by David Safier
RIncon and Palo Verde high schools are labeled "persistently low achieving schools" by the state. TUSD plans to fire the principals at both schools. It also plans to fire the staff and hire half of them back.
TUSD is right to see a problem, and I think the three school board members who voted for the plan — two voted against it — genuinely believe what they are doing will help the schools. But I fear they're doing more harm than good.
If the two principals are not doing a good job — don't look at test scores, look at their overall performance as principals — fire them, in the same way you would fire a bad principal at a high performing school. Don't transfer them. Don't kick them upstairs to the admin building (which is what my old school district used to do. The "Head Shed" was where bad principals went to die or retire, whichever came first). Get rid of them.
And if some of the teachers at the two schools are doing poor jobs, begin the process of getting rid of them as well. It's a longer process because of tenure protections, but do it anyway. And do the same to weak teachers at the rest of the district's schools while you're at it. I estimate about 10% of teachers in most school districts fall below the acceptable level. Teachers' unions should help districts in the weeding out process instead of fighting for the bad teachers in the mistaken notion that they're also protecting the rest.
But firing bad teachers, while a worthwhile idea, won't solve bigger problems in education. And it's a very bad idea to tell teachers at a school, "We're letting all of you go. You can reapply, and we'll take half of you back."
I saw this done in Portland. I had friends at a high school where the teachers were fired and had to reapply for their positions, gifted teachers who had worked their hearts out for their students (one was a creative writing teacher who published a nationally recognized magazine of her students' writing in a school where the kids "can't write") who felt so insulted, they left and reapplied at other schools. Their new students — more socially and economically advantaged — benefited, but the students who needed them most lost out.
We'll have to wait and see what happens, but I doubt if TUSD's best teachers at its other schools will be lining up to apply for the other half of the jobs at Rincon and Palo Verde. Why work twice as hard and deal with twice the stress — and good teachers work twice as hard and deal with twice the stress at schools like Rincon and Palo Verde than they do at schools with students who come from more advantaged families — and know you're going to have people breathing down your necks and scrutinizing your every move when you can stay where you are?
Are the best and the brightest teachers from other school districts going to apply at Rincon and Palo Verde? Not likely, especially since they'll be the new teachers who will most likely be the first people in line for layoffs when school funding is cut again.
So who are going to fill those positions? Probably not the best and brightest among experienced teachers. More likely they'll get a mix of bright-eyed, and not-so-bright-eyed young teachers who just want a job along with teachers who don't like the schools they're in and want to go somewhere else — or are given a shove by their principals to see if "you'll be happier at Rincon or at Palo Verde." I don't see how the replacement staff is going to be significantly more competent than the people they replace.
And there is a destructive message TUSD is sending to its teachers. The district is saying, Don't be a fool and go to work at a struggling school. If you do, there's a good chance you're going to get caught in a fire-rehire scenario. Teach at a school where the students already test reasonably well. It's safer.
Five years, ten years down the line, I don't think TUSD in general or Rincon and Palo Verde in particular are going to be better places because of this fire-rehire strategy. I've seen no evidence it has worked elsewhere.
Improving schools that need improvement is incredibly difficult. (It's my feeling that we're focusing in the wrong place when we try to "fix" schools and let poverty and other social ills run rampant in our society, which are primary causes of poor student achievement.) But firing and rehiring isn't the right way to do it.