The Vergara v. California case has everyone in education talking. Key teacher tenure provisions in California are on the ropes, presumably because of the disparate impact on teacher, annd therefore education, quality for students who are less fortunate.
I have fairly loosely held views about the practice of tenure itself and the hiring and firing of teachers. However, I have strongly held views that unions made mistake with their efforts to move a lot of rules about the teaching labor market into state laws across the country. Deep rules and restrictions are better left to contracts, even from a union perpsective. At worst, these things should be a part of regulation, which can be more easily adapted and waived.
That said, here are a collection of interesting thoughts on tenure post-Vergara:
Tenure and due process are essential, in my view, but excessive protectionism (70+ steps to remove a teacher?) alienates the general public and the majority of effective teachers, particularly young teachers who are still full of idealism and resent seeing their union spend so much money defending teachers who probably should have been counseled out of the profession years ago.
With the modal ‘years of experience’ of teachers dropping dramatically, from 15 years in 1987 to 1 or 2 years today, young teachers are a force to be reckoned with. If a significant number of them abandon the familiar NEA/AFT model, or if they develop and adopt a new form of teacher unionism, public education and the teaching profession will be forever changed.
With little discussion, the board rejected the request, 7 to 2. The California Teachers Association, one of the most powerful lobbies in Sacramento, had opposed granting a two-year waiver from the state Education Code — even though one of the CTA’s locals had sought the exemption… …San Jose Teachers Association President Jennifer Thomas, whose union had tediously negotiated with the district an agreement to improve teacher evaluations and teaching quality, called the vote frustrating… San Jose Unified and the local teachers association sought flexibility to grant teachers tenure after one year or to keep a teacher on probation for three years.
The district argued that 18 months — the point in a teacher’s career at which districts must make a tenure decision — sometimes doesn’t allow time to fairly evaluate a candidate for what can be a lifetime job.
Now, Thomas said, when faced with uncertainty over tenure candidates, administrators will err on the side of releasing them, which then leaves a stain on their records.
Although I can’t help but feel troubled by the attack on teachers and their hard-won rights, and although I think the court’s opinion is quite weak, legally as well as logically, my intent here is not to disagree with that decision. In fact, as I explain below, the decision gives real teeth to the state’s Constitution, and that could be a very good thing. It’s those teeth that I find fascinating, since an approach like that used by the Vergara judge could put California courts in a very different role —as a guarantor of educational equality—than we have thus far seen in the United States… …To see why this is important, consider an area of education policy that I have researched a great deal over the years: tracking (aka “ability grouping”). There are likely hundreds of thousands of children in California who are enrolled in low-track classes, where the expectations, curricula and instruction are all watered down. These children are denied equal educational opportunities; the research regarding the harms of these low-track classes is much stronger and deeper than the research about teachers Judge Treu found persuasive in the Vergara case. That is, plaintiffs’ attorneys would easily be able to show a “real and appreciable impact” on students’ fundamental right to equality of education. Further, the harm from enrollment in low-track classes falls disproportionately on lower-income students and students of color. (I’ll include some citations to tracking research from myself and others at the end of this post.)
Welner also repeats a common refrain from the education-left that tenure and insulating teachers from evaluations is critical for attracting quality people into the teaching profession. This is an argument that the general equilibrium impact on the broader labor market is both larger in magnitude and in the opposite direction of any assumed positive impacts from easier dismissal of poor performing teachers:
This more holistic view is important because the statutes are central to the larger system of teacher employment. That is, one would expect that a LIFO statute or a due process statute or tenure statute would shape who decides to become a teacher and to stay in the profession. These laws, in short, influence the nature of teaching as a profession. The judge here omits any discussion of the value of stability and experience in teaching that tenure laws, however imperfectly, were designed to promote in order to attract and retain good teachers. By declining to consider the complexity of the system, the judge has started to pave a path that looks more narrowly at defined, selected, and immediate impact—which could potentially be of great benefit to future education rights plaintiffs.
I can certainly imagine it is possible in some school districts they will find it optimal to fire very few teachers. But why isn’t it enough for administrators to simply rarely fire people, and for districts to cultivate reputations as places of stable employment? One could argue that administrators can’t be trusted to actually do this, but such distrust of administrators brings back a fundamental problem with this model of public education: if your administrators are too incompetent to cultivate a reputation that is optimal for student outcomes then banning tenure is hardly the problem, and imposing tenure is hardly a solution. This is closely related to a point I made yesterday: are we supposed to believe administrators fire sub-optimally but hire optimally
His piece from today (and this one from yesterday) argues that Welner’s take could be applied to just about any profession, and furthermore, requires accepting a far deeper, more fundamental structural problem in education that should be unacceptable. If administrators would broadly act so foolishly as to decimate the market for quality teaching talent and be wholly unable to successfully staff their schools, we have far bigger problems. And, says Ozimek, there is no reason to believe that tenure is at all a response to this issue.
Dana Goldstein would likely take a more historical view on the usefulness of tenure against adminstrator abuse.
But, writing for The Atlantic, she focuses instead on tenure as a red herring:
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The lesson here is that California’s tenure policies may be insensible, but they aren’t the only, or even the primary, driver of the teacher-quality gap between the state’s middle-class and low-income schools. The larger problem is that too few of the best teachers are willing to work long-term in the country’s most racially isolated and poorest neighborhoods. There are lots of reasons why, ranging from plain old racism and classism to the higher principal turnover that turns poor schools into chaotic workplaces that mature teachers avoid. The schools with the most poverty are also more likely to focus on standardized test prep, which teachers dislike. Plus, teachers tend to live in middle-class neighborhoods and may not want a long commute.