Weeding out bad teachers

Parents know it when they see it. Although there's a data dearth on the subject of bad teaching, with no one sure how far the problem really extends, the lack of studies makes no difference to parents who have seen subpar teaching seriously affect their child.

What frustrates them is how these public school teachers remain uncorrected to face another class and do more damage. Onerous rules make it time consuming and costly to fire persistently incompetent teachers, discouraging administrators from taking action.

A controversial ballot initiative in California aims to tackle this problem. Supported by Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Proposition 74 would make it easier to dismiss poorly performing teachers by lengthening the time it takes a newly hired teacher to qualify for "permanent" employment status from two years to five.

During this "probationary" period, dismissal is possible without the need to cite a cause. Under current law, once a teacher reaches permanent status, it can take a district two years or more to complete the state's dismissal process, which involves about a dozen stages. Only Indiana and Missouri have five-year probation periods.

California's powerful teacher unions claim the governor's support for Prop. 74 is really a campaign to weaken public-employee unions by lowering teacher protections. No evidence, they argue, suggests that extending the probationary period will lead to better teacher performance or student achievement. And, they say, postponing job security will act as a potential deterrent in attracting new teachers, just when the state is facing a retirement surge and needs them. A 2004 study showed California must replace 60,000 retiring teachers in five years, and more than 100,000 over the next decade.

The unions may have a point on political motive. But that shouldn't detract from the soundness of the idea. Even without studies to back up this ballot initiative, it makes intuitive sense to free administrators to dismiss problem teachers.

But larger issues are at work that also need to be addressed. The shortage of new hires, for instance, prompts school districts to simply shuffle poor performers to other schools.

The nation is working to bring more and better teachers into the profession. Massachusetts's governor, for example, has proposed merit pay as a motivator (public-school teachers are generally underpaid). And people entering teaching via alternative career routes now account for about a third of all new teachers.

Even if states increase the flow into the pipeline, they can have trouble retaining teachers. Nationwide, 8.5 percent of public school teachers leave the classroom within their first three years, according to the Department of Education. Educators say that's due in large part to lack of support when teachers start. That, too, contributes to bad teaching.

In 1997, California began a mentoring program to pair new teachers in their first two years on the job with experienced, outstanding teachers. That's resulted in increased retention rates. Such a program is much more likely to produce a healthy garden of teachers than Prop. 74 could. Still, part of gardening is timely weeding.

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