Vergara v. California Panel Discussion with Leadership for Educational Equity

Leadership for Educational Equity (LEE), Teach For America’s (TFA’s) partner organization that focuses on alumni leadership development, held an online panel for members interested in learning more about Vergara v. California on June 26.  I was excited to receive an invitation to speak on the panel – I enjoyed talking to LEE members about how teachers unions benefit low-income students at an earlier event and appreciate LEE’s recent efforts to include organized labor in their work.  LEE received over 100 RSVPs from TFA corps members and alumni who tuned in to hear our discussion of the case.

LEE Panel Vergara

USC Professor of Education & Policy Katharine Strunk, Georgetown Professor of Law Eloise Pasachoff, and former Assistant Secretary of Civil Rights for the US Department of Education Russlynn Ali joined me for an engaging hour-long session.  Each of the panelists had ample time to make opening and closing remarks and to respond to each other’s points.  You can listen to the full audio for yourself below, but I also wanted to summarize two points I made at the end of the session:

1) It’s important to read the full text of education research articles because the findings are frequently misconstrued.  As I mentioned during my initial remarks, there’s a pretty strong research basis behind the idea that teachers are the most important in-school factor related to student success (though it’s important to remember that in-school factors, taken together, seem to account for only about 20% of student achievement results).  Nobody disagrees that teacher quality varies, either – it’s clear that low-income students sometimes have teachers who aren’t as high-quality as we would like.  Additionally, there’s broad consensus that improving teacher quality and addressing inequities between low-income and high-income schools are both important objectives.  The research does not suggest, however (and the plaintiffs did not show at trial), that there is a causal link between teacher employment law and either teacher quality issues or inequities between low-income and high-income schools.  There’s plenty of rhetoric about how employment law causes inequity but no actual evidence supporting that claim.  The other panelists and I unfortunately didn’t have enough time to engage in substantive conversations about the validity of the research we discussed, but I hope we have the opportunity to do so in the future.

2) Most union members and most people working within reform organizations have the same goals and should be working together.  We should therefore consider our rhetoric carefully.  Instead of insinuating that the unions who defend teacher employment law care more about protecting bad teachers than helping students, reformers could ask unions how more sensible reforms could make sure the execution of the laws aligns with the ethical, student-oriented theory.  Reformers could then signal their support for organized labor and work with unions to address the real root causes of teacher quality issues and inequities between schools.  The other panelists indicated their belief in reasonable due process protections, improved teacher evaluation and support, and equitable school funding, and kids would benefit if reformers and unions united behind these causes and pursued them with the same vigor with which some have jumped on the Vergara bandwagon.

You can hear more of my thoughts beginning about 22 minutes and 30 seconds into the clip, though I’d encourage you to listen to the whole thing if you have the time.  I’d also love to discuss the case more in the comments with anyone interested.  Hope you enjoy the panel!

Note: An earlier version of this post called LEE “Teach For America’s alumni organization.”  The reference has been changed to reflect that, while LEE focuses on leadership development for TFA alumni, they are an independent organization.

Update (7/19/14): The following sentence was modified to clarify that addressing teacher quality issues and addressing inequities between low-income and high-income schools are distinct tasks: “Additionally, there’s broad consensus that improving teacher quality and addressing inequities between low-income and high-income schools are both important objectives.”  The original sentence read: “Additionally, there’s broad consensus that improving teacher quality and addressing inequities between low-income and high-income schools is important.”

6 Comments

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6 responses to “Vergara v. California Panel Discussion with Leadership for Educational Equity

  1. Rockin’, Ben! Thank you for your ongoing commitment to quality education, and to defend professionals from unsubstantiated attack (and often refuted). We have solutions; we must keep our voices to contrast them from “leaders” alternatives to remove our voices at their will.

    For one solution, we have all the resources to fully fund education. These are hidden in plain sight in government so-called “investment” funds (often one agency selling its debt to another agency) that are collectively hundreds of times greater than declared budget deficits. For example, California’s state CAFR (Comprehensive Annual Financial Report) reveals ~$600 billion in assets compared to a recent declared ~$16 billion budget deficit. The so-called “investments” are reported to receive a net 0.2% return; about half of what is paid to fund managers.

    So why is this solution hidden? This connects to a history of creating public debt that has no elegant explanation of public benefit, but damning explanation of 1% massive profits parasitized from the working 99%.

