Beth Barrett, Los Angeles Investigative Reporter, Wins Maggie Award for Best Public Service Series: The Dance of the Lemons

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Tue, May 3, 2011 at 12:28 PM

click to enlarge Award-winning Los Angeles journalist Beth Barrett
  • Award-winning Los Angeles journalist Beth Barrett
Investigative reporter Beth Barrett, the Los Angeles journalist whose scoop revealing that Antonio Villaraigosa was cheating on his wife caused him extensive political harm, has won the Maggie Award for Best Public Service Series, for her searing L.A. Weekly cover story, "The Dance of the Lemons: Why Firing the Desk Sleepers, Burnouts, Hotheads and other Failed Teachers in LAUSD is All But Impossible."

Barrett's 5-month probe found that LAUSD, which educates 1 in every 10 children in California, has all but abandoned efforts to fire incapable teachers. Chronically harmed by a large contingent of ineffective teachers, LAUSD over a decade tried to fire only 7 from its vast 33,000-teacher staff. It ultimately fired only 4, thanks to nearly ironclad job protections insisted upon by UTLA, the teachers union. The public cost?

It costs an average of $500,000 to get rid of a single incompetent Los Angeles-area teacher, and it requires years of legal battles to accomplish, Barrett discovered.

She found that LAUSD, despite its huge, well-paid administrative staff working in a downtown skyscraper, does not seriously vet any of its young, green teachers before granting them the incredible gift of lifelong tenure. That dramatic legal protection, handed to teachers after just two years of experience, requires the district to spend years, and a small fortune, fighting through official channels to fire them.

click to enlarge Of 33,000 teachers, only 4 could be fired in the past decade.
  • Of 33,000 teachers, only 4 could be fired in the past decade.
As a result of the inordinate time and cost, the effort to fire people who should not be teachers is nearly non-existent in Los Angeles.

As Barrett wrote:

Recent articles in the Los Angeles Times have described teachers who draw full pay for years while they sit at home fighting allegations of sexual or physical misconduct.

But the far larger problem in L.A. is one of "performance cases" -- the teachers who cannot teach, yet cannot be fired.

Their ranks are believed to be sizable -- perhaps 1,000 teachers, responsible for 30,000 children. But in reality, nobody knows how many of LAUSD's vast system of teachers fail to perform. Superintendent Ramon Cortines tells the Weekly he has a "solid" figure, but he won't release it. In fact, almost all information about these teachers is kept secret.

The anti-reform United Teachers Los Angeles union chief at the time, A.J. Duffy, absurdly called the claim that lemon teachers are hurting thousands of children in Los Angeles "an urban legend."

In late 2009, now-departed Superintendent Ramon Cortines publicly pledged that ""The days of coddling ineffective teachers, or allowing them to be moved to another school, are over."

Not exactly.

Throughout Barrett's five-month investigation, Cortines' staff threw up hurdles to keep secret the details of its practice of quietly transferring L.A.'s lemon teachers to unsuspecting schools.

And Cortines' staff resisted releasing what should be open, public data, showing how many ineffective but tenured teachers were quietly awarded an average of $50,000 to quit -- a bargain for the district, in a sad way, because it was able to avoid the long, $500,000 formal firing battles.

Barrett discovered that 32 tenured teachers were handed a tidy fortune of $1.3 million to simply disappear from the classroom without a fuss. The elected LAUSD Board of Education plays a highly culpable role with these vanished teachers:

The LAUSD school board, which says it is reform-minded, allows these teachers to leave with clean records, and with no hint that they took a payout under pressure. The deals are so hush-hush, in fact, that the Weekly has discovered that one teacher, Que Mars, who taught math at Chester W. Nimitz Middle School, is still listed in LAUSD's substitute-teacher pool after taking a $40,000 check -- to stop teaching in L.A.

click to enlarge LAUSD attorney Kathleen Collins faces inordinate hurdles to firing the bad ones. - TED SOQUI
  • Ted Soqui
  • LAUSD attorney Kathleen Collins faces inordinate hurdles to firing the bad ones.
One LAUSD staffer stood out for her heroic decision to explain to Barrett why it is nearly impossible to fire a teacher who holds back the learning of his or her students: Kathleen Collins, an LAUSD attorney who deals daily with the system's hurdles.

The Weekly was eventually able to obtain the public information it sought: the names of all seven teachers targeted for firing, the names of the 32 who received big settlements of $40,000 to $195,000, and the data showing the size of a group forced into retraining -- 466 teachers during the past three years.

The ranks of bad teachers are believed to be far higher, possibly in the low thousands -- a result of never culling the herd as any 33,000-employee organization would do.

As has already been widely reported by local media, LAUSD does not conduct any serious teacher performance evaluations, and does not have a respected system for identifying adults who don't belong in the classroom.

The Los Angeles Times, not the LAUSD Board of Education or superintendent, has been the game-changer on that front. Times reporters Jason Felch, Jason Song and Doug Smith have published award-winning stories (Please click here to read "Grading the Teachers") that identify by name the ineffective -- and effective -- teachers in LAUSD.

As with the Weekly's cover story The Dance of the Lemons, the Times tough-love coverage has been condemned by the anti-reform United Teachers of Los Angeles.

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