Tuesday, April 10, 2012

No Teacher Left Behind

While "No Student Left Behind" may have a mixed record, it is clear that "No Teacher Left Behind" is a rousing success, particularly in the Los Angeles Unified School District. At least in the LAUSD and other school districts in California, aside from the uncertainty of layoff faced by teachers with lesser seniority in lean budget times, experienced tenured teachers effectively have lifetime employment, something which puts them in a select grouping with judges, priests and nuns as those having a lifetime appointment. Indeed, public school teachers have carved out a unique niche for themselves in that that job performance has nothing to do with how much teachers get paid or whether they can keep their jobs. In what other job situation does an employer effectively have little ability to motivate or pressure an employee into doing a better job?

This issue has been highlighted lately by the LAUSD sex abuse scandal, where the surprise is that the teachers involved in fact have actually been fired. Tenured teacher firings are almost unheard of in California. In Los Angeles, 20 teachers are fired annually out of a base of 30,000 teachers. Firing a teacher is a drawn out process that can take up to five years given the state appeals procedures, during which time the teacher receives full pay while not working. Plus the firing process requires an inordinate amount of time and effort to assemble the case to fire a teacher, and which costs tens of thousands of dollars per incident. Even with the backdrop of the recent sex abuse cases, the teachers union rejects calls for making the process of firing teachers any easier. Indeed, legislation passed in 2011 by the California Legislature makes it even more difficult to terminate teachers (in this case, for budgetary reasons) than before. No teacher left behind even caught the attention of Newt Gingrich, who specifically referred to the protection of bad teachers in Los Angeles schools trumping the interests of students in one of the Republican candidates debate..

Indeed, it's appalling to look at some of the policies in effect. For example, the main perpetrator in the Miramonte School scandal was under suspicion for over 20 years for inappropriate behavior with children, yet until the most recent investigation, his slate was clean. Why? Because an agreement between LAUSD and the teachers union dating back 20 years calls for the deletion (though not complete expungement) of any potential charges made against a teacher that are not resolved in four years.

Now there clearly are issues which do make it more difficult to apply a job performance evaluation system with merit pay differentials for teachers when compared to other workplace positions, so extra care is required in crafting a process that can lead to the termination of a teacher. Student performance is in part, sometimes large part, affected by factors beyond the control of teachers. Specifically, parental involvement, or lack thereof, is often the key to the ability of students to perform. Consequently, any performance measurement must clearly allow for this variance. This is why evaluation purely by test scores would not be a valid measurement.

However the inability to rely only on test scores does not mean that there should be no evaluation of job performance at all, and that there are no valid measures of performance. Indeed, the grant of tenure which used to be automatic is no longer the case, and the fact that a significant portion of teachers now are not granted tenure indicates both that unqualified teachers were granted tenure under the old automatic system, and that there are ways to evaluate performance. Every other profession in the country has metrics, whether objective or subjective, which determine whether somebody is doing a good job or not doing a good job. Why not teachers?

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