Dance of the lemons in LA

In Los Angeles public schools, teachers who can’t teach can’t be fired, reports LA Weekly. “Perhaps 1,000 teachers, responsible for 30,000 children,” are ineffective in the classroom, the story estimates.

But 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.

The district paid an average of $50,000 apiece to get 32 ineffective teachers to leave. Others “are being continually recycled through a costly mentoring and retraining program but failing to improve,” reports the Weekly. Still more get poor evaluations again and again with no consequences.

Superintendent Ramon Cortines has vowed to make it harder for new teachers to get tenure. The district is firing 110 untenured teachers for poor performance, three times more than last year. But firing tenured teachers for poor performance would require a bitter fight with the teachers’ union.

By contrast, Houston will fire low-performing teachers who don’t improve after receiving additional training and mentoring. The district will analyze whether teachers helped students progress using a value-added analysis of test scores. Eduflack has more on Houston’s policy.

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  1. Logically you should fire a teacher for poor performance. However, where is the amazingly good teacher to replace them? Most school districts are not dealing with the issue of replacing a poor teacher with good teacher, it is replacing a poor teacher with another poor teacher or replacing a poor teacher with no teacher. Firing ineffective teachers only matters if they are replaced with better teachers. Where is this magic pool of great AND unemployed teachers?

  2. (hypothetical) I live in a small town–only one doctor. He kills by his incompetence half of the patients that seek him out for help. But who would replace him if we sued him (ran him out of town)? No doctor–that we know of– wants to live here so we take what we can get.

    Would most people accept this condition and even defend it? Would Matt take his son or daughter to him for treatment? Would any of the union defenders allow their son or daughter to be taught by a series of the above mentioned teachers (term used lightly).

  3. Why would an intelligent teacher want to go to work in a school district that abounded in incompetent teachers? By allowing such a situation to exist, LAUSD has lowered the status of all its teachers. It has also made the working conditions harder for any incoming teachers because 1) they’ll have more poorly-taught students to deal with, and 2) they’ll have more incompetent colleagues to deal with. Houston has the right idea. Good teachers want to be on winning teams, not losing ones with job security for the ones who drag everyone down.

  4. I’m not about to defend the retention of bad teachers. But whenever I hear about how hard it is to get rid of bad teachers and how we need to hold them accountable, I always have the same question: Who hired these teachers? And who is held acccountable for sloppy, indifferent hiring practices? Anyone? As a manager, if I consistently hire bad people, the fault is mine.

  5. I am not making the argument that poor teachers should not be fired, just that its complex. Even if I taught with poor colleagues. I might prefer them being in the next room to NO ONE being in the next room. If you say 20% of teachers should be fired, I am not sure I want 20% more students in my classroom. (Or pick what ever % of incompetent teachers you want.)

    You doctor analogy would mean you would prefer no teacher to a poor one. I am not sure which is better.

  6. Robert, your comment relates to my thoughts.

    Lets say you are a principal who NEEDS a physics teacher. 5 people apply (For a physics job, this might actually be a HIGH number.) They are all mediocre and none of them have a long track record of teaching of any kind. (Teachers just out of college, career changers etc.. Also probably true for most of the applicants of most physics jobs.) Who gets the job?

    Sitting in the principals seat, with no control over training more physics teachers and raising pay etc.. What do you do?
    Do yo take a chance on a mediocre teaching prospect, or do you not hire a physics teacher at all? This is often the reality principals face, hire a poor teacher or hire no teacher. Which is better?

  7. Michael E. Lopez, Esq. says:

    Actually, if you fired 20% of all teachers, you’d probably have 25% (not 20%) more students in your class. But that’s just nitpicking on fourth grade arithmetic. Enough pedantry… let’s get to the problem.

    I think Matt’s cast it in the best form, and in two parts. First, what are principals supposed to do with an all-crap applicant pool? Second, with what do you replace a poor teacher if you’ve got an all-crap applicant pool?

    The common factor to both of these questions is the existence of an all-crap applicant pool. So our first inquiry should be whether this is actually the case. ARE there any good teachers out there waiting to be hired, or is it really all a sea of sludgy mediocrity?

    I think it’s HIGHLY likely that it is actually a sea of sludgy mediocrity. That’s not to say that there aren’t brilliant teachers, wonderful teachers, and skilled teachers. That’s just to say that the really good ones are few and far between, and fewer and further between when you’re looking at who is willing to take a job in the warzone, as it were. So let’s grant the premise.

