Most education experts agree that the quality of teachers is the most important factor in the level of education students receive. A 2006 Brookings Institution study of Los Angeles public schools concluded that having a top-quartile teacher rather than a bottom-quartile teacher four years in a row would be enough to close the considerable black-white test score gap.
Yet it is nearly impossible for principals and school districts to dismiss a poorly performing or even a totally incompetent teacher.
Only a tiny percentage of teachers are fired for any reason, and few of them are for lack of competence. In 2009-10, the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing received 5,723 reports of teacher misconduct.
Law enforcement accounted for 94 percent of them, and only 202 credentials were revoked that year.
While the vast majority of teachers are dedicated professionals, as is true in any other profession, there are incompetent educators.
Unlike most other professions in the private sector, however, firing a teacher for poor performance is comparatively rare. That, in part, is because of the expensive, tedious and timely process that is required before a teacher is dismissed or loses a credential.
An extensive Los Angeles Times study in 2009 found that building a case for dismissal is so time-consuming, costly and draining for principals and administrators that many say they don't make the effort except in the most egregious cases.
The vast majority of firings stem from blatant misconduct, including sexual abuse, other immoral or illegal behavior, insubordination or repeated violation of rules such as not showing up on time.
Firing a teacher solely because he or she can't teach is rare. In 80 percent of the dismissals that were upheld, classroom performance was not even a factor.
Certainly, teachers thought to be incompetent deserve due process, including a chance to reform. Clearly, however, it is far too difficult to get rid of bad teachers in California, which provides protections that go beyond what educators receive in many other states.
While we think seniority and tenure regulations should not be dismissed altogether, they should not be so rigid that it is virtually impossible to remove incompetent teachers or lay off poorly performing senior teachers.
The decision should rest primarily with principals, who need to have more control over their schools.
What is needed is a better balance between job security for teachers and the ability of school principals and districts to remove poorly performing teachers.
Today, there is an unacceptable imbalance in favor of the former to the detriment of California students.