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LAUSD Superintendent Fires Lemon Teachers

John Deasy at Chinatown's Castelar Elementary, known for its above-average teachers
John Deasy at Chinatown's Castelar Elementary, known for its above-average teachers
PHOTO BY JOHN MCCOY/ZUMAPRESS/NEWSCOM

The day after the L.A. school board election, which some said was about Superintendent John Deasy although he wasn't even on the ballot, he appeared at a UCLA event with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. The wiry superintendent didn't mill about — he doesn't really mill, gab or make small talk. He buzzes, darting past people, in and out of doors, like a man with a medical condition that won't let him stay still.

The speed with which Deasy moves and speaks is well documented. He brings an uncomfortable impatience to the LAUSD supe's job as he moves to increase the types of schools available to students (known as School Choice), raise achievement on test scores and graduation rates, and require accountability from L.A.'s more than 20,000 tenured-for-life teachers.

Without fanfare, the school district famous for its unacknowledged Dance of the Lemons — a policy of repeatedly transferring the worst teachers to unsuspecting new schools — has started to fire its bad teachers.

"We have a moral obligation to students to have them in front of a highly competent teacher," Deasy says. "That's the most important decision I make — who gets to be in front of kids." Deasy believes the vast majority of teachers in L.A. are capable people. But, as in any profession, a small minority is thoroughly incompetent. Their control of classrooms can set large numbers of students back for years.

Bad teachers are rarely fired. In the 2005-06 school year, according to LAUSD's human resources division, just six of L.A.'s army of 34,000 teachers were dismissed, and 10 were convinced to resign. In 2006-07, those numbers were three and 15.

In the United States, across all jobs and professions, about 2 to 6 percent of employees are fired annually. For L.A. teachers, the firing rate was roughly 1/100th of 1 percent.

United Teachers Los Angeles and the California Teachers Association, with their enormous political influence at the state and district level, had fixed things so that even the worst teacher could tap a multistep appeals process that on average took more than a year and cost schools hundreds of thousands of dollars per case. Terrible teachers often were reinstated, so for decades, principals quietly transferred them to other L.A. schools — the "dance" that, when finally detailed by L.A. Weekly and other media, spawned intense criticism.

Deasy was hired in 2010 as deputy to Superintendent Ramon Cortines, who groomed Deasy to take over his job in 2011. Under Deasy during the 2011-12 school year, LAUSD fired 99 tenured teachers — a 30-fold increase from five years earlier — and convinced 122 to resign.

Many were fired for misconduct — say, for sleeping in class, showing movies every day or touching a child inappropriately. Many others were let go for incompetence. Deasy, in his clipped way, calls it "dismissals for unsatisfactory performance."

Vivian Ekchian, head of LAUSD's human resources division, has worked under four superintendents — Deasy, Cortines, David Brewer and Roy Romer. She says they all cared about holding teachers to competency standards, but Deasy's sheer intensity and willingness to put money behind it moved the ball forward for the first time.

LAUSD's general counsel, David Holm­quist, says the drive to fire bad teachers predated Deasy, but "he accelerated it with conversations about evaluations and performance management. He's raised expectations through a variety of ways, very publicly."

Teachers still get tenure after just two years. Then, every two years, tenured teachers are evaluated by the principal. But that evaluation — called a Stull — was toothless for years. Tenured teachers who got "unsatisfactory" ratings were placed under "peer assistance and review" — PAR — for help and retraining. But those who showed no signs of life could remain on review forever.

Unknown to parents or others, there was no exit strategy for L.A.'s hopeless teachers.

"People used to stay in PAR for their whole lives," Deasy says.

In October 2010, while Deasy was LAUSD's No. 2, the Board of Education signed off on a policy to mark for dismissal teachers who'd been deemed unsatisfactory for two consecutive years. Teacher dismissals jumped from 10 to 56, then to 99.

"If you get two unsatisfactory Stulls, I expect you to be prepared for termination," Deasy explains, "for inability to do the job. That is the standard in this administration."

Eric Hanushek, a senior education policy fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University, calls it "a dramatic change. ... It says they are now going to pay much more attention to teacher effectiveness."

Last year, 331 teachers flunked their Stull evaluations, and 89 of those were fired or pushed out. The evaluations may get harder, because this year Stulls will include the standardized test scores of the teacher's students. It's part of a broader new "student achievement" section, which will count for up to 30 percent of a teacher's grade.

LAUSD is the first California school district to do this.

Deasy also has tightened an incredibly sloppy tenure system. In 2008-09, according to Ekchian, the district handed more than 99 percent of new teachers essentially lifelong tenure after undertaking minimal to no review of their abilities. Deasy says, "We've gone from passive tenure to active tenure. A principal now has to actively award a teacher tenure."

A lawsuit filed by Students Matter hopes to go even further by challenging both the lightning speed with which California teachers earn tenure, as well as California's "last in, first out" policy of seniority-based teacher layoffs, which ignores ability.

The potentially game-changing lawsuit, represented by famed attorneys Ted Boutrous and Ted Olson (the pair that recently argued against Proposition 8 before the U.S. Supreme Court), also aims to take down California's "dismissal statutes," which make it so difficult to fire a tenured teacher.

That suit next year could make Deasy's recent efforts seem tame.

Even UTLA President Warren Fletcher agrees with Deasy that teachers deemed incompetent deserve to be fired. "Clearly we have a situation where there are people who are being swept up into this. If there was ever a situation where someone engaging in serious misconduct was allowed to stay in the profession, that would be a tragedy. But if a person's career ends summarily, that is also a tragedy."

Not everyone puts those two tragedies on equal footing.

"When it comes to choosing between kids and adults, we choose kids," LAUSD attorney Holmquist says.

The school board for years insisted it embraced the pro-kids view. But only now is the district "putting teeth to the words," Holmquist says, "and Superintendent Deasy has certainly started a lot of that."

Former school board member David Tokofsky, who served when the board was letting the Dance of the Lemons quietly flourish, questions Deasy's "rubber rooms" — where dozens of teachers are paid full salary to sit around while fighting their firings.

"When you spend a lot of money on the incarceration and banishment of teachers," Tokofsky says, "then who's helping the well-intentioned, mediocre teachers get better?"

Gloria Romero, a former state senator who chaired the powerful Senate Education Committee and now is with Democrats for Education Reform, has broken with the teachers unions to embrace California's Parent Trigger law, charter schools and other tools for changing schools.

She supports Deasy but worries that the impatient superintendent is "kind of using a wide net" and wonders if the spike in firings isn't a bit "knee-jerk."

Deasy says he'd be surprised if there weren't blowback. "You pay a consequence for it — politically. People are, maybe, unhappy. But student achievement has never been higher. Graduation rates have never been higher. AP scores are higher. The suspension rate is down. Those strike me as markers of a system that's dramatically getting better."

Reach the writer at hillelaron@mac.com.

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