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When you have a problem with a mediocre teacher...

When you have a problem with a mediocre teacher, what's easier: firing them or turning them around?

Purposefully leaving a child stranded after a field trip-a real occurrence-is a blatant form of teacher incompetence. Having child pornography on a school computer-another real event-may also clearly violate school policies, leaving a teacher in the hot seat. But just being a mediocre teacher is a more difficult issue for districts to handle.

Getting rid of bad apples, or teachers in this case, is not as difficult as it might be perceived. Gone are the days when teachers, especially tenured teachers, glided through their careers unless there was something egregious.

"Some people think that dismissing a teacher with tenure is impossible," says LeRoy Hay, director of Alternate Route to Certification, Connecticut Department of Higher Education. "It's not impossible. It's just harder."

"It's not such a prohibitive subject," adds Janet Bass of the American Federation of Teachers. "The fact is that the AFT has been very involved in this for, gosh, 15 or 20 years ... Teachers don't want a bad teacher teaching next door to them because it's bad for students. And if there is a bad teacher teaching second grade ... then it's going to affect the third-grade teacher and fourth-grade teacher and so on."

Compared to 10 or more years ago, there is more attention on accountability on the part of entire districts-from teachers to superintendents, adds Joseph Cirasuolo, leadership development consultant at American Association of School Administrators.

But Hay says in this age of No Child Left Behind mandates that administrators have too much on their plates as it is, and focusing on evaluation processes has fallen. "The evaluation is a time-consuming piece," Hay adds.

But some districts are taking a different tack. A few districts across the U.S. have clear policies on how to deal with new and tenured teachers and how to help teachers ditch their sloppy or lazy ways.

"Everyone knows who the good teachers are and who the poor teachers are," says Indiana's Rossville Consolidated School District Superintendent James W. Hanna. "And if we can change that it's better for the kids and better for the teachers."

Sometimes teachers are nudged out the door and sometimes they are fired but many times they are reformed. Here are some examples to ensure good teachers stay and not so good teachers go.

Defining a Bad Teacher

Each state has a series of laws regarding teacher tenure and termination, which vary from state to state.

"Document, document, document," advises Gayden Carruth, AASA superintendent in residence. "Your job is to document the conduct you see. You can't just say you don't want this person working anymore."

"Everyone knows who the good teachers are and who the poor teachers are." -James W. Hanna, superintendent, Rossville (Ind.) Consolidated School District

The top three trouble spots for teachers that would lead them to be under review include incompetence; insubordination; and committing an immoral act, such as having child pornography on a school computer.

"The bottom line is ... the most emotionally painful but easiest issues are those that involve a moral issue," says Carruth.

If a teacher is having sex with a student, the case is likely turned over to the state's division of family services, when teachers are put on paid leave and not let back into the school building, says Carruth, also former superintendent in Minnesota, Virginia and Missouri. Sexual-related statements or showing R-rated movies to students could violate school policy, Carruth adds, and sometimes teachers simply need to be told it's unacceptable. They might not even know they are violating policies and such cases never arise again, she says.

But "dereliction of duties, like going on a field trip and leaving a student behind [intentionally] requires little documentation to call for dismissal, Carruth adds.

Incompetence is trickier. "What is incompetent or not is a matter of judgment," Cirasuolo says. "The school district's administrators must set clear standards for teacher performance and make it clear that performance that does not meet the standards is regarded as incompetence."

Unless the act was egregious, he says, the teacher is subjected to some type of due process and, in most states, that means at least a hearing before the Board of Education. In Connecticut, for example, an arbitration panel will consist of the teacher's representative, an administration's representative and a neutral arbitrator, chosen by the other two. "The burden of proof is on the administration," Cirasuolo says. "They have to prove the teacher was incompetent."

If the district lacks clear standards it then becomes "almost impossible" to prove incompetence, unless the teacher leaves students alone for a period of time, for example. "There's a big difference between leaving children unsupervised and not teaching reading in an effective manner," Cirasuolo says.

