Huffpost Education
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Sabrina Stevens Headshot

Just Cause, or "Just 'Cause"?

Posted: Updated:

Late last week, news broke that 75 probationary (non-"tenured") teachers who were improperly fired under then-DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee would be re-instated.

In covering the coverage, a writer over at the Washington City Paper said,

Rhee's acolytes, no doubt, will say that it is another case of a bureaucratic system more geared to protecting employees than to serving kids. But it's also another indication that speed -- the watchword of the Rhee era, and a key part of her legacy -- leads to carelessness, which in turn leads to massive setbacks like this one.

How hard would it have been to just write a letter explaining why the employees were being canned? Aside from being the decent thing to do, it would have been prudent, too.

Here's a better question: Was there a good reason to fire them?

The writer-- and I suspect many others reading the story-- assumes that these teachers must have done something worthy of dismissal. And some may have. For instance, the Washington Post story cites reports from some principals that some of the teachers were habitually absent or behaved inappropriately and/or incompetently, by using foul language with students or frequently showing movies in class (presumably without some sort of instructional purpose).

But in earlier news coverage on the local Fox affiliate, several of those teachers said they were completely taken by surprise by their dismissals, having previously received only positive evaluations about their job performance.

Apparently, the information used against them was never brought to their attention until after the legal proceedings had begun, when the 75 teachers in question argued that they had never been poorly evaluated or told why they were being fired, and challenged the district's failure to give a reason for their dismissal.

Truthfully, there are lots of reasons why a principal would move to dismiss a teacher, some of which have absolutely nothing to do with their fitness to teach. Rather than finding and documenting problems that would establish just cause for termination, school and district leaders have moved to terminate teachers just 'cause they felt like hiring a friend or relative; just 'cause the teacher refused to change an athlete's failing grade; just 'cause they blew the whistle about cheating on high-stakes tests; just 'cause the teacher is gay; or just 'cause they reported a principal for harassing them or their colleagues.

When teachers have "tenure"-- which is not a lifetime job, but simply a system of due process -- districts are required to prove that a teacher was incompetent or otherwise unfit for the job in order to fire them. But for probationary teachers, principals and districts don't have to prove anything at all.

In a district like D.C., where the surrounding jurisdiction has stronger worker protections overall, they at least have to provide a reason for the termination, which is why these teachers won in arbitration. In weak labor locales (like my own Colorado), that requirement technically exists, but there are few practical ways for a teacher to ensure it's enforced. That was my own experience when I taught in Denver. Despite being well-recognized for being a great teacher, I was non-renewed "for cause" after challenging an unethical principal. When pressed to state the reason, he didn't even bother to make one up, and he never had to. His response was the forty-something-year-old's equivalent of, "Nyah, nyah, just 'cause!"

And in the "tenure"-free environment Michelle Rhee is helping to create in this country, this would be the norm not just for new teachers, but for all teachers. This will all but guarantee that stories like mine -- of good teachers victimized by bad leadership -- will become more common.

That's not to say that all principals and district leaders would behave so unethically. But many will, given the kinds of pressures that exist in and around schools. With budgets declining, some will get rid of more expensive teachers regardless of their merit. (Indeed, even if merit pay were fixed to make it meaningful, the combination of a merit pay system, plus inadequate funding and no due process rights, actually sets up a perverse situation in which the best teachers may be the most at risk!) When jobs are scarce, some people will use their hiring power to give preference to friends or family... or anyone who will give them certain favors in return. And as always, whistle-blowers will be targeted.

To me, that sounds like a much more "massive setback" than requiring districts like DCPS to treat teachers fairly. After all, who wins when any teacher can be fired just 'cause?

Not students, who lose talented teachers who care enough to advocate for their best interests.

Not communities, who lose teachers with long ties to neighborhoods and families (which any good teacher can tell you is invaluable, especially in high-need districts like Denver or DCPS).

Not taxpayers, whose money should go to classrooms, but will instead be spent on recruitment and retraining costs, or on legal actions like these.

Not the teaching profession, which will continue to struggle with startling turnover rates and an increasing inability to attract talented professionals. After all, the kind of people we want in classrooms won't tolerate disrespectful, capricious treatment-- they can do other things with their time and talent.

Truly, the only winners here are political figures like Rhee, who will cite high numbers of dismissals as evidence that they're "doing something about failing schools" without actually improving anything, and ideologues who reflexively hate teachers' unions so much that they're even willing to sacrifice educational quality in order to starve the unions of dues-paying members.

Contrary to what some may think, injustice is not a thing of the past. These protections don't exist "to protect the interests of adults over those of children," they exist to protect all of us from unfairness and waste. Eliminating "tenure" may be politically popular, but eroding due process and the 'just cause' standard creates an environment where even good teachers can be fired just 'cause it serves some other interest.

Around the Web

Rhee Tackles Classroom Challenge - TIME

D.C. Schools Insider - Michelle Rhee, first-year teacher

Michelle Rhee Threatens End-Run Around Teachers' Union

Michelle Rhee's Cheating Scandal: School Test Score Irregularities ...

Michelle Rhee must open up about references to unfit teachers