Sigrid Bathen

Writer, Editor, Teacher

Tag: la times

Tackling the teacher tenure issue

The reasons for job security provisions are valid and date back decades, but the system needs streamlining.

by Sigrid Bathen published May 20, 2009


Well into the 20th century, teachers in the United States were treated as school property, paid meager salaries and expected to do the bidding of boards and principals. Black teachers of either sex could teach only in substandard segregated schools, and female teachers — black or white — could be summarily dismissed for all variety of reasons: wearing skirts above the ankle, being out in the evenings or even getting married.

Mary Louise Phillips was a young elementary school teacher in Phoenix in the fall of 1941. She was teaching her first class of third-graders in a segregated school and quietly seeing a fellow teacher she had met in college, Wilson Riles, who worked seven hours of treacherous mountain roads away, at a one-room school for the children of black sawmill workers in the tiny northern Arizona town of McNary.

The two young teachers wanted to get married — but if they did, she would lose her Phoenix job immediately. “Wilson said I had to consent to marry him,” recalls Mary Louise Riles, now 89, “or he’d have to stop making that drive.” So they eloped, managing to keep the marriage secret for a couple of months, until she joined her husband as a teacher in McNary, where the rules for married teachers were less rigid.

Three decades later, Wilson Riles would be elected California superintendent of public instruction, becoming California’s first African American elected to statewide office.

The origins of teacher tenure are firmly rooted in rank discrimination against women and were closely tied to the women’s rights movement. California was the first state to mandate “permanent” status for teachers, after two years on the job, in 1921. Other states followed. But most of those gains were swept away in the midst of the Depression. And in one form or another, capricious, even sexist rules governing teachers were commonplace well into the 1960s and ’70s. All teachers were at risk if they spoke out at board meetings or engaged in political activity that went against prevailing opinions in their districts.

In one key California case, Paul Finot, who taught at John Muir High School in Pasadena, was reassigned to home teaching in 1963 for refusing to shave a beard he’d grown over the summer. Eventually vindicated by an appeals court, he was asked in a lower court hearing if his beard was “an outgrowth” of his “radicalism,” and he replied that it was “an outgrowth of my six-week fishing trip.”

It was in that era that newly emergent teachers unions used their growing clout to challenge the laws and push for tenure everywhere — along with better pay, collective bargaining and due process in disciplinary actions that included the establishment of a quasi-judicial system to oversee dismissals. But nearly four decades after those victories, the system originally designed to improve working conditions and protect teachers against arbitrary terminations has evolved into a tangled and costly bureaucratic nightmare.

Critics argue that tenure protects incompetent teachers beyond all reason, keeping them on at a time when schools face draconian budget cuts, high dropout rates and gaping inequalities. Teachers’ groups counter that teachers deserve due process and that administrators fail to properly document and prove poor teaching.

Although measures to curb abuses of the dismissal process, and even to abolish tenure altogether, have been recently introduced in several states, such measures continue to meet fierce opposition from teachers unions, which are loath to give up any of the hard-won job protections built up over decades.

Clearly, the public’s patience is wearing thin. (A recent Times series documented the cumbersome discipline and dismissal process for teachers in horrific detail.) The layoffs of thousands of mostly younger, newly minted teachers in budget-strapped California has only exacerbated disaffection with the deeply troubled seniority system, which governs layoffs as well as assignments of “surplus” teachers when schools are closed or programs cut.

Privately, and sometimes publicly, traditionally warring education organizations — teachers unions and school administrators — insist they want lousy teachers removed from the classroom. But they rarely stand together on even the general parameters of a viable solution. Schools need better documentation of incompetent teaching, more support for teachers and fewer standardized directives on how to teach. All of this requires cooperation and compromise, and costs money.

Any overhaul of “post-tenure” teacher discipline must peel away multiple layers of administrative and legislative changes made over decades in order to create a more sensible and coherent system — one that recognizes the due process rights of teachers as well as ways to help them move on.

