The Great Teacher Conundrum

The Los Angeles Times recently reported on the troubling difficulty of firing tenured teachers, even when it would seem warranted. For instance, they cite a teacher who allegedly told a student who had attempted suicide that he needed to "carve deeper next time" and "Look, you can’t even kill yourself."

The Los Angeles school board, citing (the teacher) Polanco’s poor judgment, voted to fire him.

But Polanco, who contended that he had been misunderstood, kept his job. A little-known review commission overruled the board, saying that although the teacher had made the statements, he had meant no harm.

It’s remarkably difficult to fire a tenured public school teacher in California, a Times investigation has found. The path can be laborious and labyrinthine, in some cases involving years of investigation, union grievances, administrative appeals, court challenges and re-hearings.

Not only is the process arduous, but some districts are particularly unsuccessful in navigating its complexities. The Los Angeles Unified School District sees the majority of its appealed dismissals overturned, and its administrators are far less likely even to try firing a tenured teacher than those in other districts.

Obviously, it’s a complicated issue — and I’m the last guy to blast public school teachers on the whole (not only because I had several great ones, but also because my father and step-mother have made careers out of public teaching — and doing it well). But it’s unnerving that, according to an Indianapolis Star story, Indianapolis finds itself disposing of teachers who have actually excelled simply because they haven’t been there long enough.

The district’s youngest and most enthusiastic teachers are on the chopping block, including nine of the 32 recently announced as nominees for IPS teacher of the year. Two of the laid-off teachers were among 10 finalists for the districtwide honor

"IPS claims it wants to become a world-class school system," Rick Henss, a father of two boys attending Sidener Academy, wrote in an e-mail to School Board members. "Nothing makes that claim ring more hollow than watching world-class teachers emptying their desks."

Henss criticized the district’s planned layoff of fifth-grade teacher Lori Feliciano, a finalist for teacher of the year.

"She has made for my son what school was intended to be: a place of higher learning, where learning for the sake of learning is encouraged and enjoyed," Henss said. "There could be no greater travesty or injustice than for a highly qualified, proven, driven, vibrant and talented teacher like Ms. Feliciano to lose her job to satisfy the ridiculous and ineffective practice of seniority."

Make of these situations what you will, but the findings are not encouraging.

Hat tips to Chamber staffer Jonathan Wales and Reason Magazine’s blog.

UPDATE: Mike O’Brien also has a post on this matter over at the WRTV6 Capitol Watchblog. He makes a terrific point:

Imagine a company that makes a decision to cutback by firing their top salesman because he’s been there for five years instead of the company’s worst employee who has been there for thirty years.  That’s education in Indiana.  It’s the biggest business in Indiana and it’s run on a patronage system.