Time magazine has a cover story out that's causing a fair amount of outrage, but for all the wrong reasons. The story is headlined, "Rotten Apples: It's nearly impossible to fire a bad teacher. Some tech millionaires may have found a way to change that." Since then, some 70,000 people signed an online petition calling for a public apology over Time's supposed smearing of teachers. Time has sensibly invited a series of responses to the piece on its website.
Now the merits of corporate meddling in public education are debatable -- see Andrew Ferguson's piece on Common Core standards for more on that -- but that's not what has allegedly enraged teachers. It is not even remotely controversial that firing teachers is notoriously difficult, but the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the union orchestrating the Time backlash, lives in some sort of fantasyland where they think that it's outrageous to tell this obvious truth. In 2010, L.A. Weekly -- no one's idea of a conservative anti-teacher, anti-union media outlet -- did a little investigation of the Los Angeles Unified School District, which is the largest school district in the country:
But the far larger problem in L.A. is one of "performance cases" — the teachers who cannot teach, yet cannot be fired. Their ranks are believed to be sizable — perhaps 1,000 teachers, responsible for 30,000 children. But in reality, nobody knows how many of LAUSD's vast system of teachers fail to perform. Superintendent Ramon Cortines tells the Weekly he has a "solid" figure, but he won't release it. In fact, almost all information about these teachers is kept secret.
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.
That's right. Out of 33,000 teachers, only four were fired for poor performance over the course of a decade. Firing teachers is such a problem there's even a term of art, "the dance of the lemons," that refers to how bad teachers are shuffled from one school to the next as parents get wise to their professional shortcomings. After being shamed by L.A. Weekly's report, the LAUSD promised reform but the problem does not appear to have gotten better. USA Today reported earlier this year that "an average of 2.2 teachers a year are dismissed for unsatisfactory performance" in the entire state of California.
The responses published by Time from teacher representatives are both unserious and denial of an obvious problem in public education. None of them present any real facts about teacher tenure, and instead assert various other canards as being the real reason public education is failing. Here's Randi Weingarten, the president of the AFT:
Yes, there is a real problem facing America’s teaching profession, but it has nothing to do with tenure. The problem is in recruiting, retaining and supporting our teachers, especially at the hardest-to-staff schools.
Every time we lose a teacher, it costs us. Literally. More than one-third of teachers leave the profession before they’ve taught for five years. The National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future estimates that the high rate of teacher turnover nationwide costs more than $7 billion per year. This only exacerbates the greatest challenges facing our public schools: underfunding and inequity.