    My colleagues and I are unaware of any attempt to refute these data, or somehow argue in the wisdom of such an “investment” structure in light of the actual numbers. Documentation with a 22-minute tv interview to walk people through: http://www.washingtonsblog.com/2012/06/cafr-summary-if-600b-fund-cant-fund-27b-pension-16b-budget-deficit-why-have-it.html

    I appreciate Ben’s entrance into the fray, and wish him all strength, intelligence, and faith in this game 🙂

  2. NYCUrbanEd

    ” it’s clear that low-income students sometimes have teachers who aren’t as high-quality as we would like”

    –>>High income students sometimes have the same. Why bother making this point?These are two separate points you’re making here, yet you seem to be making them as though they’re one in the same. I can almost see an ed reformer (mis)reading this passage and nodding in agreement. Great jobThe research also does not link ineffective teachers at poor schools. I had expected you to defend tenure along those lines: There is nothing by way of research to suggest that ineffective teachers overpopulate poor schools. <–

    Ben,

    Reading this post left me *as* disappointed as I was during your #VergaraChat on Twitter the moment you all but stipulated that there was 18 month period for tenure in your state. There isn't. There is two years period. The eighteen month period for SOME teachers who served in different capacities does not count in the manner that Treu asserted, yet you never objected and even went so far as to correct me when I stated that. I was disappointed then, and frankly, I'm disappointed now after reading this.

    I don't know what passes for a teachers' association out there in CA, and I don't know where you arrived at your idea of social justice unionism, but here in New York, people who accept the responsibility of representing teachers don't stipulate to things that aren't accurate, or are questionably accurate, simply because they want to get along with the very people who are trying to take away teachers' jobs. Getting along isn't that important. (I'm very sorry if Randi gave you that impression. She really is the exception). I would have presumed that your progressive background taught you that a seat at the table with a Georgetown professor, former government official and a local TFA organization, is not worth all that. Integrity toward your role as a member of a TA counts -very much. Apologues if those sentiments sound harsh.

    Here in New York, where our working conditions are our students' learning conditions, we don't think the lawsuits against tenure will be as successful as it was in CA. After reading about some of your ideas about social justice unionism and your "defense" of teacher tenure, I can see how we've reached that conclusion. I don't think we will let them get away with it.

    In fact, and I don't mean any vitriol here, based on all I've seen from you as you 'defend' teacher tenure, I respectfully wonder, as intelligent and as thoughtful and as committed to students as you are, if you should be working with a TA at all.

    With respect and in solidarity

    • Thanks for reading my pieces and engaging on Twitter – I definitely enjoyed talking during #VergaraChat. After reading your response and the piece you linked, I think (and hope) that most of what you felt “let down” about stems from misunderstandings. I’ll do my best to clarify below and would be happy to engage more with you if you’re interested.

      First, you wrote:

      ” it’s clear that low-income students sometimes have teachers who aren’t as high-quality as we would like”

      –>>High income students sometimes have the same. Why bother making this point?<—

      I make this point because reformers consistently highlight it and I think it’s important to acknowledge that their concern has some merit, even if their reasoning is completely wrong. I go on to explain that, while this fact is true, it doesn’t have relevance to the case or to teacher employment law. You are absolutely correct that high-income students sometimes have ineffective teachers, and I highlight that fact frequently in discussions of teacher employment law. As I wrote during #VergaraChat (https://twitter.com/BenSpielberg/status/479763484817645568): “Research suggests my experience is accurate: teacher quality is similar at low- and high-income schools.” If you read my earlier (https://34justice.com/2014/01/28/vergara-v-california-the-agendas-the-facts-and-recommendations-for-california-law/) articles (https://34justice.com/2014/02/21/student-advocates-oppose-both-bad-teaching-and-bad-lawsuit/) on Vergara, you’ll note that I consistently agree with you on this point.

      Second, and relatedly, you wrote:

      ” The research does not suggest, however (and the plaintiffs did not show at trial), that there is a causal link between teacher employment law and either teacher quality issues or inequities between low-income and high-income schools. “

      –>The research also does not link ineffective teachers at poor schools. I had expected you to defend tenure along those lines: There is nothing by way of research to suggest that ineffective teachers overpopulate poor schools. <—

      I would again point you to my earlier articles, particularly https://34justice.com/2014/02/21/student-advocates-oppose-both-bad-teaching-and-bad-lawsuit/, for a full explanation of my position (I agree with you). Here’s an excerpt:

      “For the plaintiffs to have an Equal Protection case…the challenged statutes would need to directly cause more ineffective teaching at low-income schools than high-income schools.

