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Teachers' working conditions are students' learning conditions

Posted: 2014-04-11

This Op Ed appeared in the Contra Costa Times, April 4, 2014. The point here is important: The myths surrounding tenure are legion--and Tony Smith was pushing them in his op-ed. David B. Cohen commented on this piece, providing a link to his January piece Eight Problems with the Vergara Lawsuit. The trouble is most of the public doesn't read reasoned argument. They just engage in their favorite sport: teacher bashing.

The paper just identified Tony Smith as 'former Oakland school superintendent. Longtime Oakland teacher Jack Gerson, now retired, offer this close up view in Tony Smith leaves Oakland. . . in shambles. Watch out, Chicago!

Here's another Vergara link



by Betty Olson-Jones



It's interesting how so many people with limited or no classroom teaching are quick to weigh in on educational issues. From Bill Gates and Eli Broad to Michelle Rhee and now Tony Smith, these self-proclaimed education "reformers" are short on education experience and long on placing the blame for educational failures where it doesn't belong.



The recent opinion piece by Tony Smith, former superintendent of Oakland Unified School District is full of misleading and false statements that only serve to distract us from the real problems facing our schools.



Contrary to what Tony Smith and the plaintiffs in the Vergara v. California case contend, laws protecting teachers' rights don't punish children. When students in our poorest neighborhoods receive a substandard education, it's not because hordes of "bad teachers" are being protected at their expense.



Our students are punished by the chronic underfunding of schools, which denies them access to smaller class sizes, a balance of new and veteran teachers, a curriculum that includes both the arts and career training, and sufficient support services.



In my role as president of the Oakland Education Association, I worked closely with Smith for three years. During that time we talked often about the importance of having excellent teachers in every classroom and about how the conditions of work affect every teacher's ability to be effective.



Despite Smith's claim, no teacher has lifetime tenure. After two years on probation, a teacher may be granted "permanent status," which means they have the right to due process in the event of discipline or dismissal proceedings and cannot be dismissed for arbitrary or unfair reasons.



However, during the probationary period districts have the right under state law to dismiss teachers without cause. Smith is well aware that each year he was superintendent, the district routinely dismissed 50-70 new teachers before they could be granted permanent status.



Smith also claims that "once permanent employment is granted, it is nearly impossible to dismiss ineffective teachers for any reason other than criminal activity." This is untrue, and he knows full well that under his watch administrators were often negligent in doing their job of completing timely evaluations and documenting evidence of poor performance. Smith conveniently neglects to mention that the vast majority of teachers facing dismissal resign, retire, or reach settlement agreements with the district instead of going through a lengthy and costly process.



The laws he rails against provide all the tools needed to dismiss the few ineffective teachers in any district.



By blaming seniority for losing "passionate, hardworking, effective teachers" to budget-based layoffs, he pits new teachers against veteran teachers instead of focusing on the huge numbers of excellent teachers who regularly leave urban districts like Oakland.



By providing no criteria for determining whether a teacher is "effective," he leaves this decision to the whims of site administrators.



Instead of distorting facts to blame laws protecting teachers for inequitable education, why aren't Smith and other "reformers" more concerned that districts like Oakland lose so many good teachers each year because of difficult working conditions, large class sizes, lack of support services, low salaries, and poor administration?



Why don't they mention that of 300 new teachers who started working in Oakland in 2003, more than 76 percent had left by 2008?



If Smith was so concerned with excellent education in Oakland, why did he close five elementary schools in primarily minority neighborhoods and shut down adult education services to 25,000 parents and community members? Why didn't he focus on trying to get more funding for public education? Why is he trying to separate teachers' working conditions from our students' learning conditions?



Smith was just the latest in a string of carpetbaggers to descend on Oakland with big, empty promises. Let's hope he is the last.



Betty Olson-Jones is a fifth-grade teacher and former president of the Oakland Education Association.

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