Washington News

thenewstribune.com, March 9, 2010

Governor makes principals use 'dance of the lemons'


Gov. Chris Gregoire is promoting her education bill, SB 6696, as an effort to improve Washington schools and give the state a shot at a share of the $4.3 billion available through President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative.

Rather than improve schools, though, the governor is blocking the authority to fire poor-performing teachers requested by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn and superintendents of 23 school districts, including Tacoma and Seattle, as revealed in a letter they sent to lawmakers on Feb. 22.

The supers want to be allowed to dismiss teachers who have failed to improve their classroom performance after receiving three years of extra training and support. The governor said no – such teachers must be kept on the public payroll. That leaves school managers with current practice, shifting poor-performing teachers from school to school until they get the message and quit – a process known as “the dance of the lemons.”

School superintendents are intimately aware of the union-inspired obstacles which prevent school principals from hiring an effective teacher for every classroom. Rigid collective bargaining agreements create so many procedural hurdles that it is almost impossible to remove a weak teacher.

Washington law requires principals who place a teacher on probation (the first step for removal) to document classroom observation of the teacher twice a month for 60 school days, which can take as long as three calendar months. The principal must write reports after each observation identifying shortcomings and offering the teacher a plan for improvement. A union representative is present at each meeting with the teacher. Frequently, a second administrator is present as a witness to defend the principal against charges of prejudice. Then, once a district has made a decision to terminate, weak teachers are given four additional appeals, including to courts of law.

Principals rationally conclude that the process is too burdensome to even attempt. Instead, they try to remove poor-performing teachers by having them re-assigned to different schools or another district.

This shuffling explains why only 62 percent of public school students graduate from high school (the graduation rate in private schools is closer to 90 percent). About half of public school students who make it to college must take remedial classes in reading, writing or math before they can do college-level work.

Principals know that honestly assessing a teacher under the current system is pointless. It is much easier to pass a low-performing teacher on to another school, rather than attempt to replace him with someone better.

Re-assignment may solve the principal’s personnel problem, but it doesn’t help children learn. Research consistently shows that placing an effective teacher in the classroom is more important than any other factor in raising student academic achievement. A good teacher can make as much as a full year’s difference in the learning growth of students. Students taught by a high-quality teacher three years in a row score 50 percentile points higher than students of ineffective teachers. And studies indicate students taught by a bad teacher two years in a row might never catch up.

No wonder Randy Dorn and the 23 superintendents are upset. The No. 1 factor in whether children learn is the professional quality and emotional enthusiasm of the teacher (no, it’s not class size). No principal can improve opportunities for students without the authority to hire and retain good teachers and to weed out weak ones.

To boost the chances of receiving Race to the Top money, the governor should give school managers the authority they’re asking for to build a high-quality teaching workforce in Washington public schools.

Liv Finne is director of the Center for Education at Washington Policy Center, a nonpartisan independent policy research organization. You can reach her at lfinne@washingtonpolicy.org

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