LAUSD's Dance of the Lemons
Editor's note: After this article went to press, LAUSD Superintendent Ramon Cortines announced that the district plans to substantially cut back on granting lifelong tenure to inexperienced teachers.
Several years ago, a 74-year-old Dominguez Elementary School fourth-grade teacher was having trouble controlling her students as her abilities deteriorated amid signs of "burnout." Shirley Loftis was told by Los Angeles Unified School District administrators to retire or be fired, and she did retire, but hardly under the school district's terms.
The principal at Dominguez, Irene Hinojosa, recalls how she spent three years documenting Loftis' poor teaching skills and inability to control 10-year-olds. "From the minute I observed her, she basically didn't seem to have the knowledge of the standards and how to deliver them," Hinojosa tells L.A. Weekly. "I had her do lessons on the same standard over and over again, and children did not get it. On simple math concepts [such as determining perimeters and area] — over and over, she didn't know how to deliver."
Each September, a new crop of children quickly caught on to the fact that Loftis had lost control. Full-on classroom fights flared up. One child beat another with a backpack, and others threw objects — even a chair, Hinojosa says. Teachers at Dominguez Elementary began reporting incidents to Hinojosa, who moved Loftis' class from a bungalow to a room across from her office. That way, the principal reasoned, she could intervene in the chaos a bit faster.
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When parents in the Carson neighborhoods around Dominguez Park got wind of the troubles, some sought to transfer their children. A handful succeeded, but Hinojosa says every child "righteously deserved to be moved out. ... The kids totally disrespected [Loftis] by the end. It was a lost year for them."
But Loftis won a ruling in her favor by the state Commission on Professional Competence, a powerful arbitration panel of two educators and an administrative-law judge who can prevent California schools from firing teachers. The panel agreed in 2002 that the district had "grounds for dismissal" of Loftis. But, panel members essentially argued, Loftis had taught at the school for 23 years, and administrators had shown bias in pursuing her while not taking enough steps to do something about her burnout. District officials embarked on a long Superior Court appeals process, but the judge agreed with the arbitration panel that Loftis could perform another LAUSD job — like training teachers.
After five years, district lawyers decided to stop their costly fight and agreed to settle, paying Loftis' attorneys' fees of $195,000 on top of $300,000 that Loftis earned during the dispute to work away from children — in a job in the administration.
"We chased that case forever," says LAUSD Associate General Counsel Kathleen Collins, a young and effervescent lawyer who is something of an anomaly inside LAUSD's toe-the-line executive offices downtown. "It was my first case, and I felt like, 'This can't be the way things work.'"
Loftis, now 83, could not be reached for comment, and a United Teachers Los Angeles representatives declined to comment. But her associates described her as an articulate, highly energetic woman who seems far younger than her years. Of the epic battle she lost to Loftis, Collins says, "You can only have passion for so long" before the obstacles force you to give up.
Principal Hinojosa thought that because she is younger than the previous principal, she had the energy required to oust a tenured educator. Instead, she learned, "It is so difficult to dismiss or discipline veteran teachers."
Los Angeles Unified School District, with its 885 schools and 617,000 students, educates one in every 10 children in California. It also mirrors a troubled national system of teacher evaluations and job security that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan says must change. 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.
But the Weekly has found, in a five-month investigation, that principals and school district leaders have all but given up dismissing such teachers. In the past decade, LAUSD officials spent $3.5 million trying to fire just seven of the district's 33,000 teachers for poor classroom performance — and only four were fired, during legal struggles that wore on, on average, for five years each. Two of the three others were paid large settlements, and one was reinstated. The average cost of each battle is $500,000.
During our investigation, in which we obtained hundreds of documents using the California Public Records Act, we also discovered that 32 underperforming teachers were initially recommended for firing, but then secretly paid $50,000 by the district, on average, to leave without a fight. Moreover, 66 unnamed teachers are being continually recycled through a costly mentoring and retraining program but failing to improve, and another 400 anonymous teachers have been ordered to attend the retraining.
The Weekly was able to obtain the names of all seven teachers targeted for firing, and the names of the 32 who received big settlements of $40,000 to $195,000, and the data showing the size of the group forced into retraining — 466 teachers during the past three years — only after extensive efforts. Nor is the public allowed to see student test scores by classroom — closely guarded and potentially explosive data. Education experts say the secret classroom data shows how bad teachers significantly harm children, producing students with markedly lower test scores as compared to other classrooms on the same hallway.
