ST. LOUIS • Critics of tenure say it creates an untouchable class of teachers who can become an impediment to improving public schools.
But in St. Louis, that protection hasn’t been enough to spare several dozen teachers from losing their jobs.
Since 2010, more than 100 teachers have been removed from classrooms — through being fired, pushed to retire or resign — after they were deemed ineffective by their principals. Forty of those teachers had tenure, according to the district, a status designed to protect educators from arbitrary firings.
Though the removals constitute a small percentage of the 1,934 teachers districtwide, they mark a monumental shift in the St. Louis Public Schools, where decades of bad record keeping made firing tenured teachers nearly impossible. They also reflect a broader effort by school district officials to elevate the level of teaching in the city’s 72 public schools and five alternative education sites.
An unlikely partner in the process is the teachers union.
“Remember, this isn’t the union of our mothers,” said Ray Cummings, vice president of the American Federation of Teachers Local 420.
Several times a week, Cummings accompanies Jeff Spiegel, a human resources director for the St. Louis district, to schools where they help principals document teacher performance. They meet with teachers who struggle with such skills as classroom management and connecting with students. Some are on the verge of burnout.
They put them on an improvement plan.
Spiegel, the former superintendent of Ferguson-Florissant schools, came to St. Louis in 2011 to work solely on improving teaching in the district. Since his arrival, 340 teachers have received ratings on their evaluations poor enough to put them on professional improvement plans, according to the district. After 18 weeks, 181 of those teachers showed significant improvement. The rest, for the most part, were let go.
“You know what? Mediocre is not good enough,” Spiegel said. “We have to have high performing teachers in every classroom.”
Rather than fighting the school district on this, he and other union leaders are in full support. In fact, union representatives make up five of the nine members of the administrative panel that has recommended the dismissal of tenured teachers to human resources.
“At one point, the union was just there to take care of salaries, benefits and to monitor the contract,” Cummings said. “Most members feel we should be raising the profession, making sure the working environment is such we can improve our craft.”
THE ST. LOUIS PLAN
Steps to remove ineffective teachers in St. Louis were unheard of five years ago, when Superintendent Kelvin Adams arrived at a school system recently stripped of accreditation. The task of removing an underperforming teacher was a time-consuming one filled with bureaucracy, so principals didn’t bother.
“The district was unaccredited, but a large number of teachers were rated satisfactory,” Adams said. “The two don’t align themselves well.”
Together, the Special Administrative Board, union leaders and district staff began crafting a teacher evaluation system similar to one they’d observed in Toledo, Ohio. It provides peer counseling for deficient teachers who are flagged by their principals and express the will to improve. It pairs newly hired teachers with mentors who help them navigate the urban classroom.
The intent, union and district leaders say, is to improve teaching — not to get rid of teachers. In fact, they say, it’s to reduce the number of teachers who leave the district after the first year out of frustration. And it’s also to throw a lifeline to struggling teachers who want to be better.
“We do better if we can salvage teachers than construct a plan to get rid of them,” said Richard Gaines, vice president of the Special Administrative Board that took over the district in 2008. “If they could not be salvaged, then help them transfer to other areas.”
The system they developed is the St. Louis Plan, now administered jointly by the school district and the union. Teachers flagged as deficient have 18 weeks to improve or face being issued a statement of charges and a hearing in front of a hearing officer, which can lead to termination. (A bill passed by the Legislature this year would reduce that time period to 30 days if signed by Gov. Jay Nixon.)
Teachers who waive tenure rights enter the St. Louis Plan. They receive coaching for up to one year. But if they don’t show improvement, a nine-member review panel may recommend termination.
The collaborative approach between union leaders and district administrators provides a glimpse into the role teachers unions may eventually play on a national level, after years of attacks from reformers determined to eliminate tenure and open more union-free charter schools.
In 2008, the American Federation of Teachers surveyed a sample of its members and found that a majority preferred their union to tackle teacher quality. Sixty-six percent wanted their union to prioritize good teaching over job rights, and 22 percent felt the opposite. The rest were either unsure or wanted both priorities to be equal.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has highlighted the St. Louis Plan at conferences on labor-management collaboration.
Partnerships similar to the one in St. Louis are beginning to appear in a few places, such as Hillsboro County, Fla., and New Haven, Conn. In Missouri, the teachers union in North Kansas City has contacted St. Louis officials about the collaboration.
But by and large, the partnership is unique.
“If this is happening in St. Louis, that’s unusual,” said Terry Moe, professor of political science at Stanford University, and an expert on teacher unions.
THE PLAN AT WORK
Terrance Howell, a first-year teacher at Hamilton Elementary, said the mentoring he received through the St. Louis Plan gave him feedback he needed to improve his reading instruction, classroom management and navigation of the school district’s bureaucracy.
Without a mentor, “It would have been chaotic,” Howell said. “I really wasn’t prepared for my first year here.”
But the partnership isn’t without detractors. Some teachers complain that they now pay dues to a union that has failed to stand up for them. They say union leaders are enabling school administrators to use performance as an excuse to get rid of teachers for arbitrary reasons.
“They’ve created the stigma that the older teachers need to be fired,” said Velma Bailey, a special education teacher who lost her job last year at Yeatman Middle School.
Cummings says this isn’t true.
“Older members might expect an adversarial relationship with management,” he said.
Some teachers flagged as deficient say they ultimately benefited from the St. Louis Plan, but that they were treated unfairly by principals with whom they didn’t get along.
MaryBeth Chavez was considering a career change in 2011 while teaching high school math at Clyde C. Miller Career Academy.
“I had been beat down so bad thinking I was not worth anything as a teacher anymore,” Chavez said. But spending a year with the consultant teacher revived her.
“She made me see that I had it in me to give and see where my weak points were and help me through those weak points.” Chavez now teaches math at a different school. “I’ve never been happier teaching.”
But Chavez and others are nevertheless uncomfortable with union leaders working closely with principals and district administrators on teacher performance issues. The union has a fiduciary responsibility to have their backs, they say.
And sometimes personality conflicts between principals and teachers can get in the way of a fair evaluation.
“I do think it’s a good thing, but how teachers are forced into it can be very problematic,” said LaTosha Hayes, hired in 2006 as a fourth-grade teacher at Mallinckrodt Academy of Gifted Instruction.
In 2011, her principal gave her a bad review — the first in her career, Hayes said. The principal had previously led her son’s school, where she and Hayes had their first disagreements.
“It became I could do no right and everything wrong,” Hayes said. “I knew it was personal.”
The amount she learned working with the consultant teacher was invaluable, Hayes said. Having successfully completed the St. Louis Plan, she now works at Gateway Elementary.
The St. Louis Plan does have a cost. To provide first-year and struggling teachers with mentors and consultants, 15 teachers leave their classrooms for three years to work in this role. This will cost $1.65 million for the 2013-14 school year.
Funding comes from a 2012 agreement that gave the district a windfall in desegregation funds. One of the players who forged the agreement was Adolphus Pruitt, president of the St. Louis chapter of the NAACP.
“It was a very reasonable investment for a very critical need,” he said of the St. Louis Plan. “Whenever we can take teachers within the district and improve their ability to teach our kids, it is smart and humane to give them the help they need.”