How teachers are solving the problem of incompetent teachers

June 22, 2014

Greg Jouriles, one of the best high school teachers I know, still remembers a conversation 17 years ago with a top student. Jouriles was the teacher union bargaining chair. His team had just negotiated the best contract he could get, but he was irked there would be no raises that year. The student seemed unmoved. “Don’t you think we deserve a raise?” Jouriles said.

“Well, you do,” she said. She named two other teachers she thought deserved one, and two who did not.

“That made me realize,” Jouriles said, “that if a union makes collective demands, it has to also promote collective quality because no one likes groups who make demands that they can’t back up.”

Many teachers feel that way. That fact is overlooked in the national furor over California judge Rolf M. Treu’s decision to throw out the state’s teacher tenure laws in the Vergara case. The judge said the failure to remove bad teachers hurts students who need the best instruction they can get. Whether he is right or wrong, his ruling is unlikely to have as much impact as the actions of enlightened educators and union leaders such as Jouriles, who are making it easier to remove incompetent teachers.

Washington-area schools have played an important role in that change. Montgomery County’s Peer Assistance and Review system, in operation since 2000, has given struggling teachers a chance to improve with expert guidance but makes certain they will be dismissed if they do not improve. That system has generated little controversy because it was created by teacher union leaders in cooperation with school administrators.

The other development here was the D.C. teachers contract signed in 2010, as well as the D.C. teacher assessment system IMPACT, which makes it easier to dismiss teachers who do not perform well in the classroom. When she was D.C. schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee and her top deputy and successor, Kaya Henderson, failed to win union approval for a proposal to let teachers waive their tenure protections in exchange for big merit-pay increases. But union members approved language that ended emphasis on seniority in teacher assignments. Many teachers accepted this as a way to raise standards. IMPACT has its flaws, but it does reduce the chances that students will have to suffer teachers who are incapable of running productive classes.

This is happening across the country, mostly as the result of thoughtful discussions between state and local administrators and union leaders who share the views of Jouriles, a social studies teacher at my alma mater, Hillsdale High in San Mateo, Calif. The Vergara decision is unlikely to survive appeal. It relied on an estimate, which an expert said he pulled out of the air, that 1 percent to 3 percent of teachers had students who consistently performed poorly on state tests. Treu further distorted the expert’s statement, according to a Slate investigation.

Teachers are finding ways to improve their ranks that are better than relying on the courts, which are a crude instrument when trying to fix schools.

Jouriles, who is no longer a union leader, remains strongly pro-union. He opposes the Vergara decision and the D.C. teachers contract but still backs teacher-led reform. He once represented in a personnel matter a teacher he did not think belonged in a classroom but seemed likely to file a due-process suit against the union if not defended. Jouriles told district administrators the way to remove the teacher was through the evaluation process, but that did not happen.

“The teacher’s presence has hurt many students,” Jouriles said. “Why shouldn’t our union be willing to negotiate a more streamlined dismissal process or some kind of tenure review that will make it easier to dismiss this teacher without denying others’ rights?”

More teachers than ever before are asking that question. That will make a big difference.

Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years.
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