Thursday, April 2, 2009

Getting Rid of Those Bad Teachers

A parent member of the Oakland Public School Parents listserv wrote to me yesterday. I’ve never met her, but she is concerned about the proliferation of charter schools, as am I. Like so many others, she is wrestling with the “district-can’t-get-rid-of-the-bad-teachers-because-of-the-union” issue.

She wrote:

The chinks in the armor for me are: my African-American friends who work in the flatland schools hate OEA -- they would love to fire teachers. Of course, where my kids are at school, [elementary school X], the teachers are good -- some are indeed great, others just acceptable. The ones who parents didn't think were good, somehow "moved on." Though I support unions and believe collective bargaining is necessary for labor (such as education) that is undervalued in our capitalist dominated society, OEA [the Oakland Education Association, our local teachers union] is a real problem…

So how does one get OEA to serve its teachers and students alike?

Here’s my response:

It's good to connect w/you.

I know the focus is a lot on the union protecting bad employees, but it is much more complicated than that. It is highly connected to parents being tuned in, or not, with how crappy their child's teacher is, and then complaining -- followed by a principal who is willing to go through the time-consuming process it takes to get a teacher kicked out.

I've been involved with two such scenarios personally during my time in OUSD and have watched how it works, and have seen what it takes. It's never easy, but a strong and committed principal will see the process through. I’ve also been involved with scenarios where the follow-through on either the administrative, or parent, end just wasn’t there.

What the flatland schools are missing is a force of parents who:

1. have recognized that what is going on in the classroom is crappy (being poorly educated themselves, too many of them have low expectations for teachers &/or they are too trusting &/or removed and don't follow what goes on for their kid so they don't complain to the principal, or don't speak English, etc.) -- &/or

2. they have a hunch that things aren't right but don't feel entitled, or know how, or aren't invited by the school to complain. Annette Lareau's book, "Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life," describes the general lack of entitlement felt by poor and working class people. The book is short and I highly recommend it to you.

[I would add that parents definitely have a reasonable fear of retaliation from teachers &/or principals if they complain. As confident as I am with navigating school issues, I've felt that myself and so have my daughters.]

On top of the parent dynamics, there is a layer of OUSD administration which equally contributes to the problem.

Administrative staff:

1. doesn't regularly, and proactively, seek out parent opinions (by making sure they complete surveys, checking in with them informally on a frequent basis, offering suggestion boxes, etc.) -- &/or

2. is dismissive of parents complaints (administrators have to sort out the legitimate complaints from the hard-to-tell-if-they-are-legitimate-or-not complaints of extremely hostile, sometimes violent, parents who have never learned conflict management skills, OR they are low-energy and apathetic administrators &/or they are overwhelmed by other administrative duties -- in either case they don't want to be bothered with these problems, etc.)

Parent and student perceptions if a teacher is good, or not, also vary drastically. I'll never forget an African American school secretary who I knew at Bret Harte tell me how much she hated an English teacher that both of our daughters had at Skyline. I thought this teacher (also African American), who was very rigorous and quite strict, was a really good teacher, and my daughter did, too, because a lot was expected in the class. That’s the type of environment my daughter liked. The secretary's daughter HATED the teacher and thought she was totally unfair, too hard, and mean.

By the way, my kids are biracial, but light, and are more culturally "white." As with the OJ Simpson trial, sometimes opinions split along race lines, so I am not shy about bringing race out into the open. In this case though, I think personalities, parenting styles, and social class were at play. Lareau talks about poor and working class parents being quite satisfied if their kid "likes" a teacher, meaning that it goes a long way for the family if they perceive a teacher to be "nice." Over the years, I've observed this phenomenon a number of times.

Yes, a process is required to eliminate a terrible teacher, and it has been in place for decades. The fact that terrible teachers are kept on for years and years is only more evidence of an overwhelmed school district which is not adequately interested in doing – or strong enough to do – what it takes to truly empower its parent body to be better parents for their children educationally-speaking. The district is not giving the kind of support to school sites so the administrators have time and the know-how to do what they need to do. Maybe the problem isn't the teachers' union, maybe it's because of a bunch of ineffective administrators!

The presence of poor teachers in schools is not exclusively the fault of the teachers’ union, as so many people seem to believe.

Also, it is a fact that some administrators can be extremely vengeful (or show extreme favoritism to their friends), and I would not trust them with the power to eliminate teachers at will. Some are just not mature and professional enough to be granted that authority.

Here's another story. Three weeks into this current school year, a couple of parents complained to the Skyline principal about one of these terrible teachers (he had been hired by the district over the summer). The principal called for a meeting with the teacher and the unhappy parents. Instead of coming to the meeting, the teacher never showed up, quit his teaching position, and totally disappeared.

Skyline was unable to get a replacement from HR until after the 4th marking period of the school year. This means that the teacher's abandoned classes have been taught by a string of substitutes for 2/3 of the school year. These were 10th grade English classes and they probably account for 140 kids or so.

The test that determines the academic progress at the high school level is the CAHSEE given to 10th graders. How do you think this set of kids will do? The principal did his part, so why – given what was at stake didn't the district make the replacement of that teacher a top priority?

In other words, when the crappy teachers leave, there is not a pool of magical, excellent teachers waiting to replace them. The district would be better off if it could somehow build its replacement pool, and this is a good argument for becoming a regionally top-paying district. OUSD desperately needs something that can entice all those "good" teachers we want.

Gotta go now.


1 comment:

Ted said...

In my experience, the union and the union contract contribute the least to problem of inadequate teaching in the OUSD. I would suggest these reasons, in ranked order:
1. Overburdened or ineffective administrators
2. Lack of qualified replacements
3. The lack of teaching candidates is due not just to low pay, but to the famously difficult working conditions, an ineffective HR office, and the toxic environment created by the "War on Public Education" being waged by just about everyone in America except us hold-outs who still send 46,000 children to school in Oakland everyday.