The process for firing teachers is linked to current reform efforts to include student performance in teacher evaluation. The latter should cause ineffective teachers to be detected and removed sooner, thereby reducing harm to countless students.
Teacher incompetence and misconduct are far more pervasive than most people realize and stories about the arduous process for firing teachers in California abound. The following is a quote from a particularly disturbing Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) case: Holding his wrists, an 8th Grade student explained to his teacher and classmates that he had been hospitalized after attempting suicide.
The teacher allegedly said, "Look, you can't even kill yourself," and a classmate offered advice on how to cut a main artery. The teacher is then quoted as saying, "See, even he knows how to commit suicide better than you."
The Los Angeles Board of Education fired the teacher, citing his poor judgment. Contending he was misunderstood, the teacher ultimately kept his job; a review commission overturned the school board's decision, ruling that although the teacher did make the statements, he meant no harm!
The process for terminating a teacher is both complex and convoluted, lasting for months, even years in some cases. Most appealed firings are overturned and LAUSD administrators say they are reluctant to start termination procedures against tenured teachers. (During a fifteen year period, fifteen terminated employees fought their case before review commissions. Nine won their jobs back, even when the grounds for dismissal were proved.) If either the teacher or school district is not satisfied with the review commission's decision, they have the right to appeal the case to the California Superior or Appellate Court.
Of course, unions are bound to defend their members, but A.J. Duffy, president of United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) feels that should not deter the district from "doing its job, which is to help failing teachers to get better, or if they can't, to work to get rid of them." In this instance, Duffy's comments go to the issue of top-down accountability.
Many cases are overturned by the state's Commissions on Professional Conduct (CPC), the final arbiters on whether employees should be fired. Two examples: it was alleged that an LAUSD middle school counselor, after an argument with a female co-worker, severely beat up the woman's boyfriend and was later convicted of assault. He paid restitution and attended anger management classes. However, his lawyer insisted he acted in self-defense and the CPC ruled that LAUSD failed to establish that the counselor's conduct or his conviction adversely affected students or other district employees.
In another case, a government teacher put a student in a headlock and made offensive remarks, such as "Just because you're good in bed doesn't mean you can eat in class." He also kissed a girl and told her to "rub your body all over mine." The teacher denied some statements and said others were not intended to be sexual. An
Appellate court held that the teacher's comments showed an unfitness to teach in some respects, but concluded that "He did not have improper sexual motivations for his conduct (and) intended to counsel students about life choices."
The effects of incompetence or otherwise harmful teaching are great, particularly on inner-city Black children who languish at the bottom of the achievement ladder as though incapable of excellence or even making significant academic improvement. Poor areas have a disproportionate number of inexperienced and ineffective teachers and principals; the latter tend to rationalize not moving to fire bad teachers because of the cumbersome termination process. Generally, they file only on the most flagrant or egregious cases.
Uninvolved parents and community members, mostly by their silence, reinforce schools' negative practices, including retaining incompetent teachers. Uncaring Black leadership, in general, are also complicit by hiding behind a shield of silence as though public education was not their business as well. These things make efforts for actual change even more daunting.
Low teacher expectations and widespread incompetence are at the heart of miseducating Black students. But teachers are only part of systemic neglect that virtually ensures inadequate schooling, especially for those students most in need. Two years ago, an LAUSD board member proposed revising state teacher discipline laws; board members balked, (as did the maker of the motion), when unions and a state senator objected strenuously.
Black students are rarely, if ever, mentioned in the debate over firing incompetent teachers. However, unless Black leadership, parents and local communities join the education reform movement to change teacher evaluation and termination criteria, the harm inflicted by bad teachers will continue, unabated.
Larry Aubry can be contacted at e-mail