Editorial: Paying for Bad Teachers

| Los Angeles Times | Editorial

They put it off. They debated it at length and watered it down. And in the end, the Los Angeles Unified school trustees barely passed a resolution asking the Legislature to make it a little easier to fire teachers accused of serious crimes. Mind you, not the ineffective teachers who sleep in the classroom, ignore the curriculum and pass their unprepared students to the next grade. Just the ones who stand accused of abusing or molesting students.
Union leaders warn that the Legislature will never comply without their stamp of approval, and they're probably right. Failure to put the interests of children over the power of unions is characteristic of California education policy.

It also puts the state out of touch with education reforms sweeping the nation, and could put our schools out of contention for new pots of federal money. Just two days after the resolution squeaked through last week, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan made it clear that antiquated notions of teacher protection will not pass muster with the Obama administration. Teachers should be evaluated, retained and paid based on how well their students learn, Duncan said, and that includes progress on standardized tests.

California couldn't do that if it wanted to right now. At the behest of unions, the state put a firewall between student data and teacher performance. The data "may not be used … for purposes of pay, promotion, sanction or personnel evaluation," the law reads. Duncan has $4.3 billion in competitive grant money to parcel out to schools that meet his standards for innovation, and California's perverse position on teacher pay and firing isn't likely to make the grade. But Duncan has a role to play in making that more feasible. The kinds of data called for by the No Child Left Behind Act don't measure individual student progress. The federal law has long needed revision to emphasize yearly growth rather than meeting an arbitrary, inconsistent bar called "proficiency."

We agree with union leaders that teachers need decent job protection and that they should not be judged by test results alone. But a recent study by the New Teacher Project, a training organization in New York, found that in many schools where teachers agreed that a colleague should be fired for poor performance, no one was even given an "unsatisfactory" rating on evaluations. Some objective measures are necessary.

We are so far from that in California. Here, it is considered revolutionary for a school board to beg for relief from a tortuous, money-wasting teacher termination process that is nearly doomed to failure anyway. Duncan has given the state a new reason to act on behalf of children, an incentive it shouldn't need in the first place.

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

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