If the board decides to fire a teacher, the teacher can still go to court, which will put everything on the table-asking: Were the standards for performance clearly established? Did people know about them? And are the standards themselves reasonable? If one standard is to ensure every third grader in the district passes a state test in reading, "most judges would say it's impossible," Cirasuolo says. "It becomes a long, costly process."

And the shot at winning the case is 50/50, he says.

Another example of incompetence can be the mediocre teacher "whose performance is a serious hindrance to have every child meet performance standards as required by No Child Left Behind. Their performance is not great, but not horrible. There is no statute that says you can fire someone for being mediocre," Cirasuolo says.

Some have suggested that tenure statutes be reformed. In Connecticut, for example, new teachers get a one-year contract for the first four years of teaching. In many states, teachers get tenure after only three years. And some districts, particularly in poor and rural districts, have been forced to hire teachers that had only minimal preparation, Cirasuolo adds.

Examples of insubordination involve teachers who spend only an hour on reading in class but the school policy is 90 minutes, or teachers who fail to write lessons plans, and the teacher ignores calls to change. After two or three warnings, say from an assistant principal, the teacher can then be suspended without pay and eventually fired, Cirasuolo says.

Committing an immoral act could be inappropriately touching students or even driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. But is DUI enough to fire a teacher?

"Case law in morality is interesting," Cirasuolo says. "It says that whether or not it's immoral depends on whether it violates the moral standards of the community."

Other red flags can be a lack of classroom management, where teachers are unable to manage students constructively; or they may lack organizational skills whereby they cannot organize their daily routine for instruction well; and sometimes teachers have not mastered content that they must relate to students, according to Francine Lawrence, president of the Toledo (Ohio) Federation of Teachers, an affiliate of American Federation of Teachers.

"If someone is having problems, everyone in the school knows about it," Lawrence says. "The teachers next door know. The teachers in the next grade level know and usually a chief symptom is classroom management that spills out in the hallway" such as having students taken to a specialist or many students referred to the main office, she adds.

Building a Case

The Alternate Route to Certification at the Connecticut Department of Higher Education offers every first-year teacher with a retired teacher or administrator to serve as a coach. Up to 350 teachers per year take advantage of the program. The greatest benefit is that the retired teacher is not connected to the school so the new teacher does not feel pressure that the coach will go back to administrators and kiss-and-tell, according to Hay. Coaches are available by phone, e-mail or in person. The only time coaches report to Hay or to the building principal is when there is a safety or moral issue, he says.

The largest recurring problems for beginning teachers are classroom management and modifying instruction for special needs kids. The coach can offer suggestions to try to improve classroom management. "My observation with this program and the key to coaching any teacher is immediacy," Hay says. "Get it when it's there. You can send him or her to workshops, give formal evaluations and what you really need is a relationship to work out the problem together."

Sometimes classroom management specialists are called in to help after the coach has exhausted every idea.

To avoid classroom management as a problem, Hay suggests that new teachers make their expectations of students very clear-even put in writing-at the beginning of the school year. Under the program, the success rate in keeping new teachers in their jobs is about 90 percent, Hay adds.

The Toledo Plan

About 25 years ago, the union in Toledo, Ohio, got serious.

The Toledo Federation of Teachers, an AFT affiliate, negotiated for three separate collective bargaining plans before administrators agreed in 1981 to the program-The Toledo Plan. Like Hay's program, the agreement established an intern program for every new teacher, who would have a consulting teacher as a mentor for the first full year. It also established a program for veteran teachers whose classroom performance was problematic in some way. The idea was to help build a "more genuine profession for teachers" and create more effective schools, Lawrence says. "In a real profession, like law or medicine, attorneys and physicians set their performance standards but they also enforce them," Lawrence says. "That's what this is about."