    What are principals to do when hiring? This is a tricky question. On the one hand, if they hire a crap teacher (knowing or suspecting that said teacher is indeed crap), then they’ve done something really bad. This is Robert’s point. On the other hand, the alternative is to not hire, and demand another job search. And then another. And then another. And so on, until either the principal happens upon a good applicant or the School Board (or the Mayor or whoever) realizes that the position needs to be made more attractive in order to grab at least a couple of good candidates. The problem with this is twofold: (1) no teacher in the interim, which is a huge problem and really can only be solved by appointing a babysitter with no real plan and no real authority; and (2) the principal might get relieved of command herself for her inaction.

    My personal view of this is that the principal, if she finds herself in this situation, should quit. The explanation would go something like this: “I am not able to do my job with the resources available to me, and I personally refuse to do a poor job. I would rather do no job at all.” Interim principals can be appointed… but if each of them quits in turn, eventually someone is going to sit up and take notice.

    In other words, it is precisely because principals accept the crappy status quo that it persists. They say to themselves, “Well, nothing can be done about it and if I don’t appoint this shitty teacher, someone else will,” but that’s BS. You don’t get relieved of your responsibility for a decision that harms people just because someone else would make it if you didn’t.

    “But what if there’s just no way to do a good job at all, for anyone?” you might ask. I dispute this as a possibility. There is always a way to do a good job.

  8. Michael,

    Perhaps the applicant pool is mediocre (I don’t like using the term “crap” to refer to decent, well-intentioned and often hard-working human beings). There are things schools can do to greatly enhance mediocre teachers’ performance: 1. provide great discipline support; 2. provide an excellent off-the-shelf curriculum with all the materials lined up and ready to go; 3. regularly observe teachers teaching and give on-the-spot feedback; 4. give ample prep time. The truth is, even very smart and hardworking teachers are dragged down by the lack of these resources. As Matt and Robert have said, the issue is complex in ways that only those of us on the ground seem to see. Who’s gonna replace these “bad” teachers? Why do districts keep hiring and then giving tenure to “bad” teachers? Why don’t districts take the measures they need to make “bad” teachers mediocre, and mediocre teachers good?

  9. Miller Smith says:

    The teachers in my district who are “poor performers” are overwhelmingly working in poor performing schools. When high performing teachers from high performing schools volunteered (for FIRST funds $$$) to go poor performing schools, they became “poor performing” teachers in less than a year.

    Get it?

  10. The problem is not just hiring but retention.

    Pervasive mediocrity doesn’t just make it hard to hire good people, it makes it hard to keep them around for more than a few years. Every great teacher who leaves within a few years for a less dysfunctional district is one more set of impossible shoes to fill.

    FWIW, I would certainly trade 25% larger class sizes if it meant 0% of kids being “educated” by today’s incompetent bottom 20% of teachers.

  11. Ex-PhysicsTeacher says:

    Robert’s got a point. How did the bad teachers get there? In addition to the people doing the hiring, the people doing the “training” of teachers need to be held even MORE accountable.

    How many of these “bad” teachers got straight A’s during their degree programs?

    I propose that whenever a teacher is fired for incompetence his/her ed school should be required to return the tuition payments.

  12. Poorly-performing schools and poorly-performing teachers tend to go together. It’s hard for problem schools/districts to attract top teachers, since such places tend to have severe discipline problems (and often outright criminal behaviors) and a severe lack of student achievement, interest and effort. Most of the best prospective teachers choose to teach more motivated/able kids in less chaotic surroundings. When a former Montgomery County (MD) superintendent moved to DCPS, he said of his goals was to attract better teachers. He said that MCPS had many A-level applicants, while DCPS was at C-level. Given the differences between the two systems, it was hardly surprising. It is my understanding that many DCPS teachers are graduates of DCPS schools and the University of the District of Columbia. Recent stories about the performance of UDC ed students have been pretty appalling. I vote with the remove-the-bad-apples crowd; the school might be more attractive to better teachers and willing kids might actually get an education.

  13. I should have added that the dance of the lemons has been alive and well in MCPS for decades. Over a decade ago, I heard that removing a teacher came to over $600k in legal/admin fees, so they simply reshuffled all but the worst. One of my kids had a teacher so senile that she didn’t reliably know the names of her 25 fourth-graders at the end of the year, but she was within a few years of her max retirement so they did nothing. Of course, at least 5 years of classes learned almost nothing in one of the best-performing schools/districts. I’m sure the same goes on all over the country and it won’t stop until the revolution.

  14. I left the following on Eduflack, and it’s germane to the discussion here:

    I work for Houston, and this is a good re-cap of the situation. Here are a few details that might enlighten you about this plan.

    We’re still going to have to affix student responsibility in this rubric. And we have other problems, one teacher got a class that had done very well, the previous year. And did so this year, but the scoring rubrics say they showed no exceptional growth.

    Of course not, they scored 100% on the TAKS test both last year and this year. It’s tough to improve on perfection. But the teacher is now labeled low quality by the measures.

