Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Gates and Villaraigosa: Screw Family Leave! Screw the Feds! Fire 25% of All Teachers!

Huck/Konopacki Labor Cartoons
The Gates Foundation has come out with a new report saying that principals in Los Angeles Unified School District’s (LAUSD) schools should have more authority in hiring teachers—No surprise there. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa strongly backs the report—No surprise there, either. This increased authority would allow principals to permanently nix displaced tenured teachers who have long standing in the district, even if they have been displaced due to budget cuts, declining enrollment, illness or parental leave, thus negating the protections of the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), the Los Angeles Times reported today.

FMLA provides employees with unpaid, job-protected leave of up to 12 weeks for having children or caring for sick family members. The law guarantees that employees have their same jobs when they return from leave, or at least a comparable job with the same employer AND at the same salary. Furthermore, the law protects employees from retaliation or punishment for taking leave, including the preservation of any perks, benefits or raises they were due.

In LAUSD, the problem of displaced teachers is exacerbated by its mania for giving away its campuses to private charter school companies. Because the charter schools have the right to hire nonunion, low-paid teachers, members of the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) who are displaced by charter conversions are added to the “must hire” list for openings within the district. The high rate of charter conversions in LAUSD adds hundreds more teachers to the “must hire” list than would normally be there simply due to family leave, illness, downsizing and budget cuts.

Curiously, the Gates Foundation report gave LAUSD high marks for firing teachers for “poor performance,” suggesting that it has improved its quality control (apparently they are off the hook for hiring crappy teachers in the first place). The Times said that only 7 tenured teachers were fired in 2008, compared with 94 this year. Of course, if this is based on student test scores, then it is no indication whatsoever that LAUSD is improving its schools or its quality control. On the contrary, it is a sign that LAUSD is punishing teachers who may actually be quite good for having the bad luck of teaching in a low income or low performing school, where test scores are routinely low and improvement on tests routinely slower than at middle class schools.

Huck/Konopacki Labor Cartoons
Appallingly, the report suggested that districts should “routinely dismiss at least the bottom-performing 25% of teachers eligible for tenure in order to build a high-quality teaching corps.” This is absurd on many levels, not the least of which is that there is already a teacher shortage and, with the terrible pay and increasingly challenging working conditions (like declining job security), who would want to go into the profession? Furthermore, no business can afford to fire ¼ of their employees each year (unless they are entirely old-timers who are at the top of the pay scale, which is probably what Gates and Villaraigosa really want).

It would be a terrible blow to students who develop important relationships with teachers and depend on stability at school. The ACLU lawsuit that protects novice teachers from layoffs at low income schools was intended to reduce the large scale layoffs that often happen at these schools. Across the board cuts of 25% of all teachers in a district would have a similar effect, not just on low income students, but on all students.

Most importantly, there is no accurate way to measure teacher performance. Student test scores are useless, as they only tell us how a student is doing on the test, not why, and they are based far more on the student’s socioeconomic status than anything that happens in the classroom. The current system of administrators evaluating teacher effectiveness based on the California standards for the teaching profession is limited by the fact that administrators rarely have (or put in) the time to sufficiently observe and evaluate their employees. Furthermore, it is based on benchmarks rather than raw scores or percentages. Those who meet the benchmarks should be considered proficient. There is no bottom 25%. Those who don’t meet the benchmarks get the axe (or more professional development). This number could end up being 25% of teachers, but if it did, it would indicate an utter failure of the hiring process and the incompetency of the administrators in charge of hiring. It would also be a grave indictment of the teacher credentialing process, as well as the teacher training programs and professional development system.

Of course, the Gates report is not at all about improving teacher quality or improving educational outcomes for children. If 25% of teachers were truly so bad that they should be replaced, then the most expedient solution would be to replace the administrators (or at least retrain them to better distinguish between good and bad teaching candidates before they hire them in the first place.

The real objective of this report is to give bosses more power and employees less, by taking away job security and federally protected workplace protections, and by creating more uncertainty and fear among workers. It indirectly weakens the union by weakening the job security of veteran teachers who are more likely to be active and vocal participants in their union and by scaring teachers into keeping their mouths shut and accepting whatever crazy or illegal directives their administrators impose just so they don’t become labeled as one of the bottom 25%.


  1. Bill Gates is an idiot. Principals already have way too much power to destroy teachers.

    By the way, the vast majority of teachers dumped are either nonrenewed or "asked" to resign or forced to retire, so when you see some tiny number of people "fired," that only means a handful of teachers bothered to go through the sham hearings. There are far, far more teachers kicked to the curb than the "fired" statistics want you to believe.

    Meanwhile, principals, most of whom are lousy but have unlimited job security, are still not held accountable for their actions.

  2. A very wealthy idiot. Or, perhaps not an idiot at all, but a very clever, manipulative asshole.

    People say that his forays into education "reform" haven't directly increased his wealth. However, they have contributed substantially to the overall hostility toward teachers and public sector workers, including the whittling away at tenure and seniority rights, thus weakening the power of the last stronghold of unionism, and as a result, the ability of workers in general to earn a decent wage.