Tag Archives: Students Matter

Informed Student Advocates Pursue Reforms that, Unlike Vergara v. California, Actually Address Inequity

Judge Rolf Treu just ruled in favor of Students Matter in Vergara v. California, deeming teacher permanent status (commonly called “tenure”), due process protections for teachers with permanent status, and seniority-based layoffs unconstitutional.  Treu’s opinion unfortunately reflects a misunderstanding of education research and teacher employment law’s effects.  His decision also erodes labor protections without increasing the likelihood of an excellent education for students in low-income communities.

Reformer excitement about the ruling demonstrates how successfully the plaintiffs have conflated teacher employment law with the existence of ineffective teachers.  Informed advocates for low-income students and communities, on the other hand, are deeply disappointed because both ethical considerations and a thorough analysis of the case indicate the error in Treu’s findings.

The California Teachers Association (CTA) plans to appeal the decision and higher courts will hopefully see through the plaintiffs’ weak case.  No matter the appeal’s outcome, Treu’s opinion raises two issues considerably more significant for low-income students than teacher dismissal and layoff procedures:

1) Teacher evaluation and support practices: Treu wrote that 18+ months of employment is not “nearly enough time for an informed decision to be made regarding the decision of tenure,” arguing that administrator fear of permanent status deprives “teachers of an adequate opportunity to establish their competence.”  He wants “to have the tenure decision made after” California teachers finish BTSA, an induction program teachers must complete to clear their credentials, and he suggests a timeline of three to five years.

Treu is correct that some ineffective teachers are currently retained and some good teachers are currently dismissed under California’s system, but he’s wrong about the primary reason why.  Instead, inadequate approaches to teacher evaluation and a lack of quality teacher support have long hindered the development and retention of excellent teachers.  Nearly two years is far longer than a supervisor should need to evaluate teacher performance and potential for growth if evaluation systems provide frequent opportunities for meaningful feedback and support about specific teacher practices.

Unions and many reform organizations actually agree about the goals of teacher evaluation.  The New Teacher Project (TNTP), for example, believes that “the core purpose of evaluation must be maximizing teacher growth and effectiveness, not just documenting poor performance as a prelude to dismissal.”  Similarly, CTA believes that “the purpose of an effective teacher development and evaluation system is to inform, instruct and improve teaching and learning; to provide educators with meaningful feedback on areas of strength and where improvement is needed; and to ensure fair and evidence-based employment decisions.”  Though reformer support for the use of standardized test score results as a percentage of teacher evaluations may decrease teaching quality and detract from student learning, TNTP and CTA also agree about many areas in which evaluation practices need improvement: the training administrators receive on how to give meaningful feedback, the quality of professional growth plans and professional development opportunities, and the frequency and length of classroom observations.

Extending new teachers’ probationary periods indefinitely will not address the underlying causes of the problem Treu identifies.  In fact, the argument that two years isn’t “nearly enough time” implicitly grants license for administrative incompetence and practices that inadequately address new teachers’ professional needs.  Education stakeholders committed to developing and identifying great new teachers should instead pour their time, money, and energy into aligning evaluation and support systems with their goals.  San Jose Unified School District (SJUSD) and the San Jose Teachers Association (SJTA), for example, have invested in administrator training, evaluative consulting teachers with content-area teaching expertise, evaluation documents that more accurately define effective teaching and require narrative feedback, a Teacher Quality Panel consisting of both teacher and administrator members, and non-evaluative instructional coaching support.

2) School funding: Treu’s ruling erroneously considers Vergara v. California part of a historical record of education-related court cases including Brown v. Board of Education, Serrano v. Priest, and Butt v. California.  These three cases, unlike Vergara, dealt with undebatable and direct inequities in access to educational opportunity for low-income and minority students: segregated schools (Brown), inequitable access to school funding (Serrano), and inequitable access to a full school year (Butt).  Treu fails to note that, despite the Serrano case and the advent of California’s new Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), major inequities in education funding persist in California today.

In 2012-2013, for example, SJUSD received approximately $9,000 per pupil in revenue.  During the same year, Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD) received about 60% more money per pupil, approximately $14,500.  While California guarantees a certain amount of annual funding called a “revenue limit” to every school district in the state, some districts, like PAUSD, bring in property tax revenues that exceed the revenue limit.  These “basic aid” districts keep their excess property tax revenue and often pass parcel taxes that further increase the funding discrepancy between lower-income districts and their higher-income basic aid counterparts.

More funding is not a panacea for low-income schools – how districts spend their money determines its return – but research is clear that funding matters a great deal.  Politicians who cut education-related spending for poor communities often cite a 33-year-old study by Eric Hanushek to oppose equitable school funding, yet even Hanushek himself cautiously supports it.  Asked in a 2006 interview if “it’s a good idea to give very high-poverty districts more funding per pupil than an average district,” Hanushek responded: “I think so. I think you have to provide extra resources and help for kids who start at a lower point because of their backgrounds.”  It’s impossible to support educational equity and justify the funding discrepancy between SJUSD and PAUSD.

