Monday 4 May 2009

The costs of teacher unions

The LA Times documents just how hard it is to fire incompetent teachers in California's unionized public school system.
The Times reviewed every case on record in the last 15 years in which a tenured employee was fired by a California school district and formally contested the decision before a review commission: 159 in all (not including about two dozen in which the records were destroyed). The newspaper also examined court and school district records and interviewed scores of people, including principals, teachers, union officials, district administrators, parents and students.

Among the findings:

* Building a case for dismissal is so time-consuming, costly and draining for principals and administrators that many say they don't make the effort except in the most egregious cases. The vast majority of firings stem from blatant misconduct, including sexual abuse, other immoral or illegal behavior, insubordination or repeated violation of rules such as showing up on time.

* Although districts generally press ahead with only the strongest cases, even these get knocked down more than a third of the time by the specially convened review panels, which have the discretion to restore teachers' jobs even when grounds for dismissal are proved.

* Jettisoning a teacher solely because he or she can't teach is rare. In 80% of the dismissals that were upheld, classroom performance was not even a factor.
The article provides lots of horror stories, including one teacher who couldn't be fired even after encouraging a student to try harder next time after an unsuccessful suicide attempt.

I can understand the case for tenure in Universities. I'm of mixed view of whether the costs outweigh the benefits, but at least the benefits make sense: freedom to conduct research the implications of which may be politically sensitive. And, the costs of failing to dismiss underperformers aren't all that high: they usually aren't assigned to teach critical courses; students can select courses based on word of mouth; funding follows students so Departments have an incentive to keep things from getting too bad. In high schools, the benefits are a lot less clear. I'm sure it protects some teachers against unfounded accusations from vindictive students, but so too would any reasonable dismissals process. The costs are a lot higher though: local public schools are local monopolies and students have few options.

Yet another argument for school choice and vouchers....

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