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Lies, Statistics and the Los Angeles Times: "Firing Teachers"

by freepacifica@yahoo.com Saturday, May. 16, 2009 at 4:56 AM

The LA Times makes it appear as if non-qualified teachers are gaming the system in great numbers, but a careful reading of the article shows that may not be the case.

This is an answer to an article that appeared in the Los Angeles Times on May 3 (front page, above the fold). This response may be a little late, but it is still necessary. Statistics and studies can be used to either enlighten or deceive people, particularly with current hot-button issues like the firing of teachers, for reasons of budget, malfeasance or any reason. The article can be found at http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-teachers3-2009may03,0,679507.story

The article is titled "When firing a teacher is almost too hard to try: Hurdles are so high that districts often pursue only the very worst cases....and frequently lose even those." (Italics are mine.) The title above the photo says "Failure gets a pass." Almost too hard...often....frequently....these are flexible words that can describe any type of situation, with any result. And that is the case here.

This article employs a convoluted maze-like graphic (p. A16) to make the point that firing teachers is difficult and complicated, when a linear chart of due-process steps would do just as well. Someone with a predisposition to believe the worst about teachers and teachers' unions could treat this article as definitive proof that it is too hard (as opposed to "almost" too hard) to fire bad teachers, and that districts mostly (not "often") pursue the worst offenders and mostly (not "frequently") lose even those cases. But even the article's headlines don't claim that, because they can't.

The "hard statistics" part of the article claims that, over 15 years, California school districts that pursued the firing of tenured teachers all the way to the state Commission on Professional Competence prevailed in 100 out 159 cases. Note that that is still a nearly two-thirds success rate for the districts.

One should note as well that that number does not indicate the total number of tenured teachers fired in California, many of whose cases do not even reach the Commission level. Why don't these cases reach the Commission? In some cases, the offending teacher may be caught "dead to rights" and may know that appealing the case to the Commission would not be worth it. In others, the District may realize it made a mistake and back down from the firing. In still other cases, the teacher may not deserve the firing but may lack the energy, the good advice or the witnesses to appeal any further, and may simply accept the firing or work out a separation deal with the District.

How many tenured teachers, total, are fired in California? And how hard is it for districts to fire them, overall? The article does not contain that information, since it focuses exclusively on cases that are appealed to the Commission.

One clue may lie in the article's citation of firing statistics for the Los Angeles Unified School District. Out of 30,000 tenured teachers, LAUSD fires 21 a year. If you assume that that statistic applies to the last 15 years, you get over 300 tenured teachers fired in one District alone, during the same period when only 100 were fired by the state Commission. What conclusion can you draw from this? Well, primarily that relatively few cases are appealed to the Commission. But it tells us nothing about how many teachers are fired in California, nor about how easy it is for districts to do it.

Also, please note that the article only discusses tenured teachers, not probationary teachers who make up a significant minority of the state's teaching corps. "Bad teachers" are supposed to be weeded out during this probationary period, or the teacher is supposed to receive professional guidance and training. These teachers lack the contract and due-process protections of their more experienced colleagues, and so it is easy for administrators to go through them like chocolates. Any administrator can simply fire, or decline to re-hire, a probationary teacher at the end of the school year, and there are no appeals, no big cases, no shocking headlines. I remember a period in the late 1990's when my principal or her AP's would fire an average of two new teachers per year, out of a staff of over 100. That is significant.

If a probationary teacher survives this period of job insecurity, then by all means he/she is entitled to all the due-process protections the contract can provide. He/she earned it!

So, how many teachers in California get fired? This is all we know from the article:

1) Two-thirds of tenured teachers who appeal their cases to the state Commission.

2) An unknown number of tenured teachers whose cases don't reach the Commission stage.

3) An unknown number of probationary teachers.

And from the cases cited by the article, districts still win most of the time. But we still have no information about how "hard" it is to fire a teacher.

Thank goodness we teachers have a contract, a union and rights of due process to protect us! "Bad teachers" can and do get fired -- some firings are even documented in the article, at the bottom of p. A17 -- but good teachers have a fighting chance to fend off unfair, retaliatory or vindictive actions by their superiors. I know this, since I have been the target of a vindictive administrator myself. Every case is different, every teacher is different, so you get different results.

For more in-depth discussion of how statistics are used to mislead the public, please look up John Allen Paulos' excellent book A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper, at http://www.amazon.com/Mathematician-Reads-Newspaper-Allen-Paulos/dp/038548254X/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1242373119&sr=1-4

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