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    “The Dance of the Lemons” in Los Angeles Unified School District

    Warning: You may want to groan, throw up, or shout at your computer in disgust when you read this article about incompetent teachers and the back-room deals and special interests that keep them in the classroom in Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD).

    L.A. Weekly took the bull by the horns with the fiery expose, “LAUSD’s Dance of the Lemons: Why firing the desk-sleepers, burnouts, hotheads and other failed teachers is all but impossible”. Kudos to Beth Barrett for researching and writing this excellent and shocking piece.

    LAUSD is so large that it “educates” one-tenth of all the students in California. In light of the information revealed by L.A. Weekly, it’s frightening to think that 10% of California’s children are shuffling through such a low-performing, inefficient school district.

    LAUSD is known for its “dance of the lemons”, which refers to the practice of transferring bad teachers secretively to other schools in the district, paying incompetent teachers to leave the system, and repeatedly placing teachers in retraining programs despite evidence that they do not show signs of improvement.

    The dance of the lemons stems from the school district’s inability to fire lousy, tenured teachers due to union rules and bureaucratic red tape. Because of the incredible cost and time involved in trying to get rid of incompetent teachers, administrators have resorted to shuffling the lemons around or paying them to rot somewhere else.

    Here are some excerpts from the article:

    “…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.

    “…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.

    “…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.

    “…Hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of other L.A. teachers hand out busy-work, show movies during most class periods, sleep, don’t show up on Fridays, or consistently churn out kids who score well below the rest of the school in core subjects like math, science, reading and English.

    “California Charter Schools Association’s Young and other education analysts say the obstacles to identifying and ousting these teachers stem from the 1970s, when popular but not particularly competent teachers were named as principals while top teachers with deep academic backgrounds got fired for failing to toe the line. In the backlash that followed, critics say, new laws and regulations made it increasingly hard to fire a California teacher.”

    It is an offense to common sense and equal rights to allow “the dance of the lemons” to occur. Think of the untold number of students whose education is hijacked by terrible teachers, bureaucratic inefficiency, cowardly district officials, and union control. Could you imagine something like this, on this scale, happening at a private corporation?

    Think how different LAUSD would be if it could hire and fire at will. LAUSD would still have its problems, but getting rid of an entrenched corps of incompetent teachers and the network of programs and lawyers surrounding it would be a good first step toward reform.

    Here are more excerpts from L.A. Weekly about the “retraining” that goes on in LAUSD:

    “…When a teacher gets a below-standard Stull evaluation — named after a lawmaker who in 1971 authored California legislation requiring checks of educators’ work — that teacher participates in a rehab program called Peer Assistance and Review, as did Burio and Loftin. The program, engineered by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa when he was a state assemblyman in 2000, is supposed to improve schools by pairing failing teachers with mentors — often retired teachers with many years of experience.

    “By some accounts, PAR is a miserable failure. Under the confidential program — a secrecy feature that teachers unions insisted on — not even school principals can find out if their subpar teachers are improving. District officials admit to the Weekly that only about one-third of teachers pass the training.

    “Moreover, as happened with Burio at San Pedro High, principals must keep these substandard teachers in the classroom during the retraining. There are no particular consequences if a teacher does not improve.

    “…School principals, Hughes says, know that if they negatively review an L.A. teacher’s abilities, ‘just about everyone who gets a below-standard Stull grieves it’ — and the principal gets caught in a lengthy, often bitter process. Records show that of 16,235 LAUSD teachers evaluated in 2008, 1,321 were considered below standard in classroom ability. Only a small fraction of those 1,321 received a formal, negative Stull rating. In some cases, the principals simply did not want to get in a nasty fight.

    “…Superintendent Cortines says he recently banned the repetitive transfer of ‘lemons.’ But there is no way to verify if Cortines’ ban is working, or if it was even implemented, because the practice unfolds entirely in secret. Nobody, including parents, can currently find out if a newly arrived teacher was sent to a school under a forced transfer.

    “…LAUSD is not as aggressive as New York City, whose school district employs eight attorneys solely to remove bad teachers, and places underperforming teachers in the district’s infamous ‘rubber rooms’— offices away from children, where they earn full salary to do nothing during their job disputes.

    “…President Barack Obama has begun pushing for tougher evaluations of teachers, tied to their classroom test scores, and for direct comparison of teachers with their colleagues along the same hallway. As those and other reforms aimed at teacher quality begin to find acceptance in other parts of the nation, however, it seems a stretch to imagine LAUSD, the district so big it educates one in 10 California children, joining in.