In the rare instances — fewer than once a year — where the district tries to dismiss a teacher because of performance, each battle wends through a tangled arbitration and court system.
In pursuing a firing, school officials rely on a teacher's formal classroom evaluations and, sometimes, disciplinary write-ups, to file an "accusation and statement of charges," which lays out an educator's teaching problems. The teacher can then ask for a decision on his or her case from the Commission on Professional Competence, a panel convened by the state Office of Administrative Hearings. Either side can appeal the outcome of that hearing in California Superior Court, and, ultimately, in higher courts.
It cost the district roughly $3.5 million to try to fire seven teachers because of the cost of hiring outside lawyers with special expertise, administrative overhead, paying ongoing salaries for each teacher during the lengthy legal battles, and other expenses. Documents show only one instance in the past 10 years in which an LAUSD teacher accepted his firing and left without a fight or big payment.
Just a few blocks from LAUSD's skyscraper headquarters, Los Angeles City Hall's approach to firing public employees provides a stark contrast to protections enjoyed by teachers, also public employees. Despite civil-service protections, City Hall fires from its 48,000-plus workforce of garbage, parks, street-services, engineering, utilities and other employees more than 80 tenured workers annually. During the past decade, in which LAUSD fired four failing teachers, 800 to 1,000 underperforming civil service–protected workers were fired at City Hall. City Personnel Department General Manager Margaret Whelan says nobody is paid to leave. She was dumbfounded that LAUSD is paying to dislodge teachers, saying, "That's ridiculous. I can't believe that. Golly, it makes no sense. Some are not even mediocre, they're horrible."
Caprice Young, founder of the nonprofit California Charter Schools Association, was LAUSD school board president until 2003. She saw, behind closed doors, what the public can't: the "dance of the lemons," a term that broadly describes controversial tactics LAUSD utilizes to cope with tenured teachers who can't teach but, under the current system, cannot be fired. Those tactics include not only paying them to leave, but quietly transferring bad teachers to other, unsuspecting schools or repeatedly and fruitlessly "retraining" them while they continue to teach, sometimes harming the educations of thousands of children.
Young believes the inability of the schools to oust poor L.A. teachers is playing a key role in L.A.'s emergence as an epicenter of the charter-school movement. "One year with a bad teacher puts a kid a year, or two, behind the other kids," Young says. "If a parent sees their child has a lemon teacher, if they can get them into another school, they will."
A. J. Duffy, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, has a view of the situation that might startle some. The belief that it's hard to oust underperforming LAUSD teachers is nothing more than an "urban legend," Duffy claims. "There is a mechanism to ask for the removal of teachers ... they have chosen not to do it. Part of it is the bureaucratic nonsense that goes on in the district."
According to confidential settlement agreements obtained by the Weekly under the California Public Records Act, the school district goes to great lengths to avoid the formal steps for firing teachers. Not only has LAUSD paid 32 tenured teachers more than $1.5 million to leave, but 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.
The bottom line, attorney Collins says, is that "in other professions, if it's not working out, it's easy to get rid of employees." But in the LAUSD, "if you have a poor-performing teacher in the classroom with 30 kids year after year, that's a lot of kids impacted. You can't get fourth-grade back."
Dan Basalone, an enthusiastic father of five with a boyish face, retains a boundless interest in education despite 48 years with LAUSD. He blames Superintendent Ramon Cortines and LAUSD's elected school board for the fact that Los Angeles is markedly behind other major cities in education reform, but he believes Cortines and the board can change. It all depends, he says, on "how strong they are."
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.
But at the same time, Cortines, along with former LAUSD superintendents Roy Romer and David Brewer, has not tried to create a well-funded legal unit within LAUSD dedicated to moving out bad 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.
Burio had taught at two schools before becoming a science teacher at San Pedro High School in 2001. But after he arrived, documents show, school administrators began to notice his shortcomings. Burio got five "below-standard" teaching evaluations — an exceedingly high number — in just four years.
The district alleges that Burio frequently told students that because his class was inquiry-based, "teachers do not teach." That theory became "his mantra," recalls San Pedro Assistant Principal Jan Murata. "He was unable to adapt or to change."