      Yet very little evidence, if any, suggests that teacher quality at low-income schools is worse than teacher quality at high-income schools…

      Even if evidence suggested that teacher quality in low-income schools is worse on average than teacher quality in high-income schools (it doesn’t), permanent status, dismissal, and seniority-based layoff procedures apply equally in schools that serve high-income populations…Permanent status and dismissal laws affect rich and poor communities in exactly the same way. That it would even be possible for the statutes challenged in Vergara v. California to cause a difference in teacher quality between low- and high-income schools is questionable.”

      Third, you wrote:

      “Additionally, there’s broad consensus that improving teacher quality and addressing inequities between low-income and high-income schools is important.”

      –>These are two separate points you’re making here, yet you seem to be making them as though they’re one in the same. I can almost see an ed reformer (mis)reading this passage and nodding in agreement. Great job<—

      This error in wording was mine – you are 100% correct that improving teacher quality across the board and addressing inequities between low-income and high-income schools are separate issues (both are important, in my opinion). I am changing the wording on my post and including a note to make the distinction clearer – thank you for drawing this error to my attention. I will also point out, though, that if you listen to what I say in the audio accompanying my post (see the bottom of https://34justice.com/2014/07/09/vergara-v-california-panel-discussion-with-leadership-for-educational-equity/), I made this distinction (and believe it was clear) during the panel discussion. I also made the distinction clear in the very next sentence of my post.

      Fourth, you wrote:

      you all but stipulated that there was 18 month period for tenure in your state (there isn’t. There is two years period. The eighteen month period for SOME teachers who served in different capacities does not count in the manner that Treu asserted, yet you never objected and even went so far as to correct me when I stated that.

      Your description is inaccurate (here’s a link to the Twitter conversation for those interested: https://twitter.com/nycUrbanEd/status/479563952238915584) – I never stipulated what you say I did. I wrote that, in California, teachers are “probationary until year 3, but a decision needs to be made by March 15 of year 2.”

      As I intended to indicate then and maintain now, reformers are “kind of” correct about the permanent status timeline in California. You are correct (and again, I stated in my Tweet), that teachers are technically designated as probationary until they begin a third year in the classroom. However, reformers are correct that the decision about whether a teacher will be granted permanent status in the third year must be made before the end of the teacher’s second year (by March 15). For a description of California law, you can read my original post on Vergara (https://34justice.com/2014/01/28/vergara-v-california-the-agendas-the-facts-and-recommendations-for-california-law/).

      As both your link noted and I have repeatedly mentioned (https://twitter.com/BenSpielberg/status/479768296795799552) as well, permanent status is not a job for life. You and I agree about this fact. I was also under the impression, based on our Twitter conversation about the timeline, that we agreed that “18 months should be more than enough time in almost all cases.” I don’t see much disagreement here.

      Fifth, you wrote:

      I don’t know what passes for a teachers’ association out there in CA, and I don’t know where you arrived at your idea of social justice unionism, but here in New York, people who accept the responsibility of representing teachers don’t stipulate to things that aren’t accurate, or are questionably accurate, simply because they want to get along with the very people who are trying to take away teachers’ jobs. Getting along isn’t that important…a seat at the table with a Georgetown professor, former government official and a local TFA organization, is not worth all that. Integrity toward your role as a member of a TA counts -very much.

      I want to link my post on social justice unionism (https://34justice.com/2014/04/25/teachers-unions-what-we-do-and-how-students-benefit/) for some context about how the San Jose Teachers Association operates. The main points I’d like to make in response to this comment are

      1) I have not and do not intend to agree “to things that aren’t accurate” for any reason.

      2) I think I can speak for everyone on the SJTA Executive Board when I say that “integrity toward [our] role[s] as…member[s] of a [teachers association]” matters a great deal to us.

      The main thing that I think we disagree about is the value of having conversations with reformers and other people with whom we disagree. Reformers are often the aggressors in conflicts with unions and, unfortunately, often push reforms that negatively impact students, teachers, and schools. But most reformers – not all, but nearly everyone I’ve spoken to – are well-intentioned people who are similarly passionate about improving the educational experience for students. I agree with you wholeheartedly that sacrificing principles or arguments for a “seat at the table” would be terrible (in fact, I recently decried that sort of political decision-making here: https://34justice.com/2014/06/03/political-pragmatism-undermines-progressive-goals/), but that is definitively not what SJTA or I do. Instead, we engage with people, indicate a respect for their intentions, and convey why many of their proposed reforms do more harm than good. We also suggest what we believe to be better courses of action. This approach has worked very successfully in SJUSD. I would be interested to hear why you think we shouldn’t talk to people about these issues and try to change their minds (as long as we don’t sacrifice our principles along the way).

