Thursday, July 14, 2011

Deasy Encourages Myth That Teachers Cause School Failure

The Los Angeles Times had a piece last week about the 1,000 tenured teachers who have been displaced as a result of restructuring at some of LAUSD’s worst performing schools. Known as reconstitution and offered as one of several options for low scoring schools under No Child Left Behind (NCLB), several LAUSD schools have opted to fire all or most of their staffs under the delusion that hiring 80-90% new people will somehow bring up test scores.

Why anyone buys this malarkey is inconceivable. It is difficult to hire the best candidate for just a single position at a school or any business, let alone 50-100 positions simultaneously. Furthermore, one of the most important in-school factors for student success is the development of meaningful and supportive relationships with adults, something that is undermined when the vast majority of teachers are given the boot. Also, low academic performance is tied much more closely to out-of-school factors, particularly students’ familial wealth, than to the quality of teachers. It is no coincidence that every one of the schools being reconstituted is in a low income neighborhood. A much more effective tactic would be to replace 80-90% of the kids with affluent ones or, better yet, eliminate poverty.

However, the main issue discussed in the LA Times piece is that most of the displaced teachers not only have tenure, but seniority, too, requiring the district to find positions for them at other schools, which has been difficult because of the stigma attached to having worked at an under-performing school. The entire basis for reconstitution is the assumption that schools fail because of the teachers: the teachers are just plain bad at teaching, or they have an attitude problem, or they have created a negative culture that opposes reforms. Many principals share these misperceptions and thus do not hire teachers who come from low performing schools. However, LAUSD superintendent John Deasy has exacerbated the problem by publicly saying "We must all work together to ensure that teachers who do not belong in our district are dealt with through the disciplinary and dismissal process," [and are not simply moved from school to school], implying that many (if not most) of the 1,000 displaced teachers have no business working in education.

Let’s look at the problem in a different way. Many young, enthusiastic teachers deliberately go for jobs at tough schools because they believe that is where they are most needed and can make the biggest difference. I was one of them and recall how dedicated our young staff was to the students. Most were excellent teachers, too. The school was reconstituted 14 years ago. The good teachers continued to be good teachers at other schools, but my school did not get better. It remained one of the lowest performing schools in the district (and one of the poorest). And some of the good teachers did not get rehired and left the profession in disgust, which is exactly what is happening in Los Angeles and across the country.

What incentive is there for the best teachers to work at low performing schools if they must work longer and harder hours to bring up test scores with no extra pay for their troubles AND risk losing their jobs? Many also risk lower pay and bad reviews if their district has implemented merit pay or evaluations based on student test scores.

What have the unions done about this problem? Virtually nothing. While they criticize NCLB, they have taken no direct action to resist it and its punishments. They criticize reconstitution but likewise take no direct action against it. Of course it is not easy to get thousands of teachers to walk off the job to protect a few hundred who have been reconstituted, but Los Angeles teachers have plenty of other reasons to strike, like ongoing furloughs, stagnant pay, school closures and charter conversions, the imposition of Value-Added evaluation schemes and court-ordered undermining of seniority rights and collective bargaining.

It teachers want to stop the attacks on their profession and working conditions, they will have to take a stand. The question is how much further must they get pushed before they are willing to fight back?

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