One of the most important provisions of the LCFF – the supplemental funding it provides to districts that serve high numbers of English language learners, students from low-income families, and students from foster homes – moves California in the right direction.  However, basic aid districts that have long been able to afford better resources for students will continue to exist.  Based on the case history Treu cites, one could construct a very strong case that the existence of basic aid districts violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and the California Constitution.  Advocates for low-income students could also make an indirect equal protection case about Proposition 13’s effect on school funding disparities.  Unlike Vergara v. California, these cases could continue the tradition of Brown, Serrano, and Butt by remedying a clear instance of educational inequity.

Treu’s ruling also invites an analysis of the definition of appropriate due process.  The judge asserts that “[t]here is no question that teachers should be afforded reasonable due process when their dismissals are sought,” but he claims that current protections for teachers with permanent status constitute “uber due process.”  Treu proposes replacing teacher dismissal law with the rights guaranteed by the decision in Skelly v. State Personnel Board; because of Skelly, permanent employees facing dismissal must receive “notice of the proposed action, the reasons therefor, a copy of the charges and materials upon which the action is based, and the right to respond, either orally or in writing, to the authority initially imposing discipline.”

In essence, Skelly rights ensure that employers treat permanent employees with some semblance of courtesy and respect.  While Treu asserts that due process considerations are “entirely legitimate,” however, he forgets to mention that probationary teachers do not have Skelly rights; in California, probationary teachers can be non-reelected (fired) without cause.  Treu’s argument is completely contradictory given current law – he simultaneously contends that he believes in the concept of due process and that districts should be able to deprive people of it for three to five years.

Labor organizations support Skelly’s basic protections for all employees because of the extensive history of inappropriate employer practices and a belief in treating people fairly.  Due process protections should also include a requirement that administrators adequately support permanent teachers before attempting to dismiss them.  A support-first mindset is not only the most ethical approach, but it’s also important because, as Jack Schneider explains, “you don’t put…effective teacher[s] in every classroom by holding…sword[s] over their heads.  You do it by putting tools in their hands.”  Advocates for workers rights support streamlined dismissal processes for employees who are unwilling or unable to improve; the defendants in Vergara just know that society and schools benefit when employers are required to treat their employees like human beings.

Judge Treu accurately identifies a few key issues in his decision: administrators may struggle to identify quality teaching in fewer than two years, layoffs may deprive schools and students of stellar teachers, and teacher employment law may fail to grant teachers an appropriate amount of due process.  Unfortunately, Vergara v. California neither improves teacher evaluation and support practices nor rectifies the funding inequities that lead to layoffs and resource cutbacks in districts that serve low-income students.  The decision also ignores the complete lack of due process afforded to probationary teachers and fails to deliver a thoughtful recommendation about how to empower teachers to grow professionally.  Informed, honest student advocates who care more about “providing each child…with a basically equal opportunity to receive a quality education” than about destroying organized labor should therefore hope that an appeals court will reverse Treu’s decision.  In the meantime, they should begin work on reforms more likely to improve opportunities for low-income students.

Note: A version of this post appeared on The Huffington Post on June 13.

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Students Matter. Teachers Do, Too.

Imagine reading the following statement on a website:

We think it’s simple: reward…passionate, [successful students] and hold those accountable who are failing… [S]triking down the following laws…will create an opportunity for lawmakers, teachers, administrators and community leaders to design a system that’s good for teachers and students…

  • [Law 1: As long as they have attended school for at least eighteen months, this law gives students accused of wrongdoing the opportunity to hear what they did wrong and try to correct their behavior before being expelled. It] forces [teachers and] administrators to…grant [due process rights to students facing an expulsion]…before [teachers and] administrators are able to assess whether a [student] will be [successful] long-term.

  • [Law 2: Though this law allows districts to quickly expel students who commit serious offenses, it requires districts and schools to prove that other expulsions are warranted]. The process for [expelling] a single [unsuccessful student] involves a borderline infinite number of steps, requires years of documentation…and still, rarely ever works. In the past…year…in the entire state of California, only [8,562 students] have been [expelled], and the vast majority of those [expulsions] were for egregious conduct.

  • [Law 3: This law dictates the order in which schools facing economic pressure should expel students.  The] law forces [teachers] to [expel successful students] and keep [unsuccessful students] instead, just because they [are older].

The arguments for striking down these laws would disgust most of us.  Shouldn’t we assume all students want to learn and avoid expelling them if at all possible?  Law 1 doesn’t go far enough – students should have due process rights preventing unwarranted expulsion from the first time they set foot in a school, as it is our duty to provide them with a public education.  Likewise, it is perfectly reasonable for the student expulsion process in Law 2 to require well-documented proof of the reason for expulsion.  Expulsion should always be a last resort, and the burden of proof for an expulsion should fall not on the student, but on the teacher and school.  Finally, while Law 3 is ridiculous, the premise of the complaint with Law 3 misses the point entirely: isn’t the real problem with the law the idea that we would expel students for economic reasons?  Shouldn’t we only ever expel students if they create an unsafe learning environment for other students on campus?

