Teacher incompetence and misconduct are far more pervasive than most people realize. The LA Times recently ran stories on the arduous process of firing incompetent teachers in California. (Black students, Los Angeles Unified School District's (LAUSD) lowest achievers are disproportionately abused by such teachers.)
The Times' piece began with a particularly disturbing case: Holding out 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." A classmate offered advice on how to cut a main artery. The teacher is 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 that he was misunderstood, the teacher kept his job. A review commission overturned the school board's decision, saying that although the teacher did make the statements, he meant no harm!
The process to terminate a teacher is complex and convoluted, lasting for months, even years, in some cases. Most appealed firings are overturned and LAUSD administrators are reluctant to start termination procedures against a tenured teacher. In the last fifteen years, fifteen terminated employees fought their case before review commissions; nine won their jobs back, even when the grounds for dismissal were proved. (If the teacher or district is not satisfied with the commission's decision, each has the right to appeal the case to the Superior or Appellate Courts.)
Unions are bound to defend their members, but A.J. Duffy, president of United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) maintains 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." Duffy's comments go to the issue of top-down accountability ... for school boards, unions, administrators, teachers, parents and even students.
Many cases are overturned by the state Commissions on Professional Competence (CPC)-the final arbiters on whether employees should be fired. Two examples:
Â Allegations that an LAUSD middle-school counselor, after an argument with a female co-worker, severely beat up by the woman's boyfriend and was later convicted of assault. He paid restitution and attended anger management classes. His lawyer insisted he acted in self-defense. The CPC ruled that LAUSD failed to establish that the counselor's conduct, or his conviction, had 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 her body all over mine." The teacher denied some statements and said others were not intended as sexual. An appellate court held that the teacher's comments (and behavior) 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 teachers about life choices."
The effects of incompetence or otherwise abusive teaching have a much greater effect on Black students, particularly those in the inner city. The latter languish at the bottom of the achievement well as though incapable of excellence or even making significant improvement academically. (Poorer areas have a disproportionate number of inexperienced, ineffective teachers and principals tend to rationalize not moving to fire bad ones 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 negative practices, including retaining incompetent teachers that maim and fail to educate their children. Ineffective, self-serving Black leaders are also complicit. They hide behind a shield of silence as though public education was not everyone's business. Their constituents, in turn, fail to hold them accountable. All of this renders actual change even more daunting. Clearly, the Willie Lynch syndrome is alive and well- all the more reason for Blacks to unite on the basis of self-interest.
Low teacher expectations and widespread incompetence are at the heart of miseducating Black students. And teachers are part of a larger problem, systemic neglect that virtually ensures inadequate schooling, especially for poor Black students. (A LA School Board member recently proposed revising state teacher discipline laws. However, her colleagues balked (as did the maker of the motion) when some unions and a state senator objected.) Black students are totally excluded from the "firing incompetent teachers" debate. And until Black leaders, parents and local communities exert collective influence commensurate with their numbers, the miseducation of Black students will continue unabated.
Larry Aubry can be contacted at e-mail