Baltimore fires 278 teachers

Most were beginners without certification, but 28 had won tenure

`We are not fooling around'

New evaluation policy gives principals more power to purge staffs

June 24, 1999|By Liz Bowie and Stephen Henderson | Liz Bowie and Stephen Henderson,SUN STAFF

In an attempt to improve classroom teaching and put a stop to the shuffling of poor teachers from one school to another, Baltimore has fired 278 teachers for mediocre job performance.

While 219 of the teachers were uncertified beginners hired on yearly contracts, 28 were tenured teachers who were given poor grades under a tough, new evaluation policy that makes it easier for principals to document failures.

The remaining 31 were certified but did not have tenure.

"I think people have to get the message that we are not fooling around here. We really expect the best," said Betty Morgan, the city schools' chief academic officer. "Holding people to the best standards may raise some hackles in the beginning."

Notice of the discharges were sent over the past several weeks with the last one issued June 17.

Many of the fired teachers are inexperienced, Morgan said, because the school system wants to avoid granting tenure to a teacher it believes may not be a good fit with the city schools.

It is far more difficult to get rid of teachers after they have been in the school system more than two years and won tenure. Principals do not have to provide reasons for firing nontenured teachers because they work on year-to-year contracts.

"I think people deserve another chance [elsewhere] at the beginning of their career. We try to do it without giving them a black mark," Morgan said.

Some teachers, she said, might need to change careers, while others may do well in a different school system.

Some of the nontenured teachers say their firings seem capricious because they received good evaluations and no explanation for the dismissal from their principals.

About a dozen teachers attended the school board meeting Tuesday night to protest the firings.

Andre Turner, who taught seventh-grade social studies at Diggs-Johnson Middle School, said he was told early in the year that he needed to improve but wasn't given extra help to do better.

"There was no supplemental lesson or any assistance given to me at all," said Turner, who was a new teacher at the school. "I got better on my own, I thought, but at the end of the year I still got an unsatisfactory rating."

Cynthia Duncan, a special education teacher also at the middle school, said the new evaluation system hasn't been implemented properly. She didn't receive word of her dismissal until June 11 -- too late, in all probability, to land a job elsewhere.

"If you're going to nonrenew someone's contract, you should at least treat them like human beings," she said, adding that she was given a class with sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders but no support. "There was no help at all."

Tammy Haisley moved her two young children from Indiana in August so she could teach at Harlem Park Elementary School. She was the lead fourth-grade teacher and helped other instructors with the system's new reading series, which she had used in Indiana.

Haisley said she did not receive her evaluation from the principal. But June 11, she received her nonrenewal letter from the system. It crushed her.

"The one thing I truly love has been taken away from me," she said. "That's my passion. I'm there to help my kids, and for some reason now I can't do that."

The Baltimore Teachers Union said it is collecting information from all fired teachers who believe they were let go unfairly. It will investigate the cases and pass information to Morgan, who acknowledged that the principals might have erred in some cases.

"We find it very distressing that you bring new teachers here and offer them no support," said Marietta English, the union president.

City schools have long been criticized for not supporting teachers early in their careers. Teachers say they leave because they are undervalued and given no assistance by other staff members or principals.

When they run into problems with discipline or teaching techniques, they say, no one is available to help them.

Morgan said she recognizes the problem and is working to solve it on several fronts.

The school system is trying to dramatically reduce the number of uncertified teachers it hires. Last fall, 60 percent of the 1,000 new teachers lacked the necessary college credits and teacher exam for a state professional teaching certificate.

This summer, all teachers hired have been certified, Morgan said.

The school system has 550 openings from firings, retirements and attrition, she said, and 400 new certified people have signed contracts with the system, a far higher rate than in previous years.

To help beginning teachers in the first, difficult year, the school system will provide every new teacher with a mentor as well as a month of summer training on everything from how to handle children with behavior problems to how to teach using the city's math and reading textbooks.

Teachers will be paid $75 a day during the month, but Morgan said the system was not successful in implementing an 11-month contract for new teachers this summer. She said she will continue to pursue the idea next year.

By beginning to weed out its poor teachers, the new school administration is attacking a long-term problem that principals call "the dance of the lemons."

Principals said the old evaluation policy was so cumbersome that it was nearly impossible to get rid of bad teachers. Instead of spending several years documenting a problem, principals simply transferred the teachers to another school.

School officials could not provide figures on how many tenured teachers have been let go in past years, but they said the number has been far lower than the current 28. Last year, about 205 uncertified or untenured teachers were let go.

State officials also are pushing to improve the quality of teachers in classrooms by tightening the rules on how long an uncertified teacher can teach without passing the state teaching test and courses required for a bachelor's degree in education.

Pub Date: 6/24/99

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