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.
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.”