LAUSD’s Dance of the Lemons
Firing the desk-sleepers, burnouts, hotheads and other failed teachers is all but impossible
Beth Barrett Thursday, Feb 11 2010By
(reproduced from an article on laweekly.com)
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.
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.”
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