Principals and administrators said he failed to engage his students, lectured without apparent objectives and did not ensure that the children had textbooks. In one lab assignment, he told his pupils to record the behavior of live animals, but purportedly failed to bring animals to class. Students could look at pictures of animals in books instead, and "figure it out," Burio allegedly told them. When students complained, Burio allegedly taunted them, saying he'd "buy a fish" and dig in his backyard for earthworms. Only four of his 29 students tried to write up his odd assignment. (Burio, who disputes many of the claims, could not be reached for comment despite the Weekly's repeated efforts to contact him both directly and through UTLA.)
Murata launched what became a disheartening six-year process of repeated evaluations, weekly observations, regular parent meetings and costly re-training undertaken by personal mentors, with the aim of improving Burio's skills. When the district decided to fire him, many parents, though angry, did not want to complain in writing. "Parents believe the teacher should know what [he's] doing. It's very difficult," Murata says.
Jackie Bebich, a science program booster president at San Pedro High School, says parents often feel helpless to intervene, even as the damage to children mounts: "There are 200 kids per year" in just one high school teacher's classes, "so over five years, that's 1,000 kids affected."
Last year, LAUSD gave up trying to fire him, and paid Burio $50,000 to quietly leave, one of 32 such cases in the past several years. The district agreed to include no finding of wrongdoing if he agreed never to work for LAUSD again. Then, last fall, Murata says, Burio contacted her — requesting a letter of recommendation for a job. She declined.
Angry principals and administrators, like the retired Basalone, say there is "no excuse" for LAUSD's practice of waiting for teachers to fail five evaluations, as with Burio, before trying to fire them. Robert Bilovsky, principal at Berendo Middle School, says it's "ridiculous. ... Why have an evaluation system if you're not going to use it?" Duffy says the district is at fault if a teacher with five below-standard evaluations is allowed to remain in the classroom.
Clearly feeling the sting of recent criticism for failing to fire teachers accused of sexual and physical misconduct, Cortines, in an interview with the Weekly, says that he recently ordered principals to begin dismissal proceedings against tenured teachers after just two consecutive below-standard evaluations.
"I've cut that out," Cortines says. But when asked for a copy of the new policy, district officials referred the Weekly to a December press release stating Cortines' concerns that 175 permanent and certificated teachers got a below-standard "Stull" rating last year, while 48 others failed two evaluations. The vague press release does not lay out a new policy, such as identifiable steps Cortines is taking to oust teachers who fail more than two evaluations.
When a teacher gets a below-standard Stull evaluation — named after a lawmaker who in 1971 authored California legislation requiring checks of educators' work — that teacher participates in a rehab program called Peer Assistance and Review, as did Burio and Loftis. The program, engineered by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa when he was a state assemblyman in 2000, is supposed to improve schools by pairing failing teachers with mentors — often retired teachers with many years of experience.
By some accounts, PAR is a miserable failure. Under the confidential program — a secrecy feature that teachers unions insisted on — not even school principals can find out if their subpar teachers are improving. District officials admit to the Weekly that only about one-third of teachers pass the training.
Moreover, as happened with Burio at San Pedro High, principals must keep these substandard teachers in the classroom during the retraining. There are no particular consequences if a teacher does not improve.
"The intent of the law is to help an ineffective person become better," Basalone says. "It doesn't mean I can stay ineffective."
According to previously undisclosed data obtained by the Weekly, three anonymous LAUSD teachers have taken the retraining five times in the past three years, 18 have taken it four times, and 45 three times. Parents do not know, and cannot find out, the names of these 66 teachers who are repeatedly recycled through the PAR program. Another 400 teachers were required to enter the program once or twice during the past four years. The state program costs $1.4 million per year, mostly to pay for 50 personal mentors in LAUSD.
Marsha Oh-Bilodeau, the district's PAR coordinator, says the names are kept confidential to encourage teachers to participate without embarrassment. But the secrecy appears to go well beyond protecting feelings. LAUSD lawyers refused to release to the Weekly the names of any of the 466 teachers in question — without a court order.
Duffy sees a possible conspiracy afoot in the data obtained by the Weekly. He says many of the 466 teachers who have gotten retraining and mentoring could have been pushed into the program by "vindictive" principals out to inflate the numbers to make it seem as if the LAUSD has big teaching problems. Duffy could provide no documents or data to back up his claim.
