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."