Sunday, September 17, 2006

A Law That Is Long Overdue

California Live Wire has informed us about this soon-to-become law in the Golden State. Teachers, like me, who favor this law, are in the minority, but that minority might be a lot larger than a lot of people realize.

Imagine a company president being ordered by the board of directors to hire
any misfit who knocks on the door. It's a crazy scenario -- but it's
exactly the way many California school districts operate when an unsuccessful
teacher is quietly edged out of a school. As long as the teacher agrees to leave
voluntarily, union rules require the principal of any other school in the
district with an opening to hire that teacher.

The practice, common in large and mid-size urban districts, is so reviled
by principals that they've given it a derogatory name. "It's called the Dance of
the Lemons," said state Sen. Jack Scott, a Pasadena Democrat who wrote a bill to
ban the practice in low-scoring schools and to limit it in others...

The bill was approved 33-1 by the Senate in May and 59-12 by the Assembly
last month. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has until Sept. 30 to sign or veto the
bill. If the governor signs it as expected, California will become the
first state in the nation to rein in the practice.

It is no surprise that opposition to this bill is led by the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers.

Barbara Kerr, president of the California Teachers Association, called the bill
"insulting to teachers," because it implies that every teacher who voluntarily
leaves a school is a poor one. Some teachers leave a school for reasons
unrelated to performance, such as a personality clash with a principal.

This concern is understandable. Nobody wants to see good teachers lose their jobs because of personality conflicts with principals, but it doesn't sound like that is the usual reason that "lemons" are leaving schools in these districts. This excuse shouldn't be used to protect teachers who do a poor job with kids and give the rest of us a bad name. A couple of years ago I had a conversation with a former teacher, who became the chairman of a school board of a district in the Twin Cities area. He told me, "As long as teachers have the tenure and seniority systems, the profession will never get the respect it deserves." I agree with him.

Disapproval from the teachers unions often can kill a bill. But their opposition
was counterbalanced this time by a constituency that proved just as persuasive:
advocates for poor and minority students, who most often attend the schools
where the lemons land. "Right now, poor kids and kids of color don't have their
fair share of the state's experienced, credentialed teachers," said Russlynn
Ali, executive director of the Oakland advocacy group Education Trust-West. "By
giving a principal in a high-poverty, high-minority school some power to recruit
those teachers, we can finally make headway on closing that teacher-quality

The special concern for poor and minority students makes sense, but the problem doesn't stop there. It seems to me that the issue of hiring and firing is much more important than merit pay, about which we hear so much discussion. After all, if you don't have a job, it's tough to get any merit pay. During my career in Minnesota, the great majority of teachers I've known have been competent and hard working. Nevertheless, I have seen too many good, and even great, young teachers lose their jobs when cuts had to be made simply because they didn't have enough seniority, and I've seen too many veteran teachers fail to be as good as they could be because they felt too secure.

Principals in all schools should be given the power to keep their best teachers and get rid of their worst ones. Many teachers might think this would give principals too much power, but that's why we need good principals. We may need some mechanism to prevent an unscrupulous principal from misusing this power, but I don't know how we can do worse than the system we're using now. I said this in the book that I wrote, and for people who think that public schools are loaded with mediocre and incompetent teachers who depend on the tenure and seniority systems to protect them, I want them to know that my biggest surprise after my book was published was how few teachers told me that they disagreed with that, and how many said that they agreed.

As Principal Patricia Gray of Balboa High in San Francisco said, "I believe in the teachers union, but some things protect ineffective employees. We've got to put children first."


Blogger rory said...

I honestly didn't know about this practice. Is it applicable in all 50 states or was it just a California thing?

9/17/2006 5:01 AM  
Blogger elementaryhistoryteacher said...

I'd have to research the topic a bit to find out Georgia's tenure laws, however, poor teachers have no place in the classroom. Let's remember, however, these situations don't just exist with teachers....they also exist with administrators. There are many adm. who have no business leading a school. How many times have we seen these same adm. removed from a school only to be given a choice position at county office? I've read about several on different blogs and my nightly newscasts are full of such situations.

9/17/2006 7:28 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Rory, state laws differ, so I don't know in how many places "the dance of the lemons" takes place, but it is consistent with tenure laws. In Minnesota, a teacher is untenured for three years, and they can be released at the discretion of the principal during that time. I have not seen any ineffective young teachers survive that at my schools. Actually, most of the new teachers I've seen have been very good.

