The parents of Room 105 at West Woodland Elementary realized within two months of the start of the school year that their children’s second-grade teacher was incompetent.
The teacher, who’d just transferred in from another school, didn’t learn her kids’ names and bungled attendance rolls.
“How can she assess student progress and needs if she doesn’t know who they are?” read a letter to the Seattle School superintendent signed by parents of 20 kids.
The complaints went on: She didn’t grade any home work, or even assign basic math or spelling lessons. She mumbled instead of teaching, didn’t return parents’ emails, and left a naughty word scrawled on the white board for the kids to peek at.
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In the end, the parents of Room 105 voted with their feet. They staged a mass walkout late in the year, in 2011, keeping their kids home.
All that was missing was a picket line of second-graders.
This story, which I heard because my son goes to West Woodland, has stuck in my head amid debate raging over the “mutual consent” bill in Olympia.
Senate Bill 5242, a centerpiece reform of the Republican-dominated Senate Majority Coalition, gives principals veto power over otherwise mandatory seniority-based teacher transfers — known as “forced placements.” The teacher in Room 105 was a forced placement.
Some forced placements are high-quality teachers who’ve been displaced by enrollment or program changes. But at worst, some are the result of “The Dance of the Lemons” — the career drift, from school to school, of teachers who just don’t cut it, but aren’t cut loose.
Mutual consent is the law in New York City, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Baltimore and the state of Colorado. Seattle already uses it at its six lowest-performing schools, as well as at its creative-approach and international schools.
But it is clear forced-placement teachers disproportionately land in Seattle’s high-poverty schools.
An analysis by state Reps. Eric Pettigrew and Reuven Carlyle, Seattle Democrats who support SB 5242, estimates that eight teachers (out of a total of 44) at Aki Kurose Middle School in the Rainier Valley were force-placed in the last three years. Compare that with the districtwide average of six total forced-placements per school between 2001-13.
Pettigrew said picking a teacher solely by seniority, and not by personality, enthusiasm or skills, undercuts potential for a turnaround. “The forced-placement process is very detrimental for schools in my district because it breeds inconsistency and instability,” he said.
Principals should be captains of their own ship. In Seattle, they are held accountable for their students’ performance. Shouldn’t they be able to pick their crew?
With that, and Room 105, in mind, I started reporting this column as a fan of mutual consent. But it is now clear that SB 5242 creates new problems.
It would likely force districts to pay a pool of unplaceable teachers for a year, at least, reminiscent of New York’s infamous “rubber room.” And given the controversy, it assures administrative appeal after appeal.
It’s also seeking to solve a problem whose solution — rigorous teacher evaluations — is already under way. Beginning this upcoming school year, teachers will be rated, from one to four. Two straight years of poor ratings, without improvement, is grounds for firing.
Layering mutual consent on top of this accountability is one reason the Washington Association of School Principals opposes SB 5424. ”You’ve got to give that a chance to see if it works, or doesn’t work,” said the association’s Jerry Bender.
About a third of Seattle’s schools have implemented rigorous teacher evaluations that were bargained in its 2010 union contract, with more coming on line.
The results are striking: Before, about 16 teachers, out of 3,300 districtwide, got an unsatisfactory rating each year. Now, about 45 poor-rated teachers are leaving the district each year — and that’s before the system is districtwide.
SB 5242 is flawed. But waiting for full rollout of the evaluation reform across the state — which takes at least two years to weed out poor teachers — requires students to wait.
What is the cost of a lost year of instruction?
For the parents in Room 105, it took just a year. The teacher, who is 63, left teaching at the end of that school year.
It is absurd that it took a year of sweat by highly-motivated parents — at an affluent North Side school, with a strong and well-respected principal — to do it. It shouldn’t be that hard.
Jonathan Martin’s column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org