October 21, 2005

School Matters: No Gains For Education Through Prop. 74

By Donal Brown

I always thought that good teachers should be supported and valued.

I was shocked then in my last year of teaching to find out that a young, savvy colleague, a fellow English teacher, was being fired. A teacher-of-the-year in another school district, she came to our school with 10 years experience but couldn’t survive the two-year probationary period.

I thought her chances for tenure were damaged when she organized a meeting with the administration to air grievances from probationary math teachers who felt the administration did not back them in disciplining students.

The administration claimed that my colleague was ineffective in the classroom, but failed to give specifics and under the law was not required to do so. I know that had the teacher made herself indispensable to the administration, she would still be teaching at the school.

Before the end of the school year, she was hired at a prestigious private school and after four years is an assistant head master in charge of scheduling. I still lament losing her to private education.

Under current law in California, a teacher can be fired during the two-year probationary period with no recourse or explanation apart from “you don’t fit in.”

Now Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is proposing to extend the two years to five. If Prop 74 passes in the special election Nov. 8, probationary teachers like my colleague will have to lie low for an additional three years, stifling any dissenting thoughts. They must support all management enterprises, no matter how dubious, and at all times be team players.

During my career I tried to be a team player and often found myself in sync with principals and other administrators. But there were times that I just could not in good conscience support some event or program. I bolstered my reputation as a negative influence with my work as adviser to the student-run newspaper.

I aggressively instructed my students in their rights under California’s strong student free-press law. My students took advantage of their rights, often ripping the administration on various issues.

One year I clashed with the administration over a well-in tentioned activity to create cohesiveness and a caring atmosphere in the school. The program suspended classes for a day to bring an entire class, whether juniors, seniors, sophomores or freshman to the gymnasium. There was music and games and then an activity students called “cross the line.”

“Cross the line,” barked the managers, “if you or anyone in your family or anyone you know is an alcoholic.” Or “cross the line if you never had a childhood.” During one session, a boy burst out crying when he heard that order.

My journalism students said that students became voyeurs, watching carefully to see who stepped over the line as the topics became more intense and personal. After one session, the managers lost the lists of vulnerable students who needed follow up.

I thought that the program fostered some serious invasions of privacy and provided questionable long-term positive benefits for students. Many students, parents and teachers loved the program. Whoever was right about its value, I know that I did not endear myself to the administration.

I felt comfortable, though, in challenging the program since I was protected by tenure. I was harassed by the administration, but kept my job.

The second part of Schwarzenegger’s Prop 74, I discovered, weakens tenure.

Under state law, tenured teachers are evaluated every two years and can be fired for unsatisfactory performance. Prop 74 would retain the evaluations every two years but allow termination after two consecutive unsatisfactory evaluations and eliminate the 90-day period provided for teachers to improve their performance. It would allow less documentation of incompetence than the present law allows.

No one, especially hard-working teachers, want people in the classroom who do only the minimum required by law. No one wants teachers who show videos every period of the day. These teachers must be singled out, given time and support needed to improve and then, if no changes are forthcoming, fired.

But is it also vital to provide teachers full protection from arbitrary and politically motivated firings. Good teachers can easily have off days and register two consecutive unsatisfactory evaluations. If Prop 74 passes they could be more easily fired if the administration sees them as obstructionists.

Let’s take stock of the current reality in California’s public schools. Teachers are underpaid and many can’t live in their school’s community. Inner city schools have trouble recruiting and retaining teachers. There is a shortage of math, science and special education teachers statewide. Teachers are doing their best to educate vast numbers of immigrant children struggling with English. School buildings are antiquated and dilapidated. Teachers are under pressure to produce higher test scores even while many students come to school resistant to learning.

Given these realities, Sch-warzenegger’s response is to put the screws on teachers.

The overall effect of Prop. 74 would be to downgrade the quality of the teaching ranks as the profession becomes less attractive. Fewer people who dare to question authority will want to teach or remain in the profession. That would be a huge loss for students.

Donal Brown retired from teaching in 1999 after 34 years in California’s public schools.

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