But any movement toward streamlining the process must begin with less finger-pointing and more serious dialogue among the key players in state education policy. This is not a new sentiment — but one that remains singularly unpopular in the state Capitol, where teachers unions (and their hefty campaign contributions) wield enormous clout.


Sigrid Bathen is a longtime education writer who teaches journalism at Cal State Sacramento.

A Success Story for Kids Who Can’t Make It in Regular School

by Sigrid Bathen published January 02, 2000


For 30 years, Miles P. Richmond was a special-education teacher and administrator in some of the poorest, toughest schools in the Sacramento area, retiring in 1990 as director of special ed for the Grant Joint Union High School District. He is legendary for maintaining a model special-ed program in the impoverished, fractured, politically volatile district that, most recently, made national headlines when a popular senior was murdered in a shop classroom after school, allegedly by an ex-con working as a janitor.

Grant is not a district usually touted as a model to follow in this age of education reform. But Richmond and a group of mostly retired colleagues are quietly working small miracles in a battered old school in a bleak north Sacramento neighborhood. They are part of a growing “alternative school” movement, education bureaucratese for programs that offer alternatives to the regular classroom for the huge population of students who cannot, for many reasons, attend regular classes. While they are students most clearly in need of help from an education system now targeted for unprecedented infusions of attention and cash, it remains to be seen how much they will actually benefit. Veterans like Richmond are understandably skeptical.

Unlike the developmentally disabled kids who were the focus of Richmond’s work for decades, students at the Grant Independent Learning Center, in general, are not physically or mentally limited. Their low achievement has more to do with their lives at home, where drug use, abuse and grinding poverty narrow their options. They may be in foster care, wards of the juvenile-dependency court, and they may have committed crimes. Many are teen mothers headed straight for public dependency. Some are unusually bright, bored and uninspired by the regular curriculum.

They are kids like Jessica (not her real name), who never believed that she could succeed in school. Gifted in art and a voracious reader, she was unable to enroll in the regular school curriculum because she is needed at home to help care for her mother and baby brother. Five other siblings were removed from the home because of her mother’s lifestyle, which Richmond described simply as “men, booze and drugs.” There is no mention of a father.

One of Jessica’s recent paintings was of a forest after a fire. “All the trees were burned, but there was some green coming up out of the earth,” says Richmond. “It was about her mom, her family, the drugs.” When Jessica met Richmond’s wife, Betty, she wanted to know how long they had been married. Answer: 46 years.

Long-term personal commitment isn’t a quality the kids at Grant Independent Learning Center know well, if at all. The stories of the 2,500 kids who have gone through the program in the past five years–most have graduated, many going on to college–are nothing if not daunting.

Like the homeless girl living with her family in their car, who was at the center for two weeks, then disappeared. While at the center, she wrote a poem about homelessness. Entitled “The Other People,” it spoke of “babies in the street, families without hope” and urged onlookers “disgusted” by the homeless not to be too quick to judge. “If you ask me,” the girl concluded, “without the money and the fancy things, we’re all the same.”

“That just grabbed my heart,” recalls Richmond. “We’re going to lose some really bright, valuable kids unless we discover them, and they’re not all wearing Polo sweatshirts.”

A key element of Richmond’s work with the kids in this alternative school, who must sign a contract, complete all assignments and meet with their teachers once each week–more frequently if they don’t finish their work–is the creation of a personal journal. Every morning, students take 15 minutes to write their thoughts down–about anything they choose. There are no computers, no word processors, not even any typewriters in this classroom, and generally none in the homes where the kids live.

Like many unusual and largely unsung alternative programs throughout California, the Grant center is something of a haven for these kids, though it mirrors inner-city schools everywhere–inadequate facilities and funding for books and supplies, technology or the arts. “We’re lucky if we have enough paper and pencils,” says Richmond, “and for a while last winter, we didn’t have any heat.” Yet, the kids have become so enamored of their newfound ability to put thoughts on paper that if he forgets to have them do their journal writing, they remind him.

He especially remembers one student’s entries. “She had a perfect attendance record, was doing great and thinking maybe she really could be a writer,” says Richmond. “One day before school, her boyfriend came over. He had the day off and was pestering her to stay home with him.” She persistently refused, saying she had to go to school, and he kept pressuring her to stay home.

