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Yes, blame the system

Tough times may bring reform to how teachers are hired, fired and paid.

April 26, 2010

If there's a silver lining to the dire school cutbacks, it's how much the public has learned about the arcane systems for compensating and laying off teachers and firing the incompetent ones. As soon as there weren't enough teaching jobs to go around, attention was drawn to rules that require schools to lay off teachers, or rehire them, based almost solely on seniority rather than on how well they do their jobs. And firing ineffective teachers, once they have gotten tenure, is nearly impossible.

We support job protections for teachers, but these union-backed rules go over the line. One example: Several classes at Markham Middle School in Watts were left with rotating substitute teachers throughout much of this school year because the principal wasn't allowed to hire the enthusiastic teachers who had taught there the year before but who had too little seniority. The American Civil Liberties Union has sued the Los Angeles Unified School District over the situation at Markham and similarly affected schools.

As pressure mounts to reform the out-of-whack employment and compensation system, there are hopeful signs of progress both locally and at the state level. These are halting and imperfect steps, but compared with the years of stubborn refusal to budge on these issues, they seem enormous.

An L.A. Unified task force on teacher effectiveness has delivered its recommendations, which the school board will consider Tuesday. What's surprising isn't the list of recommendations, which include removing some of the obstacles to firing bad teachers and making it harder for teachers to gain tenure, but how many of the proposals have at least initial support from the leadership of the teachers union. Those include setting up a more regular and robust evaluation system for teachers, as much as doubling the time before probationary teachers can gain tenure, and finding ways to compensate high-performing teachers better by, for example, paying them extra to model their classroom practices for other teachers, rather than basing salaries mainly on seniority.

That's not to say these proposals are all that bold or that they will solve all of our problems. For one thing, there's no real point to teacher tenure. Public schools aren't universities, where professors are paid to do groundbreaking work and writing that might make them controversial figures in need of extraordinary job protections. All teachers, whether new or not, should have reasonable job protections that keep them from losing their positions because of capricious administrators or because a district wants to save money by replacing its best-paid staff with new hires. But lifetime tenure is too much.

Another shortcoming is that outstanding teachers shouldn't have to take on more responsibilities to earn more money; they should get higher salaries because they do a better job, not necessarily a bigger one. But once teachers receive more meaningful evaluations and a door is opened to compensating the best ones for their skills, fear of moving toward a more merit-based system should fade away.

Staffing problems aren't solely the result of poorly crafted union contracts. California law also dictates many of the outmoded rules — if they ever made sense. Now Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has backed off from confrontations with teachers unions after a painful brush with them several years ago, is back in the fray, throwing his support behind a bill that would peel away a layer of obstacles.

Among other things, SB 955, the bill carried by Sen. Bob Huff (R-Diamond Bar), would allow districts to lay off, rehire and assign teachers based on their effectiveness and the schools' needs rather than on seniority. It also would let districts change the makeup of the panels that hear teachers' appeals after they're fired to be less biased in their favor. Instead of being decided by two teachers and an administrative law judge, future appeals could be heard simply by a judge. These provisions make such obvious sense it's astonishing they're even necessary.

Some of the bill's proposals, though, are harsh to the point of being anti-teacher. The appeals judges' rulings would have no real authority; school officials would be free to ignore them. Teachers need better safeguards against potentially capricious administrators. What's the point of a toothless appeals process? Schools also would be free not to pay fired teachers while they're waiting for their appeals to be heard. That could create financial disaster for teachers and could be exploited by schools as a way to make appeals too costly for them. We sympathize with schools that currently have to pay a fired teacher to do nothing during the years leading up to an appeal; a better solution would be a hard deadline by which the appeals process would have to be completed. Protecting the rights of students doesn't have to mean leaving teachers out in the cold.

Even if an amended version of the bill passes, and it should, the ball then gets passed back to the school districts, which will decide which reforms to adopt, if any, in negotiations with teachers. If districts are too timid to hammer out more reasonable contracts, the effort fails. We expect the process to be a long one.

Charter schools pioneered the way to more sensible hiring, evaluation and compensation practices. A few of the more progressive school districts will follow suit, changing the status quo enough to make parents and the public question why any public schools should operate in ways that are detrimental to students.

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