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Commentary: How to weed out bad-apple teachers? Ask parents

Guest contributor | July 6, 2016

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bad-applesBy Lindsay Sturman

The epic battle over how to improve public education in California grew more stratified last week when a bill to mildly reform California’s onerous teacher employment laws was gutted beyond recognition and quickly died. With it went the hope that our elected officials would finally decide the question which is at the heart of the debate: Is there a fair way to fire a teacher? 

Assembly member Susan Bonilla’s AB 934 was meant to address (and head off) the issues raised in Vergara v. California, a lawsuit brought by nine students who argued the laws are too protective. A Los Angeles Superior Court judge agreed; an appeals court did not. Now the state Supreme Court is expected to decide this summer whether to take up the case. While both sides agree there are ineffective teachers in our public schools, and they are concentrated in low-income communities, they can’t agree on what to do about it. Unions say there is no objective way to evaluate teachers, arguing principals can be biased and incompetent, and test scores are influenced by factors outside of a teacher’s control (such as poverty). The default system is that teachers get almost no scrutiny, and terrible teachers are left in the classroom indefinitely because no one is identifying the bad ones.

No one, that is, except for parents.

When a teacher is mean, lazy, chronically drunk in class or “grossly ineffective,” the parents know immediately. They know from their friends, from their kids or simply from observing a class. What has been overlooked by all parties in the debate is that in the absence of workable teacher dismissal laws there is an outsize role parents play in what happens to truly bad teachers. In affluent and high-performing schools, PTA parents — with booster club money, political clout and enough free time — will march into the principal’s office, file petitions with the district and protest until someone does something about a poorly performing teacher. That something is coaching (or nudging) the teacher to improve, and if that doesn’t work, “coaching them out.”

The phenomenon of “coaching out” is when administrators are forced to work around the stringent dismissal process, which can take a decade and cost $250,000and convince incompetent teachers to leave on their own. Teachers only agree to this when there is another job waiting for them. That job is very often in a low-income, low-performing school, where turnover and vacancies occur more frequently. This shuffle of teachers is known as the “Dance of the Lemons” and was part of the testimony in the Vergara trial.

But the parent part of the equation went unnoticed amid bigger headlines (such as teachers calling students racial epithets and slurs such as “whore” and no one doing anything about it, and that students can lose nine to 12 months of learning from one year with a grossly ineffective teacher). Mark Douglas, assistant superintendent of personnel services at the Fullerton School District, referenced the role of parents. He said the Dance of the Lemons results in the transfer of less effective teachers to economically disadvantaged schools because an “(ineffective) teacher can exist without parent pressure at a lower-end school.”

In other words, bad teachers cannot survive in affluent and high-performing schools because they can’t survive the parents. Empowered parents will hold everyone’s feet to the fire until a poorly performing teacher gets support, improves or moves on. If parents are constantly pressuring a school to stay on its toes and strive for excellence, is it such a surprise when affluent students do well? It’s important to note that parents in low-income and low-performing schools do protest and fight to get rid of ineffective teachers, but their voices go unheard in the same way voices from low-income communities across the country go unheard. Just look at Flint, Mich.

Unions have won protection for teachers from unfair administrators (by insulating them from all administrators), but they can’t protect every bad teacher from every angry parent fighting to protect their kids. When problem teachers do move jobs, it isn’t a “dance,” which conjures up the image of ineffective teachers bouncing from school to school in neighborhoods across a city, rich and poor and middle class — Pasadena to Venice to downtown, Studio City to Brentwood. The evidence shows it’s a settling, with the least effective teachers moving to lower performing and more economically disadvantaged schools.

The story of a teacher at Walgrove Elementary that parents accused of reeking of alcohol on the job provides a recent example. Activist parents in an affluent part of Mar Vista reported that along with smelling alcohol on him at school, the teacher was verbally abusive to kids, made students cry and helped them cheat on the state standardized test. Parents spent months speaking up — to the principal, the superintendent, the district and the board of education — even threatening a school boycott. He finally left, only to move to a low-income school in a historically black neighborhood in South LA.

The system we have inadvertently sends the weakest teachers to the lowest performing schools that disproportionately serve low-income students, students of color and English language learners, compounding the very real challenges of racism and poverty. And if this weren’t bad enough, the lemons drive out the good teachers who can’t stand the dysfunction. This was testified to in Vergara by Maggie Pulley, a Stanford alum who taught in South LA but left her job because she couldn’t stand the “screamer” next door who was causing trauma and stress disorders to the kids she would inherit the following year.

Both sides of the debate agree that poverty can impact a child’s ability to learn, and test scores are highly correlated with family income. Which leads to the assumption that the cause of low test scores is poverty. But correlation is not causation. What if the correlation is related to the phenomenon of active and empowered parents pushing the worst teachers out of high-performing schools, who are then placed in low-performing and low-income schools, coupled with a system that can’t fire a teacher? What if “drop-out factories” are where lemons settle and push out the good apples, creating a vicious cycle? What if this quiet shuffling is exacerbating the “Scarsdale to Harlem” achievement gap? We need to ask the question: Would all children succeed if given excellent teachers?

We need to fix poverty. We need to support teachers with comprehensive professional development so they can improve and excel. We need all schools to value collaboration, a nurturing school culture, the arts and the whole child along with achievement. We need to give low-income communities an equal voice. And we can’t just “fire our way” to successful schools. But we have to admit that the status quo is harming our most vulnerable students. Rather than hyper-focusing on the question, Is there a fair way to fire a bad teacher, we should be asking: If rich parents won’t tolerate a lemon, why should poor kids have to?

 Lindsay Sturman was part of the founding team of six parent-initiated charter schools in Los Angeles with the mission to provide a progressive education to a socio-economically and racially diverse community of students.

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