“Finally–and she wrote these very words in her journal that day–she told him; ‘F— you, I’m going to school.’ ” And she did.

“We thought about translating that into Latin, if that’s possible,” Richmond mused, “and putting it on a banner on the wall as a kind of monument to this one girl’s determination to go to school. She lives in two worlds: the world here in independent study, where she has dignity, and the other world, where she is a survivor.”

The personal hurdles many of the kids in programs like Grant’s must overcome are often so overwhelming that their teachers mainly concentrate on just getting them to attend school. While many teachers give mightily of their own resources and time to kids with seemingly insurmountable problems, as Richmond did and does, many others “do their time” and get out, transferring as soon as possible to schools in better neighborhoods.

The 11,000-student Grant district, which includes 12 senior high and middle schools, has expanded the successes of the five-year-old Independent Learning Center (recently named Keema High School, after a popular former district superintendent, Elwood J. Keema) into four community outreach centers, and will send teachers into students’ homes if necessary. Randy Orzalli, director of education options for the district and principal of Keema, is working to expand the program further. He hopes to make the school a center for training teachers in the needs of alternative-school students.

Richmond and his mostly retired-teacher colleagues–the program includes five former principals on its faculty–meet every school day with the kids in the independent learning center, bringing magazines and books from home, eating lunch with their students, saving souls–and a life or two or three–and skeptical that the intense public and political focus on education will translate into money, attention or reform for the state’s most troubled schools and the kids most in need of help. To accommodate the push for class-size reduction, it has been estimated that some 250,000 new teachers must be trained in the next decade. California’s teacher-training system, widely criticized for its rigidity and its mediocrity, will face some serious testing of its own in coming years. Gov. Gray Davis, in his continuing push for education reform, has said he will make teacher training a major priority in his annual budget proposal.

“We can put up a modern building and buy new desks and chairs and bright, shiny textbooks,” says Richmond, “but too often we’ve lost the creativity in education. I don’t think Christ had a credential, or Gandhi, and Plato taught from a stump. Sure, we could use computers, and we need a safe, clean building to work in, and only as many students as you can handle. . . . We have 1975 National Geographics and used textbooks, and we use the free Sacramento Bees we get: the kids say they want practical education, and the stock quotes in the paper are great for teaching math.

“Kids are coming out here, and they’re writing and reading and computing. It’s teaching on the stump. And it works.”

Sigrid Bathen, an adjunct professor at Cal State Sacramento, has written extensively on education.

The Deeper Inequality Behind the AP-Course Suit

by Sigrid Bathen published October 17, 1999

SACRAMENTO — A class-action suit challenging that most fundamental of equal education rights–access–may well force the state’s education establishment to examine its two-tier system of public education, one for the children of the reasonably well-to-do, the other for everybody else. The suit has been likened to the landmark 1971 Serrano vs. Priest, which forced the state to address “wealth-related disparities” in school funding.

“Legally, it’s not a hard case,” said Mark D. Rosenbaum, legal director for the ACLU of Southern California and the lead attorney on the ACLU suit. “The state can turn this case into a model of response. California could, with an appropriate response to the question of these disparities, reassert itself as the crown jewel of education.”

The ACLU sued the state of California, not the governor, who has made education reform his “first, second and third” priority, and not the University of California, though UC’s admissions standards are at the heart of the controversy. Neither does the suit directly target inequality in the early grades, where it all begins, nor UC admissions policies, which were challenged earlier this year in a federal-court suit by a coalition of civil rights groups. Rather, it focuses on the vaunted system of “advanced-placement” college-prep courses that earn extra grade points and are increasingly critical to a student’s admission to UC schools.

In 1998, according to the suit, UC Berkeley rejected 8,000 applicants whose GPAs were 4.0 or higher, instead admitting students who had earned the extra grade points associated with the more rigorous AP courses. At UCLA, last year’s applicants had an average GPA of 4.19, and those students had taken an average of nearly 17 AP and honors classes. These courses are not widely available to predominantly minority students in many inner-city high schools nor to many white students in rural schools.