      Sixth, and finally, you wrote:

      I extend an open invitation to the next meeting of the social justice caucus of the UFT

      Awesome! Please let me know when it is – I am in the process of moving to Washington, DC, but I would love to come if I can make it work with my schedule.

      Thanks again for engaging and have a good one. I look forward to continuing the conversation.

      • Also, just to clarify in case it’s confusing – I am responding to your full post at http://nycurbaned.blogspot.com/2014/07/my-comment-to-ben-spielberg.html, which is slightly different than your comment here.

      • For those interested, Urban Ed wrote a followup response here: http://nycurbaned.blogspot.com/2014/07/my-conversation-with-ben-spielberg.html. I couldn’t fit my second reply in the comments section at that site and am therefore pasting it in full below:

        I’m enjoying the conversation – thanks for the response! Again, I think we agree, in theory, about most topics discussed. There are a few points I want to make and a couple questions I still have for you after this response:

        1) It sounds like you’re suggesting that unions are more willing to “take to the street” than associations. However, associations in California are willing to (and do) strike, protest, and otherwise agitate when necessary. The San Jose Teachers Association hasn’t gone on strike since long before I arrived (a strike hasn’t been necessary), but I believe we would still do so if the circumstances warranted this type of action. Unless I’m missing something, I don’t see the difference here.

        I admittedly know little about the historical differences between the NEA and the AFT and would be interested to learn more – what else, in your opinion, separates these two organizations? What other differences, if any, do you perceive between unions and associations? I tend to use the terms interchangeably and see very similar goals and actions from locals affiliated with both groups, but I’d love to learn more context.

        2) I want to clarify how permanent status works in California – the decision to grant permanent status is very different from the pink slip process. If an administrator wants to non-reelect (fire) probationary teachers in California without cause, the administrator must do so before March 15 of the teacher’s second year of teaching. The March 15 deadline is not new. Unlike for pink slips, the district doesn’t issue non-reelects as “just in case” measures – they are final decisions.

        3) I think it’s very important to draw a distinction between people who fund and run reform efforts and the vast majority of people who work in reform. While I completely understand your concerns about charter schools and Teach For America, the “end game” for most people at these organizations is definitively not “to give jobs to college grads” and to elevate profit over education. Rather, most people involved in charter networks and TFA have the same goal that I believe you and I have: give students everywhere equitable access to opportunities.

        As you note, there are some people behind and within these organizations that have less altruistic intentions, and the case you mention is an example of why reformer support for charters often undermines the ostensible purpose of reform efforts. I agree that it’s important to point out that the motives that shape many reform efforts have nothing to do with helping kids. However, suggesting that all reformers have bad intentions and refusing to listen to people within these organizations only serves to alienate potential allies and reduce the credibility of reform critics. It’s not only intellectually honest to acknowledge when reformers have a point, but I believe it also makes a stronger argument and helps people within reform organizations begin to question the validity of reform ideas (Jack Schneider recently wrote an excellent piece about this topic: http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/beyond_the_rhetoric/2014/07/how_teachers_can_more_effectively_speak_truth_to_power.html?cmp=SOC-SHR-TW).

        4) I completely agree that your recommendations about school integration and wrap-around services would address the opportunity gap more effectively than typical reform efforts. I make versions of this point frequently in conversations with reformers. That said, I think it’s perfectly acceptable for organizations and/or individuals to focus their professional advocacy on 10-15% of a problem as long as they do two things: acknowledge the limitations of their advocacy in addressing the problem and avoid undermining other (often more important) efforts to ameliorate the problem. That’s the job of a teacher, after all – work on the 10-15% primarily. I’m completely fine with a reform organization that wants to concentrate on teacher quality; what I’m not fine with is a reform organization that misleads the public into believing that a teacher quality focus matters anywhere near as much for low-income kids as an anti-poverty focus. Many reform organizations unfortunately do make inaccurate claims and struggle to address teacher quality issues effectively, and their misleading narratives negatively impact poor communities. They need to change their actions and messaging to align themselves with people who engage in broader social justice advocacy. But even though I personally believe reform organizations would serve their missions better by participating directly in this broad advocacy, other people can lead the charge on social justice issues. I believe we must hold reformers accountable for ensuring that they don’t detract from our ability to address factors that matter more for low-income students, but I believe we must also actively partner with well-intentioned reformers who are passionate about the 10-15%.

        I look forward to hearing more from you – thanks again!

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