A strong message on city teachers

Firings: Unprecedented dismissal of 278 teachers shows schools are serious about improvement.

June 25, 1999

THE UNPRECEDENTED firing of 278 city teachers sends a message that Baltimore's revamped public school system will not tolerate slouches. That's good -- as long as underperforming teachers are warned of their deficiencies well in advance and given help. That has not always been the case.

In fact, over the years the school system itself has contributed to the problem by hiring many teachers just weeks -- or days -- before the beginning of the academic year.

That practice meant most good teachers had been grabbed by other school systems, and Baltimore had to make do with those who were left. The predictable result: too many uncertified, last-minute hires who missed whatever preparation was given for other new teachers over the summer.

It is telling that 219 of the teachers receiving termination notices were uncertified beginners hired on yearly contracts. The rest were teachers -- both with tenure and without -- who received unsatisfactory performance evaluations.

To its credit, the school system has made serious efforts this year to hire new teachers early enough to facilitate training over the summer months. The benefits are obvious: Baltimore is able to recruit from among the most promising candidates and will not have to depend on uncertified teachers.

This, of course, is of little consolation to anyone who has received a termination notice. Many complain they were treated unfairly or given no help in overcoming their inadequacies. In the end, some may win a reprieve.

There is a certain awkwardness when rules change as drastically as they have in Baltimore City, where little attention had been paid to teacher performance. The evaluation mechanism has not been perfected, and school principals may be inexperienced in giving consistent performance appraisals of their teachers.

In the long run, though, a performance-based personnel policy is the only way to go if the troubled Baltimore school system is to turn itself around. Just as principals will be held accountable for their schools, teachers will have to take responsibility for the progress and achievement of the students in their classrooms.

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