But Judith Perez, president of the Associated Administrators of Los Angeles, which represents 2,300 school principals, administrators and retirees, says the district is allowing "frequent fliers" and this repetitive retraining is "a disservice to children." She wants to see consequences. "Many of the people who go through the process do improve, but the problem is the frequent fliers," Perez says. "There should be something that happens next."
John Bowes, head of the Office of Staff Relations under Cortines, and part of an internal task force charged by the school board with improving teacher performance, concedes that LAUSD has no hard rule for when to initiate firing procedures — in part because it prefers a "supportive" rather than a "gotcha" mentality. Bowes, a buttoned-down rising star under Cortines, says, "It really reflects the idea that teaching is a craft to be developed and it's an art that's refined by teachers over time."
There's a good reason why downtown administrators seem squeamish about evaluating underperforming L.A. teachers. Gail Hughes, Bowes' predecessor, says that during the 2008 school year, UTLA filed 650 formal grievances on behalf of teachers alleging contract violations. Roughly 300 of those grievances were filed by teachers who got negative classroom-teaching evaluations.
School principals, Hughes says, know that if they negatively review an L.A. teacher's abilities, "just about everyone who gets a below-standard Stull grieves it" — and the principal gets caught in a lengthy, often bitter process. Records show that of 16,235 LAUSD teachers evaluated in 2008, 1,321 were considered below standard in classroom ability. Only a small fraction of those 1,321 received a formal, negative Stull rating. In some cases, the principals simply did not want to get in a nasty fight.
If science teacher Burio represents educators who are repeatedly retrained and then paid large sums to leave, math teacher Mars represents what former administrator Basalone calls the "classic" dance of the lemons.
Mars taught at six schools, but at Nimitz Middle School — his fifth — administrators accused him of deficiencies that could have led to his dismissal. Among those allegations, in 2002 Mars retaught "the same lesson" to students eight times — right in front of Nimitz Principal Frank Vasquez, who was conducting classroom observations. The principal recalls, "He just didn't teach. He did the same thing every day. He confronted kids and pushed them out of the classroom. We wrote him up, and wrote him up, until one day he pushed a kid out of the class" and down some steps.
Vasquez said Mars was "placed" at Nimitz by LAUSD and there was nothing the principal could do. Vasquez says, "We tried everything. We had coaches go in and help him out. PAR tried to help him out." The fallout hit children who were struggling to learn math from Mars. "The kids didn't learn anything, and they didn't respect him."
Mars says his last two positions, at Nimitz and, before that, Gage Middle School, were forced on him, and represented "the biggest hell" of his life. "I didn't even know what was happening to me," says Mars, whose voice trembles as he refers to the school district as "worse than the Mafia."
Mars adds, "You don't know how tough it is. The kids will eat you alive." But he says he's afraid that if he tells his side of the story, his retirement and benefits could be in jeopardy when he turns 53, in two years. (Collins, the attorney, says his claim is absurd, and that LAUSD would not target protected speech — a sure way to lose a major lawsuit.)
Rather than fighting a probable five-year, $500,000 effort to fire Mars, after transferring him repeatedly, LAUSD paid him $40,000 to quit in March 2005.
Little wonder, then, that Vasquez was stunned to hear from the Weekly that despite all this, Mars remains in the school district's substitute-teacher pool. "Oh, wow!" Vasquez blurted out. In fact, when the Weekly spoke to Mars (a phone interview), the children in his substitute-teaching class could be heard in the background.
Superintendent Cortines says he recently banned the repetitive transfer of "lemons." But there is no way to verify if Cortines' ban is working, or if it was even implemented, because the practice unfolds entirely in secret. Nobody, including parents, can currently find out if a newly arrived teacher was sent to a school under a forced transfer.
Of the 34 teachers paid sizable settlements by LAUSD to quit teaching — the 32 such as Mars and Burio who took secret payouts rather than fight, plus two others who fought their firings for years — the Weekly tracked down employment records for 22. Those 22 accounted for more than 70 transfers between schools. It is not known how many of those were forced transfers.
One of those transfers was Howard Schonberger, a teacher who got repeated below-standard evaluations before being paid $90,000 to leave his job at Berendo Middle School, near Olympic Boulevard.
Schonberger benefited from the fact that the small legal unit at LAUSD was already busy juggling a firing case the district badly wanted to win — that of Pinewood Elementary School teacher Colleen Kolter. According to district documents, between May 2003 and October 2005, while teaching at the Pinewood grade school, in Tujunga, Kolter racked up four notices of unsatisfactory service and three below-standard Stull evaluations from a newly reassigned but veteran principal, Ada Munoz-Yslas.