All new teachers in Toledo are part of the Intern Program. Lawrence and an assistant superintendent, co-chairs of the Intern Board of Review, determine each new teacher's status after attending the New Teachers Academy before school starts. The board of review consists of five union and four management representatives and accepts or rejects evaluation recommendations from consulting teachers, or mentor teachers.

Intern teachers are assigned a consulting teacher to evaluate them in the classroom and help them with professional development. The intern and consulting teacher set practical goals for improvements based on detailed evaluations. The consulting teacher often uses demonstration lessons, videotapes and observations of other teachers for assistance.

When problems erupt for tenured teachers and some intervention or mentoring is needed, denial tends to surface. "Usually at the beginning, human nature takes over and there will be some resistance, but after time they try to improve," Lawrence says.

Some tenured teachers end up retiring early. A severe case will cause a termination hearing, with all evidence compiled by the consulting teacher. The status report goes to the co-chairs of the Intern Board of Review.

Since it's been established, more than 300 teachers have been released under the plan-and without any issue between the union and administration.

Bad Apple Improvement

It was only three years ago when Rossville Consolidated School District in Indiana chucked the old teacher evaluation, which was merely a checklist, according to Superintendent Hanna. "We knew there were teachers in the district that weren't performing up to par," Hanna says. "The previous instrument really didn't take care of that. There was no staff development or professional development piece to it."

Under the new evaluation, Bad Apple Improvement: A Focused Teacher Evaluation System, student outcomes became the focus. Two out of three cases of poor teachers have had happy endings, with teachers correcting their mistakes and becoming better teachers, Hanna says. The teacher in question is notified of problems and has 15 days to request a meeting before the Board of Education, Hanna says. The board could then move from evaluation to cancellation of the contract. By May 1, a written notice of non-renewal is sent to the teacher, which could lead to an open conference explaining the reasons.

"In a real profession, like law or medicine, attorneys and physicians set their performance standards but they also enforce them."
-Francine Lawrence, president, Toledo Federation of Teachers

Three procedures are used to assess teacher work: Baseline Evaluation; Standard Evaluation; and Intensive Evaluation. They all have checklists with six standards to meet in such areas as: planning and presenting organized instruction; classroom management; motivation; assessment; human relations and communications; and professional responsibilities.

Every new teacher is evaluated by a school principal using two classroom observations under the baseline evaluation. If they are found to be acceptable, they can move to the semi-permanent status, or if unacceptable, they can face discharge.

The semi-permanent teacher, with two to four years of experience, has a baseline teacher evaluation that is either found to be acceptable or unacceptable, which leads to an intensive teacher evaluation.

A tenured teacher is also evaluated under a baseline teacher evaluation which can be acceptable or not, which then also requires an intensive evaluation procedure.

All teachers complete a professional growth plan to enhance their classroom performance. Intensive evaluations mean teachers must work cooperatively with their building administrator to complete the Intensive Assistance Plan as part of the professional development plan. The principal makes the problems clear to teachers and suggests some areas to help teachers solve problems.

By March of the school year, the principal goes to Hanna with a decision if the teacher should continue on the intensive plan or go to the baseline or standard form-or even send the teacher for possible termination proceedings to the Board of Education, Hanna says.

"We want the best teachers we can possibly get," Hanna says. "And the teacher knows the principal will recommend to me to not renew the contract in the first or second year" if there are problems, he says.

The two teachers that were placed on intensive plans over the past three years worked with mentor teachers and eventually met the principal's goals and objectives-within two years, Hanna says. "We want something that focuses on the kids," Hanna explains. "It's about what you do as a professional ... so that you're providing better instruction for kids. That's really the key."

Tenure in Review

The focus is on non-tenured teachers in the first three years at Blue Valley Schools in Overland Park, Kansas, according to Deputy Superintendent of Administrative Services Al Hanna, no relation to Superintendent James Hanna.

