February 22 2010
School Choice is the Cure for Costly Tenure-itis
Vicki E. Alger, Ph.D
Charlotte, North Carolina, and soon Houston, allows teachers to be fired for poor performance. Florida and Louisiana are considering similar policies, while Chicago limits how long teachers who aren't teaching keep "earning" salaries and benefits. But the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the country's second largest school district, is still firmly in the throes of tenure-it is. As the Wall Street Journal reports:
School reformers generally agree that the most important education resource is the teacher. But one of the biggest obstacles to putting a good instructor in every classroom is a tenure system that forces principals to hire and retain teachers based on seniority instead of performance. California grants tenure to teachers after merely two years in the classroom. ...teachers unions do everything in their power to preserve this tenure status quo. In 2005, when California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger backed a proposal to extend the probationary period for new teachers to five years, the California Teachers Association spent more than $50 million to defeat it.
According to the Los Angeles Times LAUSD sometimes grants tenure to teachers who have not been reviewed. Even when they are, "the district's evaluation of teachers does not take into account whether students are learning. Principals are not required to consider testing data, student work or grades." Among the Times' other startling findings:
• Less than 2% of all probationary teachers are denied tenure.
• Many instructors call these reviews "meaningless," since school administrators must conduct a single, pre-announced classroom visit each year-and about half of those reviews last 30 minutes or less.
• LAUSD principals are not required to consider testing data, student work or grades in conducting their teacher evaluations.
"L.A. Unified, like other districts in California," the Times concludes, "essentially ignores a state law that since the 1970s has required districts to weigh pupil progress in assessing teachers and administrators."
An in-depth investigation by the LA Weekly found that of 33,000 LAUSD teachers, trying to fire a mere seven for poor performance cost $3.5 million in the past decade-"and only four were fired." The typical legal battle over firing a bad teacher lasts five years and costs taxpayers $500,000. As if it couldn't get any worse, the LA Weekly also found:
...that 32 underperforming teachers were initially recommended for firing, but then secretly paid $50,000 by the district, on average, to leave without a fight. Moreover, 66 unnamed teachers are being continually recycled through a costly mentoring and retraining program but failing to improve, and another 400 anonymous teachers have been ordered to attend the retraining.
Only a handful of students have successfully petitioned to transfer out of schools with bad teachers, but no student should be held hostage of such incompetence. California may be eligible for as much as $700 million in federal Race to the Top Funds-that's on top of LAUSD's $850 million share of federal stimulus money. The cost to taxpayers nationwide of California's ineptitude is therefore in the billions and counting, but the cost to students whose futures are compromised by poor teachers is incalculable. School choice is the remedy for both these tenure-it is symptoms.