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The Opinion of The Oracle: Complicated dismissal process for tenured teachers hinders student learning

Last year, the Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD) hired 76 new teachers to replace 15 retirees, 20 tenured resignees who were mostly on leave and five temporary teachers who were not rehired. In addition, 43 formerly temporary teachers were tenured. According to California law, a teacher must be either tenured or dismissed within his first two years at a school with open positions. Before receiving tenure, which is permanent employment at a school, teachers who do not meet state and district standards are let go at will. However, when it comes to firing tenured teachers, PAUSD must undergo due process. The process, in its current state, is time-consuming and costly, as well as plagued with contractual limitations. This makes it excessively difficult for the district to fire tenured educators who are incompetent or problematic, thereby putting the quality of student education at risk.

Insufficient Hiring Evaluations

Superintendent Dr. Kevin Skelly and Board of Education Vice President Melissa Baten Caswell have both expressed that two years cannot necessarily indicate a teacher’s compatibility with PAUSD. This is partly due to PAUSD’s hiring process, which largely focuses on an applicant’s resume and interviews. Although the district screens prospective employees for impressive credentials and credible transcripts before thoroughly interviewing them, most future employees only have to teach one demonstration lesson to complete their application. A real ability to guide and instruct others—the skill that ultimately decides a teacher’s success in the classroom—cannot be legitimately observed through one lesson. Though PAUSD cannot defy California’s tenure deadline, it can improve its hiring process to better assess the abilities of potential employees, thus preventing the hiring of incompetent teachers in the first place.

A Lengthy and Flawed Complaint Process

According to Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Dr. Scott Bowers, the district expects students to express concerns about problematic teachers directly to their schools and PAUSD. This “unified complaint process” requires a parent or guardian of the student to meet with the employee in question and the employee’s supervisor before formally complaining to the school’s principal. If the principal’s solution is unsatisfactory, only then may the parent or guardian submit a written complaint to the Superintendent’s Office, and then to the Superintendent. The whole process may take over 40 days, allowing the problem to affect the student’s learning for over a month.

Additionally, Caswell has expressed her understanding of how students can be hesitant about publicly approaching administrators with any problems. Students may be afraid of the teacher retaliating by lowering their grades in the class. Consequently, they often restrict themselves to sharing complaints with friends about the problematic teacher, instead of approaching an Instructional Supervisor with their concerns.

While teachers are required to ask for student feedback, these end-of-the-semester forms are far from an appropriate forum for urgent issues. Students are typically expected to fill out the “anonymous feedback” forms during the class period while teachers and peers are present. This hardly encourages hesitant students to spend quality time divulging any personal concerns they have, rendering the feedback forms ineffective for important matters.

These issues with the district’s methods of feedback lead to a lack of genuine student input, a problem which ultimately prevents the district from accurately gauging teacher quality, even in the presence of serious issues.

 

Putting Teacher 

Development First

Furthermore, the school district’s firing process currently places teacher development above student learning.

All PAUSD teachers, tenured and non-tenured, follow one of five continuous evaluation plans, during which they are observed by and receive feedback from administrators. If a tenured teacher is reported to fall short of the district’s conduct and teaching standards, PAUSD responds with closer inspection. The teacher is given a warning period of four to eight weeks. Continued failure to teach up to standards leads to 18 weeks of more focused observation, more frequent progress reports and advisory meetings. Should the school find the teacher’s performance satisfactory at this point, the complaint is considered “resolved,” and the teacher returns to the standard evaluation program.

If performance issues still persist, evaluation proceeds to the final stage. During this phase, the teacher undergoes district administrative evaluation, which may last up to nine weeks. A PAUSD teacher can only be fired if he or she is found dissatisfactory at this stage.

Altogether, this evaluation process can take up to 175 school days out of the school year’s standard 180 teaching days. All the while, educators are still permitted to continue classes, despite existing concerns with their performance.

According to Skelly, educators must always be guiding one another, and should improve accordingly. However, while this lengthy process strives to improve inadequate teacher performance and fulfill the district’s obligation to follow due process, it does so at the sacrifice of student learning. For nearly an entire school year, a teacher lacking significant skills or discipline continues to actively teach students. Students should be able to expect the school to always put their education first. Therefore, instead of allowing student learning to be compromised, the district should pursue more prompt dismissal of incompetent teachers.

 

High Costs of Legal Cases

According to Skelly and Caswell, substantial legal expenses are a major reason PAUSD chooses to follow this lengthy evaluation process instead of promptly pursuing dismissal. Once the district has decided to fire a tenured teacher, a complex legal negotiation ensues.

In its attempt to avoid this possibility, the PAUSD instead chooses to implement such an extensive, exhaustive evaluation process before considering dismissal. However, this causes the district to spend effort, resources and valuable learning time on re-training employees who have created problems in a school that nearly 2,000 students depend upon for education and career preparation. Despite the price tag that comes with the legal dismissal process, the truth remains that incompetent or ineffective teachers have no place in PAUSD schools, and the district and the Board should do their best to eliminate such instructors or avoid such issues in the first place.

 

Ensuring Quality Tenured Staff

To achieve this, PAUSD should expand its hiring system to more thoroughly evaluate prospective teachers. Potential employees should be required to teach multiple demonstration lessons. This allows the district to thoroughly observe the prospective teacher’s abilities in a classroom setting.

Once an individual has been employed, the district should take assessment of the non-tenured teacher seriously. PAUSD needs to take full advantage of the short two-year period it has to perform in-depth evaluation. Any non-tenured teacher who gives any indication of being below PAUSD standards and who is not making progress should be quickly dismissed.

In addition, once the district receives complaints regarding a tenured teacher, it should pursue more effective actions instead of focusing solely on evaluations and feedback reports. PAUSD should provide struggling teachers with additional training that educates the instructor on better teaching techniques to implement in the classroom.

 

—Unsigned editorials represent the majority opinion of the staff (assenting: 49; dissenting: 3; abstaining: 11)

 

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