A review of Minnesota schools reveals a haphazard approach to dismissing teachers who fail in classrooms.
In Wayzata, a teacher kept his job despite extensive allegations that he spent most of his class time surfing the Internet.
In Minneapolis, the district paid a teacher $35,000 to resign, rather than try to fire her.
In the Anoka-Hennepin School District, the state's largest, officials can't remember the last time they fired a veteran teacher for incompetence.
As the debate about teacher quality intensifies in Minnesota, a Star Tribune investigation has found that bad teachers in the state hardly ever get fired. Rather than endure an expensive and contentious dismissal process, school districts instead turn to a patchwork of other methods to try to remove low-performing teachers. Those include paying them off or "counseling them out."
Minnesota does not tabulate how many teachers are fired for poor performance, but the practice appears rare. The closest indication is the main appeal route for fired teachers -- arbitration. Records show that since 1992, only 10 Minnesota teachers fired for poor performance have challenged their dismissals all the way through that process.
Many school administrators say that because it's so difficult to winnow out bad teachers, principals and superintendents pick their battles too carefully. The result, they say, creates a culture of indifference and indulgence.
"They only go down that path in the absolute worst possible scenario, where they don't have a choice," said Eastern Carver County Superintendent David Jennings, who has also served as a legislator and Minneapolis schools superintendent. "It institutionalizes mediocrity."
Despite overwhelming evidence that shows how important good teachers are to student learning, Minnesota has been hammered by one national study after another in recent months for not doing enough to fire bad teachers and having no system to evaluate them.
In January, the National Council on Teacher Quality gave Minnesota an "F" in "exiting ineffective teachers" on its annual report card on state teacher policies. The council also cited the state as one of 23 having no state policy for getting rid of bad teachers.
Meanwhile, Minnesota recently lost out on hundreds of millions of dollars in the federal "Race to the Top" competition for schools, partly because its teacher quality policies were deemed inadequate.
That painful, costly indictment of the state's education policies is provoking new debate between Gov. Tim Pawlenty and the state's powerful teachers union, Education Minnesota, about what's best for Minnesota's schools and how to judge teacher performance.
Pressure to crack down on low-performing teachers is rising. President Obama is urging schools to do "a better job of moving bad teachers out of the classroom once they've been given an opportunity to do it right." Pawlenty has proposed reworking the state's teacher tenure system to make it easier to get rid of bad teachers.
Union advocates say the problem isn't the law, but rather that administrators and principals don't intervene soon enough with problem teachers.
"If there are bad teachers, we aren't protecting them," said Anne Krisnik, general counsel for Education Minnesota. "The districts aren't identifying them."
How to fire a teacher
Firing a bad teacher requires a process much like firing any union employee, employment attorneys say. In most districts in Minnesota, teachers can be fired at the end of the school year for "inefficiency," "neglect of duty," "conduct unbecoming a teacher," or "other good and sufficient grounds." They can be removed from the classroom during the year for more egregious problems, such as insubordination, felony convictions and gross inefficiency.
The dismissal process can take months, cost districts tens of thousands of dollars, and require countless hours to collect evidence to convince an arbitrator that the teacher can't or won't improve. Students, parents and other teachers can be called to testify.
It's more common for teachers to leave on their own once school districts start the firing process or encourage their departure with financial incentives. This results in a puzzling system cloaked by data privacy laws, where few track how many teachers are pushed out the door. Some leave with promises of letters of recommendation.
Cost is a major reason districts seek ways around firing teachers, said Tom Dooher, president of Education Minnesota.
"The other part is the more humane part," he said. "They don't want to make a public spectacle."
Firing: An ugly public scene
The ugliness of public dismissals is clear in the records kept by the Bureau of Mediation Services.
In 2008, Julie Binko was an eighth-grade geography teacher at St. Paul's Hazel Park Middle School when the district decided to fire her. She refused to use the teaching techniques required at the school, district officials said, and she was uncooperative.
