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Put the Squeeze on Lemon Teachers

I wasn’t even trying to get under their skin. But not since Sister Roberta smacked me in the head with a sixth-grade spelling workbook have I so enraged the teaching profession.

This would be understandable if I had beaten up on teachers. But I barely mentioned them last week in a column about the stalled progress on math and English test scores for California’s public school children.

Sure, I said that teachers unions resist reforms and protect tired old dogs, but for the most part I defended teachers. I said we can’t expect schools to excel with limited resources, lazy parents and huge numbers of poor students, many of whom don’t speak English.

“So it’s the old-school teachers union and union teachers who are the problem? I beg to differ, Mr. Lopez,” wrote teacher Maureen Sloan.

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I’m afraid I have to give Ms. Sloan a D-minus for reading comprehension.

“I am one of those old dogs you mentioned,” wrote teacher Barbara Morgan, “but I am not tired.”

As a graybeard myself, I can identify with that.

“I’m taking back my vote for you for governor,” wrote teacher Mary Langley, who said she works from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. at her school and does two more hours of homework. “Would you like a little blood too?”

Since there seems to be so much confusion and thin skin out there, allow me to clarify.

Yes, I’m aware the vast majority of teachers are hardworking souls dedicated to improving the lives of children, and some of them are practically miracle workers.

Yes, I know some principals and administrators are dopes.

Yes, I’m aware there can be too much emphasis on testing, sometimes at the cost of true learning.

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No, I am not anti-union. As a union member for most of my career, I know the many advantages, but that doesn’t mean I’m blind to the problems.

Everyone knows that at virtually every school, there’s a teacher or two, or three, or four, who aren’t pulling their weight. Why are they never given up by other teachers, and why are they never run out of the building?

“It costs about $200,000 to take a person through the process of kicking them out,” says Roy Romer, chief of the Los Angeles Unified School District. “A lot of administrators are hesitant to start the process because they know how laborious it can be.”

Tim Buresh, chief operating officer for the district, said two teachers were fired last year, and that roughly a dozen more are collecting full pay while sitting at home as their cases are reviewed.

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“We’ve had a lot more teachers arrested than fired,” Buresh told me, saying that drug and sex crimes are the most common offenses. “It’s not only easier but it’s faster to get criminal convictions than to get through the termination process.”

I don’t mean to pick on L.A. teachers in particular, but roughly 7% of the district’s teachers call in sick every day. That’s a much higher rate than the national average, and last year, the district spent $172 million on substitutes.

It also spent $2 million on bonuses and retirement account incentives to lure teachers into the classroom more often. Asked about those incentives earlier this year, an executive with United Teachers Los Angeles called the $2 million peanuts.

OK, wait a minute here.

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The district is paying $2 million, on top of salaries, just to get teachers to show up.

And that’s peanuts?

Would a ruler across the knuckles be more effective?

L.A. school board member Mike Lansing had another bone or two to pick with the union. He said he was made to feel “like the antichrist” for suggesting that teachers at some schools ought to be working 180 days a year instead of 163.

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“The standard for most countries is 200 to 220, with 180 minimum,” Lansing said.

His other problem is teachers’ resistance to performance reviews. They simply do not want anyone peering into the classroom telling them how to do their jobs, nor do they want to have their abilities judged on the basis of student test scores.

OK, before I close, and before hundreds more teachers race to their computers to send me poison darts, allow me to repeat:

We know that most of you are unsung and underappreciated, if not underpaid. We know you do great work under ever more difficult circumstances that include unruly kids, uncooperative parents, and the aforementioned dopey principals and administrators.

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Thank you.

“I know for a fact that I have thousands of very good teachers,” said Buresh. “But their reputations are being tarnished by the lemons we can’t get out of the profession. That’s not fair to the good teachers, and it’s certainly not fair to the children.”

Steve Lopez writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. Reach him at steve.lopez@latimes.com and read previous columns at latimes.com/lopez


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