My turn: Here’s what’s at the root of L.A. teachers’ complaint

By Glenn Sacks, Special to CALmatters

United Teachers of Los Angeles’ announced Wednesday that it is breaking off negotiations with the Los Angeles Unified School District and will strike on Jan. 10 unless there is a substantial change in the district’s bargaining position.

In nearly two years of bargaining, the district has offered teachers nothing beyond a modest cost of living adjustment, and even that necessitated 18 months of negotiations.

Teachers’ issues are fundamental, among them: bloated class sizes, lack of full-time nurses in 80 percent of Los Angeles schools, annual waves of destructive layoffs, and a student-counselor ratio so bad that UTLA’s demand is to bring it down to 500-1.

The district has legitimate financial issues. However, the district has repeatedly projected deficits which don’t materialize. Moreover, the district’s reserve is now almost $2 billion, an unprecedented figure. Why is the district refusing to act to improve our schools?

L.A. Unified Superintendent Austin Beutner seems to think teachers are not doing a good job. The district ties its offer of a 6 percent salary increase to the insulting mandate that teachers get extra training. Moreover, Beutner has pledged to “manage ineffective teachers out.”

Union opponents commonly claim that teachers’ unions shield ineffective teachers. But what Beutner and many others don’t understand is that when teachers who are ineffective continue to teach, it is managerial and structural deficiencies, not union contract provisions, that are usually the culprit.

To identify struggling or ineffective teachers, administrators need to randomly drop in on classes to observe. I’ve taught at public and private schools, union and nonunion, but I’ve never been at a school where this was done.

This is not because administrators are lackadaisical. Chronic under-staffing often leaves them time to do the required and scheduled observations but little more. When these observations are conducted, even ineffective teachers can usually survive them because they know about them in advance and can prepare their students.

It is not unreasonably difficult to fire an ineffective teacher. When administrators fail in efforts to fire a teacher they view as ineffective, it’s usually because they did not put in the time to do the required observations, meetings, and documentation.

Some critics of teachers unions recommend extending teachers’ probationary period as a way to give administrators more opportunity to weed out ineffective teachers. Legislators have sought to raise the probationary period from two years to three years. While on paper two years might not sound burdensome, in practice it often is, particularly in LAUSD.

I am in my fifth year in LAUSD and I am still a probationary teacher. Yet my three evaluations have all been “Exceeds Standard Performance,” I’ve never arrived late to work, and have only missed one day—for a funeral—in five years. How is this possible?

To obtain tenure, one must complete two consecutive years as a contracted full-time teacher. Given L.A. Unified’s frequent layoffs, this isn’t easy. I worked my first year as a contracted full-time teacher and then, lacking seniority, I got laid off.

My principal maneuvered to bring me back as a long-term substitute the following year, and then the year after that. I taught every single school day for those three years, but none of them counted towards the two years needed to become permanent.

To this day, the district can fire me at any time without cause, and I have no right to contest it. My circumstances, unfortunately, are not rare.

When teachers are not effective, the focus should not be on firing them. It should be on how to make them more effective. The biggest enemy of effective classroom teaching is the excessive class sizes, burdensome paperwork, pervasive under-staffing, and scant planning time that sap teachers’ effectiveness.

Many ineffective teachers can be set right simply by giving them smaller class sizes or more planning time. Mentoring often offered from experienced colleagues and administrators can be helpful, but teachers are so pressed for time they can’t give this assistance proper attention.

If Beutner is truly concerned about teachers not doing their jobs properly, the solution is obvious: Make it easier for teachers to do their jobs.

Glenn Sacks teaches at James Monroe High School and is co-chair of United Teachers of Los Angeles at Monroe High, [email protected]. He wrote this commentary for CALmatters.

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