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Berendo Principal Bilovsky leaves no room for doubt as to how he views Schonberger, saying, "There's always the question, 'Would you want your child in someone's classroom?' I wouldn't have felt comfortable with that."
In a culture like LAUSD's, where getting fired is virtually impossible, the small group of teachers who were fired or took large payments to leave appear to share a strong belief that each of theirs was the one special case driven by biased principals or unfair rules. Among those is Raye Shibasaki, a former first-grade teacher at Miles Avenue Elementary School in Huntington Park, who received three notices of unsatisfactory services. She ultimately settled for an $80,000 payment to leave.
Leticia Ortega, a parent as well as a middle-school teacher for LAUSD, recalls how she took her own son, Arturo, out of Shibasaki's class after he was repeatedly bullied and she could not get Shibasaki to step in. Ortega says veteran teacher Shibasaki was disorganized and overwhelmed, yet Shibasaki complained she wasn't getting help from the district.
In fact, documents show, Shibasaki was given plenty of help — a literary coach and access to a paid mentor. "Obviously it was not the right career for her," Ortega says.
District officials say 15 parents demanded to have their children taken out of her class. Allegations include that she failed to teach first-grade fundamentals like the difference between levers and wheels, couldn't control 6-year-olds and lost track of a small boy who vanished on her watch and made his way home on foot, unsupervised.
Shibasaki describes almost the opposite experience. She tells the Weekly the allegations were "idiotic" and driven by administrators who disliked her as a person and evaluated her "subjectively." She says administrators gave her the toughest first-graders and insufficient support, yet she concedes that expensive, paid teaching coaches repeatedly tried to help her.
She quotes a sentiment that Duffy and UTLA officials have made into something of a motto: "It's so subjective, and getting rid of teachers should never be subjective."
Perez, the Associated Administrators president, says principals need more specific training to deal with tenured teachers who should not be in the classroom, and more clout in recommending which of the new ones should not get tenure at the two-year mark.
Los Angeles' situation is in stark contrast to nearby Long Beach, where Superintendent Christopher J. Steinhauser has long required extensive vetting before granting lifelong tenure to teachers. Long Beach is substantially ahead of Los Angeles in such teacher-quality reforms — and in student achievement. "If they're not great teachers, we work to release them," says Steinhauser. "That's really important."
In Los Angeles, as reported recently in the Los Angeles Times, new teachers get tenure virtually automatically unless their principal objects. Yet the Times report showed that few principals are actively engaged in reviewing green teachers before giving them the nod for lifelong tenure — a failing Cortines says he is out to change.
President Barack Obama has begun pushing for tougher evaluations of teachers, tied to their classroom test scores, and for direct comparison of teachers with their colleagues along the same hallway. As those and other reforms aimed at teacher quality begin to find acceptance in other parts of the nation, however, it seems a stretch to imagine LAUSD, the district so big it educates one in 10 California children, joining in.
"The power of the union [and] the California Teachers Association in this state has definitely tipped the balance in favor of protecting the incompetent teacher," says Collins. Somehow, she says, "Parents and students need to know they have a voice."
Duffy disagrees with her assessment, saying, "The vast majority of teachers are doing a good job. I can't begin to tell you how many vindictive principals there are."
Retired Principal Dan Basalone would like to see one reform above all: an end to the secret negotiations between UTLA and the school district, closed to parents and the public, through which the current system for firing underperforming teachers has been crafted over the years. He points to the practice known as the dance of the lemons, the secret payouts to persuade teachers to go away, and the anonymity granted to teachers who repeatedly fail PAR retraining and mentoring.
A vastly different way to evaluate and make teachers accountable is required, he says, and it "should be negotiated publicly. All of it should be in the sunshine."