Bad teachers not a contract issue

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An evergreen complaint against teachers unions is that they make it too difficult to get rid of bad teachers. But those familiar with the process say that the CTU contract isn’t the obstacle.

“The contract isn’t all that unreasonable,” says Pam Clarke, an attorney who worked eight years representing school boards that were trying to fire teachers. Currently she is associate director of Leadership for Quality Education, a business-backed school reform organization.

Much of the process for dismissing tenured teachers comes out of state law, which sets a higher standard for firing teachers than most other employers have to meet. A school district can’t just prove that a teacher’s work or conduct is bad. It has to prove that it is “irremediable,” or beyond help.

Marilyn Johnson, the Chicago Board of Education’s general counsel, says the irremediable standard is unique. “Out there in the rest of the real world,” she says, the firing standard generally is for “good cause.”

Beverly Tunney, president of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association, agrees that the problem is “the standard of evidence” that the process has come to require. “It’s really the principal who’s on trial,” she says. “You have to have a very strong case.”

If the law requires four evaluations, says Clarke, a school board should have 20. “If you want to win your case, you want to do 20 evaluations to show that every time you walked in there, things were going crazy. And you need a principal who’s reasonably articulate but who also comes across as fair and unbiased.”

Clarke says that principals share some of the blame. “Most of them originally went into education because they like people, and they look for the good in people. They’re used to trying to find positive things to say about kids and adults.”

That made it hard for Clarke to get them to document incompetence convincingly. “They weren’t used to being hard on somebody, even if it was accurate.” Clarke recalls one principal who described a teacher to her as incompetent, “but then I’d see [his written] evaluations, and they’d be kind of glowing.”

Deborah Lynch, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, says the larger problem is that “there is very little support in place to help a teacher who is struggling.” The union contract requires that the principal provide a struggling teacher with a “mentor teacher” for a time before termination procedures begin. But that process is anemic, says Lynch. “The mentor teacher is carrying a full load of classes, so it’s a glorified buddy system.”

Beefing up that system “may be one of the things that we talk about in contract talks,” she says. “We did a survey a year ago, and over 80 percent of our members said it was important or very important that the union be involved in developing a program to support struggling teachers.”