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Remediation falls short of '85 legislative intent

By Scott Reeder, Small Newspaper Group Springfield Bureau

Remediation – The act or process of overcoming problems.

SPRINGFIELD – For Mary LaKemper, teacher remediation has little to do with school reform and everything to do with having her principal in the back of the classroom watching.

The 17-year veteran special education teacher was the only tenured Peoria Public School teacher to be rated “unsatisfactory” last year.

Now she is trying to correct her shortcomings or she will face possible dismissal.

What she is experiencing is the result of a legislative compromise hatched behind closed doors, which is designed to either make an underperforming teacher better or move the person out of the classroom.

The 1985 education reforms mandate that whenever a teacher receives an unsatisfactory evaluation rating, that the instructor immediately be placed in remediation and receive intensive coaching from a fellow teacher and continual evaluations from administrators.

“I’ll be the first to admit that I wasn’t functioning at a satisfactory level last year. My father died, I suffer from severe sleep apnea and my autistic son was attending school in the same building where I taught,” she said.

Whether she will be able to improve her performance sufficiently remains to be seen.

“I like the teacher who has been assigned to mentor me. I’m learning a lot. I’m much more reflective on what I’m doing and I’m thinking outside of the box. And I’m much more focused on the impact I’m having on kids,” she said.

What is happening with LaKemper is what lawmakers twenty years ago had hoped would become a routine way of dealing with instructors not functioning in a satisfactory manner.

But it hasn’t worked out that way.

Although studies have consistently shown that 3 to 5 percent of teachers are not functioning at a competent level, only 1 of every 930 tenured teachers is placed into remediation each year. Formal remediations undertaken by Illinois schools 1995-2005

“I keep telling administrators, we have a way of dealing with ineffective teachers – let’s use it,” said Larry Janes, a former Eastern Illinois University education professor who is hired by school districts to help with remediations.

But 83 percent of Illinois school districts have not placed any teachers on remediation in the last decade.

“I’d like to say that some school districts have found some other way to deal with problem teachers. But I don’t think that is happening. A few may be paying teachers to quit, but for the most part school districts have responded by simply putting up with some bad teachers,” he said.

During his 11 years as superintendent of Wood River –Hartford Elementary School District, Larry Busch used remediation three times – with the same teacher.

“The first time we put this teacher into remediation and the teacher got better. We were quite proud of ourselves. But change is a tough thing for human beings to sustain and she reverted to her old ways,” he said.

When the teacher’s classroom performance dipped once again into the unacceptable range, Busch said the teacher was once again placed on remediation, but the school district opted to avoid the expense of a termination hearing and allowed her to keep teaching. She was later placed on remediation a third time and continued employment afterward.

“While cost is a factor that deters people from dealing with the problem, the bigger issue is administrative time. It takes a lot of time to handle these cases and the outcome is far from certain,” Janes said.

In fact, of the 61 remediation cases taken before a hearing officer during the past 18 years, the school districts have prevailed 63 percent of the time. In other words, in the last 18 years, hearing officers have only dismissed 39 teachers through this process.

But the procedure has proven to be more effective in encouraging mediocre teachers to quit or retire.

Of the 228 remediation cases over the past decade in which school districts provided the outcome of the remediation to Small Newspaper Group:

-- 50 percent resulted in resignation, retirement or medical leave.

-- 44 percent resulted in the teacher improving sufficiently to be retained.

-- 6 percent were fired.

The results of this study are similar to a 1992 study conducted by Lindy Seltzer, who was then a doctorial student at Southern Illinois University. Her study of 57 remediation cases found that 45 percent of the time the teacher improved sufficiently to remain employed.

After receiving her doctorate, Seltzer continued on as a principal in Springfield Public Schools, a position she retired from this year.

“A certain percentage of those teachers who are staying after remediation haven’t improved sufficiently, but the school district just decides it is cheaper to keep them,” she said.

Whether these remediations result in lasting improvements among teachers who are retained is a matter of some debate.

“I wouldn’t say these teachers became good teachers, but after they finished remediation, they weren’t doing any harm,” said Bloomington School Superintendent Robert Nielsen.

Scott Reeder can be contacted at 217-525-8201.