"Selected administration and faculty have made it their job responsibility to make my life at Hazel Park a living hell," Binko wrote in a "Get to Know You" letter to new Principal Coleman McDonough. "If I could retire today, I would -- and move to Montana."
According to Binko, 52, the school district ignored her 15-year career as a successful teacher and didn't clearly tell her how to improve or give her a chance to do so.
"I had students tell me they're helping Mr. McDonough get me fired," she said. "I have been wronged. There was nothing I could do."
The arbitrator upheld the dismissal, and Binko is still trying to decide whether to pursue the matter further, in the courts. To this point, the case has cost the district about $55,000, with all but a $10,000 deductible covered by insurance.
Going all out to fire a teacher doesn't always work.
In 2007, the Wayzata district tried to fire high school teacher Joshua Fischer, 33. Instead of teaching his computer-aided design classes, the district alleged, Fischer surfed the Internet.
A district look at his computer records showed he used online auction sites during class time. He bought his girlfriend an engagement ring and planned his wedding on district time. District records show that in 2007, between Oct. 8 and Nov. 6, his computer generated 53,931 hits over seven hours to online auction sites. On Oct. 8, he spent four hours and seven minutes, or 97 percent, of his class time online.
In Fischer's defense, a union technology expert testified before an arbitrator that the websites' automatic refreshing features could give the false impression that he was surfing them during class time. Fischer testified that some of the auction sites were used to bid on cars, boats and parts for the "Super Mileage" club, an extra-curricular activity he directed.
Students testified that he "spent an inordinate amount of time on his computer during class," the arbitrator wrote, but he ruled in Fischer's favor in July 2008, eight months after the school board voted to fire him.
Fischer, who didn't respond to repeated requests seeking a comment, was given a two-month suspension. He still teaches at the high school.
One employment attorney who works with school districts says principals and superintendents need to work harder to deal with teaching problems before they become crises.
"I think a lot of school administrators think the process is more onerous than it really is," said Minneapolis attorney Greg Madsen. "It is onerous if you're not willing to be critical along the way. ... Rarely does a district step in as early as it ought to."
Still, union officials, and even some administrators, say it should never be easy to fire a teacher.
"It's not easy, and it's not meant to be easy, nor should it be easy," said Anoka-Hennepin schools Superintendent Dennis Carlson. "We should spend all our efforts to improve them. We picked them."
Other exit strategies
The contentiousness and cost of such hearings drive districts to find other ways to get rid of bad teachers.
In 2007, for example, the Minneapolis School District paid a teacher a $35,000 settlement to resign. The district wrote that the payout would save money, because the teacher had planned to pursue a costly hearing. That's one of eight settlements that Minneapolis signed with district teachers between July 2007 and August 2009. Together, Anoka-Hennepin, Minneapolis and St. Paul signed 16 settlements in that time period. The reasons why the districts wanted the teachers to quit aren't clear.
In St. Paul, union records show that in the last year, at least 29 of the district's 3,300 teachers were on "performance improvement plans," the first step the district takes to help struggling teachers.
Seven of those teachers are still on the plans, and three of them will probably be recommended for firing at the end of the school year. Six have improved and been taken off the plans. The rest have left to take other jobs or agreed not to return under some sort of agreement. One was fired and lost in arbitration.
Sue Grissom, director of human resources for the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage schools, said that, in the past 10 years, the Burnsville district has considered firing seven teachers for poor performance, but all of them left without actually being fired. The reason that number isn't higher, Grissom said, is that the district is aggressive in removing sub-par teachers when they are still "on probation."
In Minnesota, new teachers are on probation for three years and can be fired for any reason. Experienced teachers who are new to a district are on probation for one year. After that, teachers are awarded what's commonly called tenure, and it's much harder to fire them.
It's important to be diligent in hiring and evaluating new teachers, Grissom said, "so you know what you're getting."
But principals and superintendents aren't always that thorough.
