that out," Cortines says. But when asked for a copy of the new policy, district officials referred the Weekly to a December press release stating Cortines' concerns that 175 permanent and certificated teachers got a below-standard "Stull" rating last year, while 48 others failed two evaluations. The vague press release does not lay out a new policy, such as identifiable steps Cortines is taking to oust teachers who fail more than two evaluations.

When a teacher gets a below-standard Stull evaluation — named after a lawmaker who in 1971 authored California legislation requiring checks of educators' work — that teacher participates in a rehab program called Peer Assistance and Review, as did Burio and Loftin. The program, engineered by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa when he was a state assemblyman in 2000, is supposed to improve schools by pairing failing teachers with mentors — often retired teachers with many years of experience.

By some accounts, PAR is a miserable failure. Under the confidential program — a secrecy feature that teachers unions insisted on — not even school principals can find out if their subpar teachers are improving. District officials admit to the Weekly that only about one-third of teachers pass the training.

Moreover, as happened with Burio at San Pedro High, principals must keep these substandard teachers in the classroom during the retraining. There are no particular consequences if a teacher does not improve.

"The intent of the law is to help an ineffective person become better," Basalone says. "It doesn't mean I can stay ineffective."

According to previously undisclosed data obtained by the Weekly, three anonymous LAUSD teachers have taken the retraining five times in the past three years, 18 have taken it four times, and 45 three times. Parents do not know, and cannot find out, the names of these 66 teachers who are repeatedly recycled through the PAR program. Another 400 teachers were required to enter the program once or twice during the past four years. The state program costs $1.4 million per year, mostly to pay for 50 personal mentors in LAUSD.

It doesn't have to be this way, as NYC and Long Beach show:

LAUSD is not as aggressive as New York City, whose school district employs eight attorneys solely to remove bad teachers, and places underperforming teachers in the district's infamous "rubber rooms" — offices away from children, where they earn full salary to do nothing during their job disputes.

But in Los Angeles, under Romer, Brewer and now Cortines, because LAUSD pays just a handful of attorneys to work only part-time on such cases, the small legal unit was nearly overwhelmed by pursuing Kolter at Pinewood Elementary while handling Schonberger's dismissal.

…Los Angeles' situation is in stark contrast to nearby Long Beach, where Superintendent Christopher J. Steinhauser has long required extensive vetting before granting lifelong tenure to teachers. Long Beach is substantially ahead of Los Angeles in such teacher-quality reforms — and in student achievement. "If they're not great teachers, we work to release them," says Steinhauser. "That's really important."

In Los Angeles, as reported recently in the Los Angeles Times, new teachers get tenure virtually automatically unless their principal objects. Yet the Times report showed that few principals are actively engaged in reviewing green teachers before giving them the nod for lifelong tenure — a failing Cortines says he is out to change.


LAUSD's Dance of the Lemons

Why firing the desk-sleepers, burnouts, hotheads and other failed teachers is all but impossible

By Beth Barrett, LA Weekly

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