Although the suit is aimed at all schools with limited AP offerings, the named defendant, in addition to the state and Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin, is the Inglewood Unified School District, which offers few AP courses to its predominantly African American and Latino students. The ACLU cites some sobering statistics: Inglewood High School offers only three AP courses; 129 California public high schools with 80,000 students do not offer any AP classes; and 333 schools offer four or fewer. In contrast, Beverly Hills High, with a student body that is 76.6% white, offers 14 AP “subjects” and 45 AP classes; the 144 public high schools in California that offer more than 14 AP classes are 65% white or Asian American. “In the face of its own data,” says Rosenbaum, “with its eyes wide shut, California places hundreds of thousands of its children on uneven playing fields sodded with quicksand.”

Legal hyperbole perhaps, but there is certainly no shortage of hard data to support it. There are also increasing indications that the state’s education bureaucracy is poised to take action on several fronts. Since nobody in the hydra-headed education leadership is interested in taking on the ACLU and its largely unassailable statistics in court, some kind of negotiated settlement is likely and long overdue. The gathering storm of data is overwhelming: the steep drop in minority admissions to UC since passage of Proposition 209 in 1996, and, just last month, the announcement of an alarming disparity between whites and other ethnic groups in college entrance exams.

Michael E. Hersher, general counsel in the state Education Department, says a “programmatic solution” is likely to the dilemma raised by the ACLU suit. “It may take a couple of months to work out between the superintendent and the governor and the plaintiffs, but we have a history of working things out with the ACLU, and they have a pretty pragmatic sense of how far we can go. . . . This is a genuine equity issue, and I think it will have enough political push to bring about a solution.”

In California’s quirky, often unmanageable education-governance system, the elected state superintendent heads the Education Department, but policy is made by the state Board of Education, which is appointed by the governor. Eastin and Gov. Gray Davis are both Democrats but historically sometimes at odds. Davis has been clear from the outset of his administration that it is he, not the superintendent, who sets the state’s education agenda.

Davis’ education secretary, former state Sen. Gary K. Hart, will be a key player. While not addressing the suit directly, Hart says Davis is “certainly enthusiastic” about AP courses. “It is consistent with his theme, his philosophy, his expectations. . . . Anything that encourages students to reach higher and take the toughest courses, he certainly supports that.”

AP courses are a subject Hart knows well. When director of the California State University Institute for Education Reform, Hart initiated a study of AP courses and their impact on student achievement and college readiness. The 21-page, largely unpublicized report, by William Furry, a veteran education advisor to the Legislature and deputy state education secretary in the administration of former Gov. Pete Wilson, reviewed AP courses in California secondary schools for 1997-98.

Noting that the AP program “has enjoyed explosive growth in California high schools in the past decade,” the report concluded that this growth has come “with little public attention and even less analysis.” At the same time, competition for admission to top universities, including UC, has become staggeringly intense, often hinging on the successful completion of AP-course work, which, according to the Furry report, makes college applications “more alluring and weighted for success.” The study utilized state and national databases to determine the availability of AP classes, the rate of student participation and their performance on the crucial AP exams.

In 1988, 39,040 public high school students took 56,668 AP exams. A decade later, those numbers had risen to 87,683 students and more than 145,000 exams. In the fall of 1997, 210,000 students were enrolled in AP classes, although Furry notes that the statewide database does not account for the number of individual students participating in the program, and many students take more than one AP class.

The report notes “certain key concerns,” in addition to the lack of statistical and programmatic analysis, about AP courses. Among them: the “elitist” nature of the program, which favors those “who have access to the best academic preparation–essentially providing only one favored subset of students with important tools for career success.” A corollary concern: “whether there is systematic bias against students because of location, gender or ethnicity.” Although AP courses are offered in inner-city schools, their availability is nowhere near that of many schools in suburban areas. Rural schools fare no better. More than 90% of California’s high schools offer AP courses, but many students, across all ethnicities and socioeconomic strata, have limited AP opportunities.