Tom Nelson, a former legislator and former superintendent in South Washington County and Buffalo, said he had principals so non-confrontational that they wouldn't even dump bad teachers during their probation period, when it's easiest to do.
"You have principals who will say, 'I want to get rid of this teacher,' and you go back and look, and they're the ones who tenured them."
Officials in the Anoka-Hennepin district said they couldn't recall a veteran teacher being fired for poor teaching.
However, district records do show that some new teachers are let go. The numbers are small. Out of 720 probationary teachers in 2005-06, 12 were let go for poor performance. This year, it's seven out of 340.
Sandra Skaar, president of Anoka-Hennepin's union, said the picture is incomplete. The actual number of teachers ushered out of the classroom, she said, is much higher. She estimated that 10 tenured teachers are "counseled out" of the district for ineffectiveness every year.
"What the public doesn't understand is the union and the district often get involved in counseling people out of positions," Skaar said. "Those are not done in a public way. ... It's not something even our teachers are all aware of."
Skaar said probationary teachers in Anoka-Hennepin are assessed every year by their principals. Tenured teachers are evaluated every fifth year. If there are concerns, she said, the evaluations can come more often.
A 2009 report from The New Teacher Project said that nationwide, districts fail to truly evaluate teachers. Schools don't distinguish great teachers from good teachers, or fair teachers from poor teachers. Many have no idea who their best teachers are, it says.
A local example of that is the Burnsville district, which evaluated all its teachers at the end of the 2006-07 school year as part of Pawlenty's merit pay program. It found that 603 teachers "exceeded standards," six "met standards," and not a single teacher fell below standards.
No system, few numbers
Though teachers, parents and principals know a bad teacher when they see one, no one knows how many there are. Neither the state nor many school districts evaluate teachers on a regular basis. One Minnesota teacher had gone 15 years without an evaluation before the district recommended firing him, Krisnik said.
What numbers are available are suspect. For example, although U.S. Department of Education data reported that Minnesota had a higher rate of dismissing teachers for poor performance in 2007-08 than the national average, few Minnesota school officials could readily provide that information. Short of going through personnel records, they said, they often rely on the memories of human resources directors.
Terminating ineffective teachers is crucial to any effort to raise student performance. According to a Stanford University researcher, removing the worst-performing 6 to 10 percent of teachers would boost American students' world standing from 29th to seventh on one measure of math achievement.
Other states appear to be doing more than Minnesota. Some states -- Florida and Delaware, for instance -- either track bad teacher dismissals or soon will. Florida schools fired 348 teachers during the 2008-09 school year for performance-related reasons.
What to do now?
Yet in Minnesota, the issue remains too sensitive for some school officials to talk about. A few Twin Cities school districts surveyed either would not or could not even estimate how often bad teachers are ushered out of the classroom. Minneapolis school officials declined to comment. So did Robbinsdale officials, who would say only that most teachers do a good job, and that the process for ensuring teacher quality is working.
Proposals at the Legislature to make it easier to fire poor teachers have gone nowhere.
Some critics of Education Minnesota, one of the top-spending lobbying groups at the Capitol, say the union's opposition to those proposals amounts to protecting teaching jobs at the expense of students. Union President Dooher, however, said that if there are bad teachers in classrooms, it's because of administrators.
The current system would work if principals and administrators had ongoing training on how to talk to and help struggling teachers, he said, "because these are really difficult conversations to have. ... Who wants to come up to somebody that they've worked with and say, 'You're not doing a good job?'"
Sen. David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, authored a bill this year to renew teacher tenure every five years. That would force schools to evaluate teachers regularly and make it easier to dismiss low performers, he said. Hann, who was on the Eden Prairie school board for eight years, said it stands to reason that there are bad teachers in Minnesota classrooms.
"I don't recall that the [Eden Prairie] board took action to dismiss a teacher for poor performance," he said. "And there were over 700 teachers in that district. I've worked in a large corporation before. It defies belief that you could have that many employees and have none of them fail to perform."
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