Friday, June 13, 2014

The California Teacher "Tenure" Decision That Won't Stand Scrutiny

How do you gauge effective teaching? His students look enthusiastic, but what
if he's asking "How many students want to ban homework for the rest of the year?"

As a former California teacher, I was horrified by the recent (tentative) ruling that might bring an end to California's so-called teacher tenure law. I was instinctively appalled by the decision, and after a few days I found out why my instincts were right. Here are some facts:
  • The case was underwritten by a Silicon Valley billionaire named David Welch, who created a group called Students Matter, which is a subsidiary of StudentsFirst, which is, yes, Michelle Rhee's anti-union outfit. After choosing an attorney dream team, they went in search of students "harmed" by long-established teacher-protection statutes. This is a labor-law court action masquerading as an education reform effort.
  • California doesn't have a "teacher tenure" law. Its teachers are granted permanent status after two years of teaching. They still need to undergo the continual administrative observation process which applies to all teachers at all levels of their careers. If an area of concern is discovered, the teacher is given time to correct it. If subsequent observations discover the problem is not corrected, steps are taken, sometimes including dismissal. The "permanent status" is merely a due process framework, one that all workers profit from. Who wants to get fired by a supervisor because WTF?
  • The other process under fire is LIFO, or last in first out. That's a very common practice where the longer a worker has been on the job, the safer his or her position is. It's called seniority. It's a well respected criterion. It takes the randomness out of layoffs. Period. Enemies of this practice in education say this protects ineffective teachers. Proof?
  • The reasoning of judge Treu in this case is extraordinarily shoddy and most likely won't stand scrutiny. Early commentary pointed to weak support for requiring strict scrutiny and problems with accepting plaintiffs' expert-witness testimony as fact, when in actuality the "facts" are admitted guessimates that presume there are 1 to 3 percent ineffective teachers in California. Even if there were, that means that 97 to 99 percent of California students receive an education from effective teachers. For this you eviscerate teacher protections that have worked well for decades?
Read this article by David Atkins for background on the case and this one on Atkins' first reaction to the decision. Slate's Jordan Weissmann has an important article today amplifying the weakness of Judge Treu's decision.

When you see the players involved in this case, you realize this is not about improving education. It's about dismantling teachers unions and privatizing education. It's straight from the conservative playbook, right up to including billionaires' money to destroy worker protections and government services. That's it in a nutshell. With luck, it won't work because of the weakness of their case. Next stop is the California Court of Appeals, often the graveyard of shoddy decisions.

StudentsFirst education grifter Michelle Rhee:
With the help of billionaires, you can grift big!

Update. More opinion pieces coming in on the decision. Here's a couple of graphs from a well-reasoned response in the NYTimes:
Everyone agrees that closing the achievement gap should be a high priority. But the remedy should fit the problem.
The lack of effective teachers in impoverished schools contributes to that gap, but tenure isn’t the cause. Teaching in those schools is a hard job, and many teachers prefer (slightly) easier jobs in less troubled settings. That leads to high turnover and difficulty in filling positions. Left with a dwindling pool of teachers, principals are unlikely to dismiss them, whether they have tenure or not.
Get that? Making teaching a less desirable profession will make it harder to remove ineffective teachers in impoverished schools. This has always been obvious to me. Make a job attractive -- higher salary, better benefits, better job security -- and better candidates apply. The opposite delivers the opposite. Duh.

Michelle Rhee loves the decision. Duh. Notice how she says "nine courageous young people who put their names on the lawsuit" and "the frustration that led these nine students to file a lawsuit." The suit was formulated, and then the billionaires' dream team went looking for some "perfect" plaintiffs. C'mon Michelle.

Here's a very telling reaction in the LATimes that hits the nail on the head:
As (NYU professor and education policy expert Diane) Ravitch points out, lawyers for the unions intervening in the case checked out the records of the teachers of the nine plaintiffs, who were all California public school students. "Two of the plaintiffs attend charter schools, where there is no tenure or seniority," she observes. Two others (the Vergara sisters) attend a pilot school in the Los Angeles Unified School District where teachers can be dismissed for any reason, including "ineffectiveness."
In other words, their teachers weren't even subject to the rules on teacher dismissal they were challenging.
As for the other plaintiffs, their testimony identifying some teachers as "bad" or "ineffective" only underscored the complexity and difficulty of making teacher evaluations. It's certainly not uncommon for a teacher to be detested by some students and adored by others. In this case, one of the teachers identified as bad by a plaintiff had been named a "teacher of the year" by the Pasadena Unified School District and others had excellent records.
Got that? This decision is toast, or had better be.

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