Back in the early nineties, when my mother was the principal at an urban junior high, a coke-addicted teacher lost his cool during class, spat on the floor, then knelt down and licked the spittle up as his startled students looked on. It's possible he was trying to make some sort of pedagogical point, though it is not entirely clear what that point was.
The teacher's union fought tooth and nail to keep him on the job and to spare him even from mandatory rehab or any suspension of his opportunity to teach seventh graders. For years, they succeeded. Eventually he died in a coke-fueled car crash, which was beyond the unions' ability to excuse.
Confronted with the problem, school district lawyers and administrators suggested to my mother that she put him in a class with ESL students, because if he did anything crazy, they'd be less likely to understand it.
So you'll understand why I'm not exactly blown away by this weekend's Los Angeles times story showing that it's damn near impossible to fire a teacher in California, and that review panels frequently reinstate teachers even in the extreme cases that go forward.
Look, I don't begrudge the California teachers' unions their role. It's a feature, not a bug, of our political system that every interest group gets a voice. The problem is that education in California is a perfect storm of self-interest, money, timidity, and incompetence that leaves the teachers' unions' self-interest largely unchallenged. District administrators and lawyers are conflict- and publicity-adverse and often politically beholden to teachers' unions. No interest group representing kids school administrators (the ones who have to deal on a daily basis with incompetent or deranged teachers) wields anything like the power of the teachers' unions, because no such group is spending fat wads of cash on political advertising and campaign contributions. And as the L.A. Times article suggests, the review panels are stacked with teachers' advocates ready to cut every break, every benefit of the doubt, and every chance for rehabilitation to bad teachers — while cutting no such breaks for students or administrators. The result is a vicious cycle — it gets harder and harder to fire bad teachers, so districts try less and less often, and the bar for how badly a teacher has to act to get fired gets set higher and higher.
The article includes some appalling examples, like that of Koreatown teacher Carlos Polanco, who mocked a student in front of his class for an unsuccessful suicide attempt and told him to cut deeper next time — and was reinstated by the review panel, which found that he did it but that it did not merit termination, because he meant well.
I admire teachers. My mother started out as a teacher, and I've had great ones, as have my kids. But the educational system should be for the benefit of the students, not for the benefit of the teachers. Teachers' unions seem to have transformed it into a system designed for their benefit. Why — other than because their unions are so powerful and successful — should teachers enjoy an immunity from the consequences of their actions that they wouldn't enjoy if they worked in the private sector?
Last 5 posts by Ken White
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