Furthermore, the report concludes, “in schools across all levels of AP-program size,” Latinos and African Americans participate at rates “substantially below their share of total school enrollment.” Those who do participate score lower than white and Asian students, and nearly one-third don’t take the required post-course exams. In a range of 1-5 (5 being the top score, 3 a passing score), blacks had the lowest scores: 64.6% scored a 1 or 2, Latinos only slightly better. By contrast, 32.7% of whites and 37.4% of Asians who took tests scored 1 or 2.

“In the final analysis, it’s not so much the availability [of AP classes] as the preparation [for them],” Furry says. “In schools with large populations of low-income minority students, the minority students, by and large, are not participating.” But he said the assertion that suburban schools have “a plethora of AP classes” and minority, low-income schools do not “is just not true.” Many schools have added AP courses in the past two years.

“The bottom line is that mandating AP classes is not going to solve the problem,” he says. Asked what will, he said: better preparation, “beginning in kindergarten.”

Better preparation translates into many things: better schools, better teachers, smaller classes, well-equipped facilities and that sometimes elusive but crucial requirement, stable home lives. The idea that kids from impoverished, fractured families in unsafe, drug-ridden central cities have an even chance is ludicrous on its face. But the notion that they can’t succeed if given real opportunity in the form of better schools, textbooks, computer labs and, most important, good teachers is the worst kind of institutional race and class discrimination.

The readiness of students to embark on an AP curriculum without having been prepared throughout their school lives is the deeper issue that educators and politicians are often loathe to address. “It’s not just race, it’s class as well,” says the ACLU’s Rosenbaum. “If it were Beverly Hills High School or Pacific Palisades that had no AP courses, that situation would last for a nanosecond.”

Sigrid Bathen, an adjunct professor of journalism at Cal State Sacramento, has written extensively on education

The Elderly Health-Care Crisis Sneaking Up on Davis

by Sigrid Bathen published March 07, 1999

As Gov. Gray Davis relentlessly presses his education-reform agenda, other state business is seriously neglected. State department heads remain unappointed and policy in many key areas is virtually paralyzed. Many admirers and critics alike blame Davis’ legendary propensity to micromanage for the administration’s slow pace. One story has it that Davis is so obsessed with the minuscule details of his new administration that he has been known to spend 20 minutes pondering which secretary to send out on the next Federal Express run.

Perhaps nowhere is the current dearth of broad policy reexamination more apparent than in health care. Millions of children are without health care, and their elders face the daunting prospect of life in one of the state’s many substandard nursing homes, increasingly targeted by consumer activists.

This crisis in care for the state’s burgeoning elderly population could well become Davis’ health-care debacle, much as appalling conditions in state mental hospitals hammered his former boss, Gov. Edmund G. “Jerry” Brown Jr., in the 1970s. Recent reports about substandard conditions in state-licensed care facilities must have a deja-vu quality for Davis, who was frequently put in the awkward position of having to clean up the media and administrative messes in health care created by his unfocused boss. It may well be Davis’ memory of those years that infuses his achingly deliberate pace, but his caution could blow up in his face.

Last summer, the General Accounting Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, issued a highly critical report on the quality of care in the state’s more than 1,400 nursing homes. Federal investigators found that one-third of them had been cited by state inspectors for “serious or potentially life-threatening care problems.” Many of the cases examined by the GAO involved the “early deaths” of elderly residents whose conditions went untreated.

The report is a sad and seemingly endless litany: patients lying in urine- and feces-soaked beds, bedsores to the bone; patients pleading for help and repeatedly ignored; nursing-home staff reporting therapy that was not provided, falsifying documents, failing to provide fluids and food, refusing to take patients to the toilet, failing to notify physicians or family members about the serious deterioration of patients.

