Firing bad teachers

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Diane Ravich, who used to be on the wrong side of school reform but has pretty much come around, was on Forum Jan. 18 talking about education policy. For the most part, she was right on target, explaining that too much of a focus on testing (as a measure of school and teacher accomplishment, not as a diagnostic tool) and too narrow an emphasis on math and reading has damaged public schools.

Neither she nor host Michael Krasny spent much time talking about the bigger problem -- money -- or the fact that other nations that are eclipsing the United State in education actually tax people and spend that money on schools. California has already cut the number of classroom days, and may cut as much as a week out of the school year. That's a huge deal, one that's directly related to the intransigence of a few state legislators who can hold the entire budget hostage -- and to the unwillingness of California residents to amend Prop. 13 and allow reasonable property taxes.

But one of the things that struck me was a caller who complained that tenure was making it impossible to fire bad teachers.

Tenure, Ravich noted, is badly misunderstood. At the college level, it's essentially a lifetime commitment; a college professor gets tenure and he or she understands that, for the most part, it means a career at an institution -- with minimal job requirements. Tenured professors teach a few classes, but are free to spend a lot of time on academic research (without any set requirement for success or publication.)

For K-12 teachers, tenure is just a word meaning that they get due process in employment. It's basically the same as the civil-service rules that San Francisco city employees have -- the right to a hearing on discipline and freedom for arbitrary actions on the part of management.

You think it's hard to fire a teacher? Try firing a cop. The police, who have nothing called "tenure," have more and broader rights than any other public-sector employees, including the right to have all disciplinary matters kept completely secret. And police officers are armed and given the ability to arrest and even shoot people.

So yeah, let's blame the inability to fire teachers. That'll fix the problems.