Munoz-Yslas says that Kolter, a thin woman in her mid-50s, went for days without teaching anything and resisted advice from the pricey math and literary coaches sent in to retrain her. "When I started there, almost immediately, people came up to me to complain about the things that had been happening: parents, students, teachers," says Munoz-Yslas, now the principal at Van Nuys Elementary School. "Lack of classroom management, safety issues, not meeting the education needs of students. ... There was a lack of following and implementing the curriculum. A lack of planning."
Teaching assistants and others tried to salvage the children's wasted year. Yet the mystery is that during the eight years prior to Munoz-Yslas' arrival, LAUSD never put Kolter on the dismissal track — even when furious and fed-up parents took their children out of Pinewood altogether.
The state Commission on Professional Competence found that Kolter sometimes had "an unsteady gait and was using slurred speech," once requiring a small child to support her. Records show that Kolter argued that LAUSD failed to force her to take sick leave to deal with her "bipolar disorder and depression." But the competence panel said she was fired because "at bottom, it appears she cannot teach." Kolter could not be reached for comment, and her attorney, Lawrence Trygstad, whose firm is used by UTLA to represent teachers facing dismissal, declined to comment.
Kolter's firing is one of LAUSD's exceedingly rare and clear-cut dismissal victories in the past 10 years. Yet by the end of that struggle, LAUSD had spent a staggering $305,576 on private attorneys who helped the district's legal staff in the fight to get rid of her.
LAUSD is not as aggressive as New York City, whose school district employs eight attorneys solely to remove bad teachers, and places underperforming teachers in the district's infamous "rubber rooms" — offices away from children, where they earn full salary to do nothing during their job disputes.
But in Los Angeles, under Romer, Brewer and now Cortines, because LAUSD pays just a handful of attorneys to work only part-time on such cases, the small legal unit was nearly overwhelmed by pursuing Kolter at Pinewood Elementary while handling Schonberger's dismissal. As attorney Collins explains, because of Kolter's decision to wage an extensive battle to keep her job, and LAUSD's equally passionate determination to prevent that, "we were completely swamped. We would have had [to pay] outside counsel, our fees, [Schonberger's] salary — and then there was our normal caseload."
Records obtained by the Weekly describe how, in 2004, Schonberger received a below-standard Stull evaluation and low marks for his teaching skills, inability to engage students in problem-solving and failure to establish rigorous learning goals at Fairfax High School.
Parent Orly Beyder recalls how her daughter, Michelle, now a photography major at San Francisco State University, came home upset about how little her class was learning. "He was ... not interested in the kids. He didn't seem to enjoy teaching," Beyder recalls. Beyder met with Schonberger, worried that her daughter's education was at risk. But he was not willing to talk it through with Beyder. "He was just a snotty teacher in our meeting," she says.
Beyder instructed her daughter to keep her head down, reminding her, "He's the teacher."
Beyder adds, "I know it's very hard to be a teacher and to teach high school, but I don't think teachers like that should teach."
Two years later, after Schonberger was reassigned to Berendo Middle School, distict officials say 104 eighth-grade students protested his teaching by signing a petition accusing him of directing insults and sexually charged remarks at them.
Schonberger has a markedly different view. In an odd phone interview with the Weekly, he identified himself and insisted he had been railroaded. The following day, he called the Weekly back, claiming that a person familiar with his story had impersonated him during the first interview. He then essentially repeated the claims from the previous day, that he was scapegoated by administrators, who sided with parents rather than supporting a tough teacher keen on delivering a good education and discipline to unruly kids.
Schonberger also claimed that as an untenured, green teacher at Fairfax High, he was targeted by administrators. But the record shows the opposite: that they granted him lifelong tenure after just two years of classroom experience, as LAUSD does with the vast majority of teachers.
He also painted the 104-signature petition against him as having been orchestrated by a small group of Berendo Middle School students, scoffing, "Kids will do anything to mitigate their own failure and behavior." Schonberger only accepted the $90,000 settlement, he says, because "I felt I was done being Don Quixote, I was fighting windmills, a monolithic administrative hierarchical entity at odds with its stated purposes to educate and socialize students."
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."
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