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Crescendo schools scandal shows why teachers need due process

The cheating at the now-closed charter schools shows what happens when teachers fear losing their jobs if they report orders to help students cheat on state tests.

August 23, 2012
  • John Allen, left, Crescendo charter schools' founder walks out of the board of directors meeting and into closed session amid jeers and boos.
John Allen, left, Crescendo charter schools' founder walks out of… (Los Angeles Times )

The shameful cheating at the now-closed Crescendo charter schools shows why legislative attempts to strip teachers of due process before they can be fired are grossly unfair and harmful to both teachers and students. When teachers fear losing their jobs if they report orders to help students cheat on state tests, the freedom to fire has gone too far.

It has been impossible in California to bring about, or even talk about, reasonable ways of evaluating teachers' effectiveness and ousting teachers whose work is inferior. On one side are powerful unions clinging to outmoded policies that allow even terrible teachers to stay in the classroom. On the other are reformers who see unions as standing in the way of student progress, and who often want to make students' test scores count for an outsize portion of teachers' performance reviews and strip away any meaningful job protections.

The situation at Crescendo, brought to light last week by Times reporter Howard Blume, illuminates some of the more worthwhile reasons for union recalcitrance. Unions have complained that too much emphasis is placed on the state's annual standards tests and that strong tenure protections are a necessary safeguard against capricious or abusive bosses.

INTERACTIVE: California schools guide

The Crescendo setup was, in ways, a reformer's dream. There was heavy emphasis on continued and dramatic improvement on test scores. There was no tenure. But the rules reflected both the strengths and weaknesses of founder and chief executive John Allen. Female teachers were afraid to be seen without high heels because he frowned on flats. So when teachers were ordered to peruse the state tests in advance and make sure their students knew the material, few were willing to complain. Principals said people had been fired for less. Allen has since been blamed for the scandal in two investigations.

California must not allow publicly funded schools, charters included, to intimidate teachers in this way. At the same time, unions are too unwilling to talk about reforms that would protect students as well as teachers — such as including test scores as one proportionate factor in performance reviews, and using binding arbitration instead of the current protracted and slanted appeals process for firings. Each extreme has been reflected in problematic legislation this year. Legislators, instead of leading the state toward better schools based on reasonable new rules, are letting themselves be pushed around by competing educational interests.

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