Most of us would conclude not only that the people who wrote the arguments above had no compassion, but that they also did not believe in educational equity.  If they believed in educational equity, they would focus on supporting unsuccessful students instead of expelling them.  If they believed in educational equity, they would ask how the adults in charge could help unsuccessful students improve their performance.  If they believed in educational equity, they would divert their energy away from expelling a small minority of students and towards creating systems that address the needs of most children.  There is a small element of truth to what they say – the expulsion process described in Law 2 seems unnecessarily cumbersome, and in the terrible situation in which factors out of our control would force us to expel certain students, using age as our expulsion criterion seems like a stupid approach.  But the overarching paradigm of this critique runs counter both to our values and a logical analysis of the stated goal (“design a system that’s good for teachers and students”).

Though recent movements have increased the documentation required of a school wishing to expel a student for a nonviolent offense, the process described in Law 2 is exaggerated.  Law 3 doesn’t actually exist, and we fortunately have a better law than Law 1 (all students facing expulsion have due process rights no matter how long they’ve been in school).  An examination of these arguments is still instructive, however, because the opinions they reflect aren’t entirely hypothetical – they’re just marshaled against teachers rather than students.  Much of the text above comes directly from the website of Students Matter, the organization behind Vergara v. California.  Here’s the original:

We think it’s simple: reward and retain passionate, motivating, effective teachers and hold those accountable who are failing our children. By striking down the following laws, Vergara v. California will create an opportunity for lawmakers, teachers, administrators and community leaders to design a system that’s good for teachers and students. Because when it comes to educating our kids, there should only be winners.

  • Permanent Employment Statute: The permanent employment law forces administrators to either grant or deny permanent employment to teachers after only 18 months—before new teachers even complete their beginner teacher programs and before administrators are able to assess whether a teacher will be effective long-term.

  • Dismissal Statutes: The process for dismissing a single ineffective teacher involves a borderline infinite number of steps, requires years of documentation, costs hundreds of thousands of dollars and still, rarely ever works. In the past 10 years in the entire state of California, only 91 teachers have been dismissed, and the vast majority of those dismissals were for egregious conduct. Only 19 dismissals were based, in whole or in part, on unsatisfactory performance.

  • “Last-In, First-Out” Layoff Statute: The LIFO law reduces teachers to faceless seniority numbers. The LIFO law forces administrators to let go of passionate and motivating newer teachers and keep ineffective teachers instead, just because they have seniority.

I discussed the plethora of problems with this lawsuit in my last post, not the least of which are the inaccurate characterizations of the laws above and the plaintiffs’ clear anti-labor agenda.  Equally troubling to me, however, is the discrepancy between our vision for the classroom and the Students Matter vision for the world in which the classroom resides. Teachers and students are different – we should be more patient with kids than with adults – but they aren’t different enough to warrant such a drastic discrepancy in how we treat them.  An intense focus on teacher employment law is as unethical and unlikely to improve overall student outcomes as an intense focus on removing poorly behaved students from their classrooms.

We expect teachers to concentrate on classroom structures that support their students.  We recognize that student test scores do not necessarily reflect intelligence or effort, that poor performance on academic assessments may reflect a lack of investment in tests, a poorly designed assessment, pure chance, inadequate instruction, and/or life circumstances outside of a student’s control.  When a student is clearly underperforming or negatively impacts other students with disruptive behaviors, we assume the best about the student.  We assume the student wants to learn and behave appropriately, but that the student may lack the skills necessary to do so.  We do everything in our power to keep that student in our classroom, continuously trying new approaches to help the student improve his or her behavior and academic performance.  We still implement systems to deal with the situation when students, despite all the support they have received, continue to disrupt their peers’ learning.  When we take disciplinary action against these students, however, we stipulate that the teacher and school prove that alternative, supportive measures failed to achieve the desired results and that the disciplinary action is warranted.  We then redouble our efforts to design better student support structures that can help us avoid future expulsions.

We should adopt a similar paradigm when we consider education reform.  We should expect policies, districts, and administrators to concentrate on supporting teachers.  We should recognize that student test score data does not necessarily reflect quality of teaching or effort, that low value-added scores may reflect reasonable concerns about “teaching to the test;” assessments that may not measure what they’re supposed to and that have questionable longitudinal validity; pure chance; inadequate teacher training, evaluation, and support; and/or external factors outside of a teacher’s control.  When a teacher is clearly struggling to meet student needs, we should assume the best about the teacher.  We should assume the teacher wants to teach effectively, but that the teacher may lack the skills necessary to do so.  Especially because teacher turnover is bad for students, we should do everything in our power to help the teacher improve and keep the teacher at our school.  We must still implement systems to deal with the situation when teachers, despite all the support they have received, remain ineffective.  When we take disciplinary action against these teachers, however, we should stipulate that the district and school administration prove that alternative, supportive measures failed to achieve the desired results and that the disciplinary action is warranted.  We should then redouble our efforts to design better teacher support structures that can help us avoid future dismissals.

Students Matter and supporters of their frivolous lawsuit betrayed their true agenda, which has nothing to do with educational equity, when they took the opposite approach in Vergara v. California – they ignore support and focus their efforts primarily on dismissal.  We wouldn’t accept that approach from teachers and we shouldn’t accept it from the ed reform movement.

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Filed under Education