    Additionally, with 17 other districts surrounding Houston, the opportunity to change jobs and retain your seniority pay status is possible. And some good teachers will move.

    At present, Houston pays exceptional teachers 10-20,000 in bonuses to teach in under-performing schools. Most say they will not take such an assignment again because of student quality. Until we can properly address these variables, this plan will continue to draw a lot of criticism, job flight and hard feelings.

  15. Mike, I agree that students and parents are part of the problem, politically incorrect as it is to admit. In the cities, particularly, we are dealing with the result of more than 4 decades of very young, never-married mothers and absent “fathers”; both unlikely to have the education, employment, mindset, maturity etc. to be responsible parents. Multiple generations of this situation has led to a large number of people who have never even observed stable, married families; they don’t know how successful families operate. It’s been kids raising kids and kids raising themselves on the streets for long enough that pieces of our cities have pretty much reverted to feral status. In 1984, I was told of a research study with grandmothers in an area of DC; the average age of the grandmothers was 34 and several were 28. No adult males were part of the “family”, although most households had several generations of females with boyfriends. All said they knew no one who had ever been married or had a full-time job. (that last may have changed since welfare reform) That has proven to be a recipe for disaster. I wish I knew how to fix things, but sticking heads in the sand isn’t working and the whole mess is toxic to real academic achievement.

  16. Miller Smith says:

    First year starting pay for a M.Ed
    DC-$45,194 (1)
    Prince George’s County, MD-$49,107 (2)
    Mongomery County, MD-$51,128 (3)

    The thing I hear from DC teachers that enter my system (PG) is the horrible working conditions of DCPS. Violence is very high and very bad. The DC system seems to do nothing about in school violence or parents who assault and harrass teachers. Teachers who file criminal charges against assaultive parents or students get horrible evals that blame the teacher for the crime committed against them.

    The DC system then defends the evals in hearings and sometimes even court-and then get the teacher sent back to them in addition to paying out damages for illegal activity by adim that lead to the eval and supported an environment of violence and intimidation in the schools.

    White teachers hear about how they “have no business teaching black children,” and “black children have a right to be taught by someone who looks like them.” The teatment is awful. Most non-black teachers flee after their first year and go to Montgomery County, Fairfax, Va, or to us.

    If you really want “good” teachers, you must do one or both of the following: Have a safe and orderly working environment for all staff and students without compromise and raise the pay to draw people of Ivy League caliber into teaching so poor quality teachers can’t compete and must find other employment.

    Anything else and you’re just flapping your gums.


  17. Mike34:

    The confounding factors you talk about are very real and need to be accounted for. The problem I see is that the teaching establishment by and large seems to hew to the notion that the only person qualified to assess a student is the teacher herself.

    Businesses have dealt since time immemorial with problems like, is Joe a bad salesman or is Joe stuck in a bum territory? They find ways to solve it, albeit imperfectly, because if you don’t you end up with a salesforce of overpaid slackers.

    At this point I am unsure what it would take to create an atmosphere of good faith. I fully agree that any teacher-ranking system needs to control for the students that teacher gets stuck with. At the same time the unions need to relent on protecting teachers who are well beyond “needs improvement.”

  18. Common sense tells us that a teacher who spends 33 hours a week with a child is in a better position than a review of test data.

    By the way, there are other methods that private companies have available. They also get to release a bad salesman, we don’t.

    Here in Texas, unions are a non-factor. They can’t negotiate wages, rules, or status of teachers. Most teachers I know join for the sole purpose of professional insurance. The news media is willing to quote them, but school boards and leadership ignore them. They offer teachers no protection in Texas.

  19. First: Perhaps if the school system was able to invest the money spent on court fees and lawyers into researched based professional development workshops they might be able to build upon the staff they have rather than, as most of you seem to agree, keep reeling incompetent, mediocre, teachers from the pool.

    Second: It is too easy to say that 1 time in a child’s life with a poorly performing teacher is the reason for low academic achievemnt. There are too many factors, that often begin quite young in a child’s like, that correlate highly with low academic performance. And much of them have little to do with the ability of one classroom teacher. It is interesting how these test scores for each classroom are kept so tightly underwrap. Same-student test scores might reveal it is not the current years teacher that is co-ocurring with the student’s low peformance, but it is the student’s performance trend. And this, this is when we as a society have to start questioning the larger context that schools are part of and start taking responsibility for the economic inqequalities that start the downward spiral of a child’s poor academic performance.

  20. Roger Sweeny says:


    Very few teachers spend 33 hours a week with a student. Regular elementary teachers spend 33 hours a week with 15 to 25 students. As a high school teacher, I spend about 4 hours a week with more than a hundred students. A major way I know how good they are is “a review of test data.”