Once a teacher is tenured, however, it is difficult to fire them. Many teachers say that it can be done if the administration isn't lazy, but I don't buy that. I think it is as difficult for schools to get rid of bad tenured teachers as it is for teachers to remove disruptive kids from their classrooms. If you're wondering how bad teachers can be tenured, I think it's usually a case of someone who has burned out. I should add that during my career, I can count the number of truly bad veteran teachers I've known on the fingers of one hand.

I think the bigger problem comes when schools are forced for various reasons, usually declining enrollment, to make budget cuts. In Minnesota that goes strictly by seniority. If I am an okay social studies teacher who has been in my school for ten years, and there is another social studies who is recognized as the best teacher in our school, but he has only been here seven years, he will go and I will stay.

What is worse, is something called the Strand Law or checkerboard bumping in Minnesota. Let's say that I am a mediocre social studies teacher who has been here seven years, and we need to cut a social studies teacher. I have less seniority than the other social studies teachers, so I will be the one who gets cut, right? Not so fast. It just so happens that we have a young outstanding math teacher who has been here four years, and we're not making any cuts in math. It also just so happens that I'm certified in math, even though I've never taught the subject. That being the case, I can "bump" the younger math teacher. So instead of having that outstanding math teacher teaching math, we now have a mediocre social studies guy, who's never taught the subject doing it.

That has been going on in our school for the last few years, and it isn't pretty!

EHT, as usual, is right on the money. Crummy administrators should not be tolerated any more than crummy teachers--especially if they are to be given the powers that I am suggesting. And, may I add, neither should blatantly disruptive students.

9/17/2006 8:31 AM  
Anonymous steven said...

The way I am reading this new law, principals wouldn't be required to hire the a teacher who had left another school in the district, but they also wouldn't be prevented from hiring the teacher if they felt there were circumstances that warranted it. That seems pretty sensible to me.

To you out there who are teachers, from someone who is not a teacher but has children in public school, the fact that a teachers union opposes this change in the law and others like it is the main reason that a lot of us parents despise the teachers unions. When teachers unions prevent bad teachers from being gotten rid of, our children are the ones who lose. Unions, and not just teachers unions, are biased towards the welfare of their members (and that's how it should be). We parents are biased towards the welfare of our children. And I honestly believe that the good teachers and principals are biased toward the welfare of their students. It seems to me that, in many cases, it is the unions and not the teachers that are calling the shots.

Things like this are why, when teachers unions try to tell us that they too are concerned about the welfare of our children, I don't believe a word of what they say. To not change this law would be an insult to all the parents and students, as well as to the many good teachers and principals out there.

9/17/2006 2:25 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

I have a question for you, which is tangentially related to this post perhaps: What type of opportunities for continuing education do social studies and history teachers in your area have? I mean, if all the history and social studies teachers went to school 20-30 years ago, and they don't keep up--well, the world's changed a lot since then.

9/17/2006 4:03 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Elizabeth, I'm not impressed by our continuing education system. We have to earn so many credits (or hours) every five years, but the things we can apply are pretty broad. For example, any workshops for teaching can be used. You have me feeling a little defensive about this, so let me assure you that I do keep up. I'm constantly reading. Right now, I'm reading David McCullough's "1776," and I recently finished "American Sphinx" and just before that, a book about Wounded Knee (I can't remember the title right off hand). I also have a TV next to my desk that is constantly tuned to either CNN or Fox News. Okay, yeah, I do check ESPN every now and then, too.

9/17/2006 6:04 PM  
Anonymous steven said...


I recommend two articles from Reason Magazine regarding the San Francisco School District's open enrollment program. Both are dated April 10th. They can both be accessed by googling "Reason Online" and scrolling down to the articles (almost to the bottom). The first is "Meet Arlene Ackerman" and the second is "The Agony of American Education". I mentioned this to elementaryhistoryteacher in a prior post. Arlene Ackerman is the former superintendent of the San Francisco School District.

9/17/2006 8:34 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Back to Elizabeth, after thinking about it, I was probably a little harsh on our recertification system. During my last two five year periods I was working on my Masters, so that took care of the credits I needed, and before that I'd be taking credits to change lanes. But nearly all of the classes that are given for teaching come from the "progressive school," and I do agree with our critics who say that there is too much "mush" in that.

9/18/2006 2:58 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

I don't know what you mean by the "progressive school"?

Fox News! You would do better reading: The International Herald Tribune, Le Monde (if you read French), or the Economist magazine.

9/19/2006 11:53 AM  

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