On the Vergara ruling and the war on teachers

Here’s the question for reasonable people who believe seniority and due process are the problem: What should they be replaced with?

Many readers know Bites columns on education come from a particular point of view—that of the spouse of a teacher who has spent nearly two decades working in high-poverty schools in Oak Park and south Sacramento.

This offers at least some insight into what it might feel like to be a teacher in Sacramento, and to open the paper every morning wondering how teachers will be denigrated and scapegoated that day.

There was a lot of that in Sacramento last week, following the Vergara v. California decision. Vergara was funded by a Silicon Valley millionaire named David Welch, one of many rich guys pushing to diminish the influence of teacher unions in education. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu ruled that California’s rules on tenure and teacher dismissal are unconstitutional, because they effectively stick poor kids with bad teachers.

Treu’s ruling delighted foes of teacher unions everywhere. Critics say his decision is thin, and likely to be overturned on appeal. Nothing changes until then, either way.

The real problem in education, of course, isn’t teacher tenure. It’s poverty, income inequality and segregation.

Still, reasonable people can disagree on how much teacher protection is enough. Bites has seen a lot of commentary around Vergara on how “crazy” California’s tenure system is, allowing teachers full due-process rights after just two years. Due process means a teacher can’t be fired without cause, and is entitled to defend their job at a hearing.

California is one of a handful of states with a two-year-probationary period. A handful of states have four- or five-year waiting periods. The large majority of states have a three-year probationary period. So, yeah, bananas.

California’s “last in, first out” rules means that when layoffs happen, the pink slips go first to the teachers with the least classroom experience. The plaintiffs in Vergara argue LIFO leads to firing lots of young, good teachers and keeping lots of bad, old teachers who happen to have more seniority.

That’s a red herring. Layoffs are an extremely blunt instrument—not the right tool to address teacher performance. Underperforming teachers should get support, or they should be shown the door before being awarded tenure, or they should be dismissed with due process.

Bringing us to Treu’s other finding: There’s too much due process. In fact, just last week, the state Legislature passed new rules—supported by the California Teachers Association—streamlining the process for firing incompetent teachers and teachers engaged in serious misconduct.

It’s not clear if those new rules would satisfy any of Treu’s concerns, assuming his ruling survives appeal. It is clear that nobody actually wants bad teachers in the classroom. Teachers don’t want bad teachers in the classroom, just like reporters don’t want bad reporters in the newsroom.

It also happens that the Sacramento city teachers are already working with local district officials on a new evaluation system for teachers—an initiative that has nothing to do with Vergara.

But here’s the question for reasonable people who believe seniority and due process are the problem: What should they be replaced with? Should we lay off teachers with the largest salaries first? Can we fire teachers who are too opinionated about teaching? Should teachers who are best at kissing ass be the ones to keep their jobs?

Those are options. The folks behind Vergara would also like to fire teachers based on student test scores. Lots of people think this is a good idea, mostly politicians, rich guys and anti-union newspaper editorial writers.

“No professional organization says that test scores are an acceptable way to evaluate teachers,” says David B. Cohen, associate director of Accomplished California Teachers, an outgrowth of the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University.

Even the American Statistical Association—folks you would assume to be pro-quantitative analysis—warned earlier this year that “the majority of the variation in test scores is attributable to factors outside the teacher’s control,” such as poverty, family background and factors that frequently aren’t accounted for in statistical models.

At home, Bites hears a lot about those factors: drug and alcohol abuse at home, domestic violence, parents who don’t read to their kids or even talk to them very much, health issues (asthma and autism seem to come up a lot), homelessness, prison, language barriers, nutrition. The list goes on.

Cohen says evaluating teachers based on test scores could drive more talented teachers away from high-poverty schools and hurt low-income students. “What’s your incentive to take on a more challenging assignment,” he asks, when you’re likely to be punished for it?

And when college graduates see the job security in teaching stripped away, and see teachers scapegoated for the problems of poverty and inequality, what is their incentive to enter teaching at all? You want good teachers working in high-poverty schools? Stop attacking them.