Every building principal is assisted by peer facilitators, who are top teachers that work with and guide new teachers. "Previously, [about a decade ago] teachers received tenure unless there was a clear reason that indicated it was not warranted," Al Hanna says. "Now, we use a system where we ask principals to review tenure candidates and to be sure there is a reason to give them tenure. We truly want to have outstanding individuals working with our children."

The number of non-renewed teacher contracts is slightly up over the last few years, but there is more communication between administrators and teachers and more teachers decide on their own "to resign from the district each spring," Al Hanna says.

If problems erupt, such as an inability to assess if children are learning or not, principals sit down with those teachers and explain the problems. There are usually three phases: 1. A normal appraisal, which means everything is fine; 2. There's a problem that must be addressed; and 3. There's a serious problem and a teacher's job is in jeopardy.

Mediocre teachers are mainly new teachers, Al Hanna says. Administrators make it clear to teachers as to what specific teaching standards they are not meeting and suggest ways to improve that. If they don't improve over time, "principals tell them that we need to look for someone else. We think we owe it to our kids."

But tenured teachers can also "slip" as one did last spring. Such cases might involve not keeping proper Individualized Educational Plans for special education students, which is putting the district at risk due to strict government mandates, Al Hanna says. "Or maybe the classroom teacher lost desire to work with kids," he adds.

It's a long process to ax a tenured teacher, Al Hanna admits, but the facilitator and administrators work with the teacher in question. "We make them aware. We give them reasonable time to turn around," he says. If the contract is not renewed in the spring, the teacher has a right to a hearing and an independent hearing officer can be available for a mini-trial over a few days. But the district has the burden of proof and the hearing officer decides the teacher's fate.

Where to Draw the Line?

If a Toledo teacher is trying to meet the high expectations of districts and still not meeting standards, particularly in cases where he or she is not teaching up to par, it's up to the consulting teacher to recommend action.

"The consulting teachers have the experience and can detect when enough time has been spent," for change but they don't see it, Lawrence says. They can say that satisfactory classroom performance is not occurring, for example, and continued mentoring is not advisable, she says. The Board of Review decides if a teacher is terminated or not, Lawrence says. The district union governing board also overlooks the process. "It's not in the interest of any teacher to have any incompetent teacher next door to them," Lawrence says. "Our union is heavily involved in school reform."

Hanna in Indiana says if a first- or second-year teacher is having problems and is on the intensive plan and there is no substantial improvement, you must ask, is this person salvageable? Or should they go elsewhere?

A tenured teacher can go through due process and claim they were not insubordinate or if they committed an immoral act, like charged with drunk driving, they can say it doesn't affect their ability to teach. It will mean months spent in court and thousands of dollars spent. The teacher might agree to resign but is kept on paid leave for some time and receives benefits "That's a good thing for the district because the incompetent person is gone. But it's not great for the taxpayer" who must pay settlement costs, Cirasuolo says.

"Document, document, document. Your job is to
document the conduct you see. You can't just say
you don't want this person working anymore."
-Gayden Carruth, superintendent in residence, AASA

In cases of immoral acts particularly, Cirasuolo would recommend the case go to the Chief State School Officer so the teacher's license can be revoked. "Many people are coached out of the profession and if you are very clear that you don't think this person is meeting the expectations of teaching, very few people want to stay where they are not wanted," Cirasuolo says.

Gaining Ground

Many district leaders, including those in Chicago, Syracuse, N.Y., Minneapolis, Los Angeles and Cincinnati, have reviewed Toledo's plan and are adopting or have adopted similar programs. The problem in many districts comes when they still adopt a top-down management approach whereby administrators are evaluating teachers and rarely dismiss poor teachers, educators agree.

Al Hanna in Kansas says, "Teachers are not running scared but they know their expectations to meet their level of performance. And most parents moved here for the quality of this district and we need to maintain that quality of education."

Angela Pascopella is senior features editor.