Next leader of L.A. schools vows to remove ‘bad teachers’
Los Angeles’ incoming schools chief vowed Thursday to make removing “bad teachers” a major focus of his plan to improve schools -- and made clear he was willing to sacrifice his early popularity over the issue.
“I’m going to be unpopular,” said David L. Brewer, who is expected to take over as schools superintendent by the middle of next month.
“It’s called the right teacher in the right classroom in the right school.... Some people do not belong in the classroom, OK? They don’t belong there. We’re gonna get them out. The question is how is the system going to react to the way we get them out.”
Brewer, 60, made the comments as part of a wide-ranging discussion with Times reporters and editors about his early impressions of the Los Angeles Unified School District and his plans to reform the nation’s second-largest school system.
During the hourlong conversation, Brewer repeated his belief that dropouts remain one of the district’s greatest problems.
He reiterated his intent to forge ties with city agencies that serve poor, at-risk children and said he would focus on a quick, dramatic overhaul of the district’s long-overlooked middle schools. Brewer also indicated that he plans to streamline the mammoth district by slashing the size of its bureaucracy.
But in promising to take on poorly performing teachers, the retired Navy admiral steered headlong into perhaps the most volatile waters he will navigate as superintendent.
School principals and other administrators often bemoan the time and effort it takes to remove ineffective teachers, citing the extensive job protection granted in the union contract and under state law as a key barrier to reforming a school.
It is a frequently made charge that angers union leaders, who say teachers deserve and need the protection to defend against incompetent or vindictive principals.
When read a transcript of Brewer’s comments, A.J. Duffy, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, said the incoming superintendent has much to learn about the school district.
“He’s also going to have to understand that a major cause of problems at schools are principals and assistant principals who are not team builders or team leaders,” Duffy said.
“I hope he schools himself in the issue of administrators who are top-down, ‘Do what I say’ people rather than ... team-building, collaborative people who regard and respect classroom teachers,” Duffy said.
“We will continue to fight tooth and nail to protect our folks who are speaking out at school sites and representing teachers.”
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa also focused Thursday on the role of teachers in the effort, but he emphasized reforming what he called an oversized bureaucracy that thwarts the best efforts of a mostly superlative teaching corps.
“The key to reform has to be a partnership with teachers,” the mayor told a gathering of about 60 school union representatives and others in a Presbyterian church in the Wilshire district.
Under state law, school districts can dismiss teachers during their first two years on the job without providing a reason. After two years, administrators must meticulously document poor performance over time, formally declare the intention to dismiss the teacher and then give the instructor time to improve. It is an often-futile process, district officials say, that can take years to complete.
As of last year, Los Angeles Unified administrators had attempted to dismiss 112 permanent teachers -- a small fraction of the district’s roughly 37,000 instructors -- over the last decade. Some were fired; most resigned or retired.
Brewer acknowledged the dangers and difficulties of trying to push burnt-out or ineffective teachers from the classroom.
“That’s the third rail. That’s Social Security, and I know it. And I’m just going to have to put my hand on it. And I know it’s going to be tough. I’m going to be vilified. I’m going to get called all kinds of names.”
He offered no details on how he would follow through, but indicated that after being given a chance to improve, some teachers would be transferred to nonclassroom assignments while others would be encouraged to retire.
“I’m not saying you need to be unfair. You need to go in there and coach and work and train and do all the professional development you can,” he said. “But there’s an old saying: There are two kinds of birds: chickens and eagles. If you throw an eagle up, eventually it’s going to fly. If you throw a chicken up in the air, all it’s going to do is poop on you. Eventually, you got to understand it’s a chicken and leave ‘em in the yard.”
Brewer and Duffy are scheduled to meet for the first time next week over dinner. When they do, Duffy probably will have other concerns to raise.
On Thursday, Brewer praised the district’s implementation of Open Court, a reading program that provides teachers with scripted lesson plans and is required in nearly all elementary schools. Union officials strongly oppose what they characterize as overreliance on centralized programs, saying they can stifle teachers and overemphasize standardized testing.
Villaraigosa indicated that he too has concerns about mandated teaching plans.
“The art of teaching is every bit as important as the science of teaching,” Villaraigosa said.
Brewer, the mayor and Duffy seem to share a common view, however, on the school system’s bureaucracy. Duffy and Villaraigosa have called for the district to make cuts to what they say are its bloated ranks.
“There are too many administrators in the district ... and they know I intend to do something about that,” the mayor said.
Brewer sounded a similar note Thursday, saying he had made it clear during his job interviews with the Board of Education that he intended to slim down the district’s roster of roughly 36,000 administrators and support staff.
“I said: ‘I hate bureaucracy. So I’m going to go after this piece, OK? I’m going to transform this organization. You want me? That’s what you’re going to get,’ ” Brewer recounted.
And after outgoing Supt. Roy Romer’s focus on reforms in elementary and high schools, Brewer pledged to turn his attention to improving instruction in the middle schools.
With many students promoted each year to high school unprepared for the increased rigor and many middle- and upper-class parents opting to remove their children from the district after elementary school, Brewer said he expects “to go after the middle schools with reckless abandon.”
“If the community works with me and gets me the support I need,” he said, “I will fix the middle-school problem in the next two or three years -- no problem.”