It is troubling but familiar terrain for elder-care advocates like Charlene A. Harrington, a nursing and sociology professor at UC San Francisco. Director of licensing and certification of health-care facilities in the old state Health Department in 1975 and ’76, Harrington is doubtless remembered by Davis, who was Brown’s chief of staff at the time. Harrington was fired by Brown after she “decertified” state-run hospitals because of repeated, egregious licensing violations; parallel efforts to toughen enforcement sanctions against nursing homes were also largely ignored. She recalls that a scathing Little Hoover Commission report on nursing homes nearly a quarter-century ago came up with the same proportion of substandard nursing homes as the recent GAO report. “We’re not regulating the industry,” she says. “We’re not enforcing what is on the books now, and what is on the books is too low.” Much as she did more than two decades ago, she recommends tougher enforcement of licensing and care standards for nursing homes.

She and other elder-care advocates point to surveys showing that only about one-third of nursing-home budgets are spent on patient care, a figure the industry hotly disputes, and that CEO salaries and profits of the big nursing-home chains that increasingly dominate the industry are rising fast. (In 1997, industry revenue was about $5 billion, 70% of which was public funds.) In contrast with CEO compensation, the wages of “certified nursing assistants,” the backbone of the nursing-home industry, average just over $7 an hour. Industry officials agree that staffing and salaries must be improved, but they balk at increased fines.

But stiffer fines–the maximum is currently $25,000–and tougher enforcement are likely to command considerable legislative attention this session, as will efforts to tighten the current appeal process so that fines assessed by licensing inspectors are actually paid. “If you’re going to fine a facility for killing your mother,” says Patricia L. McGinnis, executive director of California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform (CANHR), “make it $100,000, not $25,000. My God, you can leave someone naked and tied to a wheelchair and you get a $500 fine. There are higher fines imposed for killing a dog in California.”
Recognizing the expanding universe of elder care, advocacy groups like CANHR and the American Assn. of Retired Persons are devoting more and more resources to other forms of in-home and residential care beyond the state’s nursing homes, which have beds for 120,000. As the population ages, the political climate may finally be ripe for major reform. As Californians increasingly “age in place,” that is, remain in their own homes as long as possible, services must become more available, affordable and safer. State law only recently required that nursing assistants and home health-care aides have criminal-background checks, but nonmedical, county-based In-Home Support Services personnel, funded by the state and federal governments, have no such requirement.

Criminal prosecutions involving elder abuse are increasing in frequency, and the state attorney general’s office is likely to step up such prosecutions in nursing homes through its Medi-Cal Fraud Bureau, which filed few cases under former Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren but is expected to have a much higher profile under Bill Lockyer. At the local level, prosecutors say it’s often pure happenstance when a case comes to the attention of law enforcement. Although some cases involve murder or assault by family members, other “caregivers” and nursing-home employees, more and more cases grow from financial exploitation of seniors, often in their own homes.

If stepped-up criminal prosecutions and increased state sanctions don’t stimulate nursing-home reform, civil suits and the threat they pose to companies’ bottom lines may be the spark. The California Supreme Court, in a landmark decision last week, upheld lower-court decisions awarding nearly $400,000 to the family of 88-year-old Kay Delaney, who died in 1993 at a Lake County nursing home after suffering from severe bedsores and lying in her own waste. In the unanimous ruling, justices raised the financial-liability limits of health-care providers that recklessly endanger the elderly. Also last week, the family of 75-year-old Ruth Witten, who choked to death last November in a nursing home near Sacramento, filed suit, contending that chronic understaffing at the Roseville Convalescent Hospital led to her death.

Fortunately, there are some signs that Davis is taking up health care. Early on, the governor named Grantland Johnson, a former federal health administrator and Sacramento County supervisor, as his health and human services secretary. “We have to look at tougher and more effective enforcement,” Johnson says. “We can be tough on the books, but if it’s not effective, it’s meaningless.” Johnson added, “It’s going to take us a while to settle on a methodical approach to this.”

But nursing-home and other residential care for the elderly has been the subject of countless state and federal hearings and reports over the decades. There are mountains of data pointing to horrific suffering and early deaths in nursing homes. The last thing elder-care reform needs is a “methodical” approach, which generally, in the language of government, means it will take a lot of time–a luxury Davis does not have.

Sigrid Bathen is senior editor of the California Journal, a monthly magazine about politics and government.

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