By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
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By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
A retired official with the Associated Administrators of Los Angeles, a union representing school principals, Basalone wants to see tenured teachers evaluated with public, transparent and clearer standards. Teacher "evaluations should be publicly discussed," he says. "If you have to negotiate [with UTLA], so what? Doing nothing and saying it's a bad system just means you're not willing to bite the bullet. Until you put some ideas out there, you don't know what the possibilities are."
Duffy, the union's pugnacious president, a speed-talker with a talk-radio temperament who enjoys publicly sparring with Cortines and the administrators, is a key reason why UTLA is one of the nation's most steadfast teachers-union holdouts, resisting reforms that are gaining acceptance by teachers unions in places like New York City and, more locally, Long Beach.
Duffy has put as much time in the system as Basalone. He sees things very differently. He blames the difficulties in identifying and getting rid of poor L.A. teachers on bureaucratic "nonsense," such as administrators who are improperly trained, bogged down by paperwork and don't have time to conduct meaningful teacher evaluations. Duffy deplores the "witch hunt" against teachers by a "rotten, corrupt system" in which, he says, principals can give teachers bad evaluations merely because they speak up during meetings on such issues as whether to buy teaching materials instead of new furniture. However, Duffy did not provide evidence of that claim to the Weekly.
Basalone says, "These people are rewarded for bad teaching. The bottom line is money and politics." Yet Duffy says most teachers do a solid job, and that if he had a child who was stuck with a failing teacher, he'd be down at that school "demanding change."
But it is extremely difficult to find out whether a teacher is failing. The Weekly was only able to gain access to extensive details about all seven rare "performance cases" in which the district tried to fire teachers because those disputes ended up in court. Critics say these seven cases are the tip of the iceberg. Hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of other L.A. teachers hand out busy-work, show movies during most class periods, sleep, don't show up on Fridays, or consistently churn out kids who score well below the rest of the school in core subjects like math, science, reading and English.
California Charter Schools Association's Young and other education analysts say the obstacles to identifying and ousting these teachers stem from the 1970s, when popular but not particularly competent teachers were named as principals while top teachers with deep academic backgrounds got fired for failing to toe the line. In the backlash that followed, critics say, new laws and regulations made it increasingly hard to fire a California teacher.
Today, an L.A. teacher who gets a below-standard classroom evaluation can, and often does, file a grievance through UTLA. In many cases, an initial negative evaluation by a principal is then heavily rewritten, or even withdrawn, by district officials. Nothing happens to teachers who have at least two "below-standard" evaluations upheld after the grievance process is completed. Asked why this is the case, Duffy changes the subject, choosing instead to talk about insufficient school funding.
Diane Pappas, LAUSD associate general counsel, says her office's five attorneys only work part-time on efforts to oust bad teachers. She also questions whether California's Office of Administrative Hearings, which has the power to resolve firing cases that public school teachers decide to contest, could handle the workload if the LAUSD school board bit the bullet and decided to target dozens of the worst teachers.
Currently, although LAUSD is the nation's second-largest school district, just two LAUSD "teacher-performance cases" are before the state's Office of Administrative Hearings, a quasijudicial tribunal that adjudicates or mediates 14,000 public-sector disputes annually involving 1,400 state-, county- and city-government entities.
"We'd [pursue more firings] if we had more resources," Pappas says. But the state OAH "can only handle so many with their staffing issues, too. They have a time line to follow. You couldn't, even if you wanted to do 100 [firings] at a time. The system can't adjust."
Not true, says Jeffrey Young, spokesman for OAH, noting the sheer size of OAH. He says the agency could easily ramp up if LAUSD sent it significantly more teacher-firing cases to adjudicate. In fact, says Young, "I believe we could handle anything."
Cortines likes to point to California state law as one of his big hurdles, saying he talked to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in late January about crafting a law that makes it easier to oust subpar tenured teachers. Cortines says "competence" rather than seniority should be the chief criterion in keeping teachers, complaining that, "The [California] laws are not on the side of the school systems. No one is the advocate for the children and family. All [the laws] are written to protect adults" — tenured teachers.
When principals do make a very rare effort to fire an underperforming teacher, examples such as that of former teacher Roque Burio serve as vivid reminders of the severe problems they will face.