Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Tenured and Terrible: The Fight Against Substandard Teachers

Substandard tenured teachers are a trial in more ways than one.

A Los Angeles Times report painted a stark picture on the public education system’s dilemma in dealing with tenured public school teachers who get to keep their jobs despite poor classroom performance, laziness, apathy and in some cases, even improper conduct.

According to district statistics for the last five years, the Los Angeles Unified School District has about 30,000 tenured teachers and fires 21 a year -- under 1 per 1,000. Long Beach fires 6 per 1,000, and San Diego fires about 2 per 1,000.

Administrators lament that firing permanent teachers is laborious and expensive—legal costs could come up to six figures and it takes years of rehabilitation efforts, union grievances and administrative and court appeals. All their efforts to get a bad apple out can still come to naught as teachers can appeal firings to specially convened panels-- dismissals have been overturned more than a third of the time.

District officials, principals and their lawyers have likened the process of terminating tenured teachers to a maze. Top Los Angeles school officials are now calling for new state legislation that would make it easier for them to dismiss incompetent tenured teachers while the teachers union have vowed to fight against such a move.

As important as it is to uphold the legacy of labor battles that have won teachers strong job protection against being fired for frivolous infractions—it is all too possible that the tenure system is hurting the educational system.

How can one learn if the teacher can’t effectively teach? President Barack Obama in March said that good teachers should be nourished and bad ones should be cast out.

The law should not be an excuse for mediocrity. Reform should hardly be a cause for concern, not when the longevity becomes the basis for rewarding people and protecting them from consequences.

As William Butler Yeats said, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” We cannot afford to douse the minds and potentials of our children by allowing our educational system to be corroded by substandard and abusive teachers.