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Getting rid of bad teachers

One sensible approach: change the makeup of appeals boards that review teacher firings.

May 05, 2009

What can be done about bad teachers? Asked with increasing urgency by school reformers, that also was among the questions The Times' editorial board posed to Steve Zimmer during his successful March 3 campaign for the Los Angeles Unified school board.

Zimmer, a teacher working with at-risk students at Marshall High School, agreed that bad teachers make up a significant minority in the LAUSD. As an educator, he said, he makes an effort to keep his vulnerable students out of the classrooms of certain teachers. That's good for his students, but most parents aren't in a position to work the system.

Zimmer will take his seat on the board in July, in a district where non-tenured teachers are at great risk of being laid off this year while inept or uncaring teachers who have tenure will stay. Meanwhile, a Times investigation published Sunday presented further evidence of a problem this page has long deplored: The process for firing a teacher is so lengthy, tortuous and stacked against school districts that many administrators don't bother trying except in the most extreme cases. And while the separation process drags on for years, a bad teacher either continues to influence the lives of hundreds of students or draws a salary for manning a desk.

Teachers unions have legitimate gripes of their own. Too many principals don't evaluate teachers properly, or they allow petty personal grievances to interfere with their judgment. But even if the district got it all right, United Teachers Los Angeles would still be vigorously defending the bad apples. That's its job; the public's job is to insist on the best possible teachers.

Striking a balance between students' rights and legitimate job protection can be tricky, but it also is achievable. In coming months, this page will examine workable remedies at the state, local and national levels.

The first solution, though, is so obvious and fair to both sides that there should be no need for debate: The panel that hears all appeals of teacher firings must be altered to reflect the interests of students and parents as well as teachers, and these hearings should take place within a year after a district first moves to fire a teacher. Instead of placing two teachers on the panel with an administrative law judge, there should be a teacher and a representative from an independent parents organization.

The L.A. Unified school board backed off last week from asking the Legislature to fix that problem, but California lawmakers shouldn't need an invitation.

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