Educators debate length of teacher probationary period

How long does it take to recognize whether a newly hired teacher is a long-term asset?

That is the debate currently moving through five local school districts where board members are considering resolutions in support of increasing the teacher probationary period from two years to three, angering unions who contend the move would unfairly keep new-hires in a state of flux.

The discussion started within the Five Star Coalition — a consortium of neighboring school districts, including Glendale, Burbank, Pasadena, South Pasadena and La Cañada — and has since moved on to individual districts. In May, the La Cañada Unified school board passed a resolution in support of the change. The remaining districts are slated to reach a decision in the coming weeks.

At the heart of the debate is how much time, and what types of support, newly-hired teachers need to develop and demonstrate their abilities in the classroom. It also reflects a larger, national dialogue about education reform that includes funding, seniority, teacher evaluations and dismissals.

New teachers in California work under probationary status for two years, after which time a district can either fire them or make them a permanent employee, a position that is far more difficult for administrators to cut.

Some argue that the existing timeframe is not enough to make a decision that will impact a generation of students. Lay-off notices must go out by March 15, leaving administrators just 18 months to give a new teacher the green light or the boot, they say.

Last year, state Sen. Bob Huff (R-Diamond Bar) and Assemblyman Felipe Fuentes (D-Sylmar) authored legislation that would have expanded the probationary period. Both bills eventually stalled, but the call for change has not.

While there is a small percentage of hires on either end of the spectrum — instant standouts or obvious flops — most need additional time and support to show what they can really do in the classroom, said Glendale High School Principal Deb Rinder.

“I think the most important [decision] a principal will make is who they decide to keep on their team,” Rinder said. “The research will tell you that the biggest impact on student achievement is a good teacher. And as a principal, I take that challenge very seriously. That teacher will affect 150 kids a day for the next 30 years, so I don’t enter into that decision lightly.”

But opponents say that expanding the probationary term would further beleaguer a profession already under attack. Many government bodies are taking advantage of a difficult economic climate to ram through unnecessary changes, said Burroughs High School teacher Jerry Mullady at a recent school board meeting, adding that there is no evidence that the change would benefit anyone.

“No study has shown that students get a better education, or it makes teachers better or it saves money,” Mullady said.

Teachers are already overly exposed to layoffs and pay cuts amid ongoing budget reductions, Burbank Teachers Assn. President Lori Adams said. Increasing the probationary period to three years just further erodes their professional stability.

“Teaching in today’s public schools is different than working at a bank or another private institution,” Adams said. “If you get arbitrarily fired at a bank, you can go across the street to another bank and apply for a job. If you are released from a district, you are run out of town. You don’t get a job from any other school in town.”

Administrators and board members in favor of moving to a three-year probationary term maintain they are not trying to punish teachers, arguing that if they are performing to standards, they have nothing to worry about.

When he first started his teaching career, Burbank Unified Supt. Stan Carrizosa said the probationary period was three years. Reverting to that might be appropriate now that the expectations and demands on new teachers are all the more intense, he added.

“I agree if it is just more time to do the same thing, it is not going to matter at all,” Carrizosa said. “But if it is more time to be able to approach it a little bit differently, it could have an effect.”

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