    “‘The power of the union [and] the California Teachers Association in this state has definitely tipped the balance in favor of protecting the incompetent teacher,’ says Collins. Somehow, she says, ‘Parents and students need to know they have a voice.’”

    Do they really have a voice? And if they do, can they be heard? It reminds me of a chapter name I came across recently in the book The Long Tail called “The ants have megaphones. What are they saying?”

    Students and their families in failing school districts might speak out, but they are drowned out by the voices of teachers, teachers unions, school district personnel, politicians, and lawmakers—the people who really have the power when it comes to education reform. And some of those people need to stop supporting the status quo and start thinking about the future, which is looking bleak for the majority of children in California.


    Comment from Kerry
    Time February 22, 2010 at 9:59 am

    Having worked in LAUSD for 3 years I know all too well what this article brings to light. I can say without a doubt, the district is afraid of the unions who seem to protect the most incompetent and downright damaging teachers there are. I witnessed politics and red tape hindering the schools and protecting bigots, racists, and teachers with violent and unbelieveably immoral behavior. It was an incredibly sad and frustrating thing to witness. To be surrounded by so much incompetence was frustrating and infuriating to say the least, but it made me feel an extreme loyalty to the students as well as a protectiveness in the form of me sticking around and doing more than I thought I could handle to try to give the kids a good, well-rounded education as best I could. It was a tricky position to be in…

    Comment from admin
    Time February 22, 2010 at 11:18 am

    Kerry, thanks very much for your comment! It’s always good to have a real person verifying the truth behind an article. LAUSD sounds like a mess. If you ever want to guest blog about your experiences teaching in L.A., I’d be thrilled to post them. The offer stands for any time. I admire your courage and determination to make a difference in the lives of your students. They were very fortunate to have you as a teacher. -Carey

    Comment from Leslie Bellah
    Time February 23, 2010 at 7:05 am

    Years ago a college professor in Los Angeles told me he was afraid because his wife, a high school teacher, had been assigned to a school where the teachers’ desks had buttons to push if/when the students got out of control and the teachers needed help. I wondered then (and still do) why students were allowed to get to that level of intimidation. In some ways I can understand why they don’t care and are just going through the motions.

    Comment from admin
    Time February 23, 2010 at 11:31 am

    Thanks for your comment, Leslie. I agree that it’s baffling to think that schools went from being places where students feared their teachers to being places where teachers fear their students. I suppose part of it is getting rid of corporal punishment, which was a good thing, and part of it is a diminished respect for adults and authority, which can be good when filtered properly but disastrous when widespread. Adding to the problem, in my opinion, is students’ sense that the schools they attend are a joke, so why should they respect anyone in those schools until shown otherwise? But, yes, if you were teaching in a school where there was no discipline, your choices would be to quit and find a different job/career or hang in there for the money and benefits. Many hang on for the money and benefits, thereby contributing to the cycle of mediocrity. -Carey

    Comment from LA Teacher
    Time May 4, 2010 at 5:42 am

    This whole national witchhunt against teachers is about a corporate and government attempt to have teaching be a “profession” where college grads ‘teach’ for a few years at $23,000 a year before moving on to wall street.

    The fact is tenure and seniority are bad concepts to corporate power structure that wants to eliminate one of the last vestiges of middle class job stability.

    Its all just a witchhunt. This is the McMartin preschool redo.

    Comment from admin
    Time May 4, 2010 at 9:40 am

    Do you think teachers who are not good at teaching should hold onto their jobs?

    Comment from LA Teacher
    Time May 5, 2010 at 5:36 am

    Admin, the tenure and seniority systems are necessary to maintain the professional status of teaching as a profession. Without them you will have a much lower quality of person in all classrooms across the board. This is because without these reasonable safeguards against pesonal politics and the subjective whims of a principal, people of intelligence and character simply will not subject themselves to $23,000 a year hell.

    Finally, the percentage of truly lame teachers is low in the LAUSD schools I have observed. What you find sometimes are the goodie two shoes type teachers lambasting the creative standout teachers, or teacjers with charisma who make a real positive impact on the lives of their students.

    Truly deadbeat teachers are at maybe 1%. Let them stay if it means – and it does – that the safeguards that protect these 1% lemons are also responsible for maintaining a higher caliber of teaching corps overall.

    Comment from admin
    Time May 6, 2010 at 8:46 am

    LA Teacher, thank you for expressing your opinion; that’s not easy to do when most of the comments express views contrary to your own. I must say, though, that in my experience and observations, the percentage of lame teachers is much higher than 1% (as you estimate) and that tenure and seniority allow unmotivated teachers to stay on the payroll without improving their teaching performance. I also believe that tenure and seniority favor adults, not the children they are supposed to educate.

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