Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The First Domino

Lost in the noise surrounding the bombshell primary defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in Virginia last night to a guy no one expected to come close was another bombshell in California. A judge ruled that the state's teacher tenure laws are in violation of the state's constitutional right of students to an education.

No doubt the ruling will be appealed and who knows what the state supreme court will decide, but this is a major blow, nevertheless, to teacher's unions across the country and portends a shift in attitudes toward teacher accountability.

To be sure, teachers need some form of protection from capricious, vindictive administrators, of which there are more than a few, but it's so difficult and expensive to fire incompetent teachers that many districts find it easier to just shuffle them around. Where they wind up is usually in schools with large numbers of economically disadvantaged kids, mostly minorities, and it's simply unjust that these kids are given the worst teachers. It's hard enough to learn in the settings they find themselves in without saddling them with teachers who simply pass out worksheets or show irrelevant videos every class, or let the kids run wild.

Here are some excerpts from the New York Times article:
A California judge ruled Tuesday that teacher tenure laws deprive students of their right to an education under the state Constitution and violate their civil rights. The decision hands teachers’ unions a major defeat in a landmark case, one that could radically alter how California teachers are hired and fired and prompt challenges to tenure laws in other states.

“Substantial evidence presented makes it clear to this court that the challenged statutes disproportionately affect poor and/or minority students,” Judge Rolf M. Treu of Los Angeles Superior Court wrote in the ruling. “The evidence is compelling. Indeed, it shocks the conscience.”

The decision, which was enthusiastically endorsed by Education Secretary Arne Duncan, brings a close to the first chapter of the case, Vergara v. California, in which a group of student plaintiffs backed by a Silicon Valley millionaire argued that state tenure laws had deprived them of a decent education by leaving bad teachers in place.

In his harshly worded 16-page ruling, Judge Treu compared the Vergara case to the historic desegregation battle of Brown v. Board of Education, saying that the earlier case addressed “a student’s fundamental right to equality of the educational experience,” and this case involved applying that principle to the “quality of the educational experience.”

He agreed with the plaintiffs’ argument that California’s current laws make it impossible to remove the system’s numerous low-performing and incompetent teachers, because the tenure system assures them a job essentially for life; that seniority rules requiring the newest teachers to be laid off first were harmful; and that granting tenure to teachers after only two years on the job was farcical, offering far too little time for a fair assessment of the teacher’s skills.

Further, Judge Treu said, the least effective teachers are disproportionately assigned to schools filled with low-income and minority students. The situation violates those students’ constitutional right to an equal education, he determined. It is the believed to be the first legal opinion to assert that the quality of an education is as important as mere access to schools or sufficient funding.

“All sides to this litigation agree that competent teachers are a critical, if not the most important, component of success of a child’s in-school educational experience,” Judge Treu wrote in his ruling. “There is also no dispute that there are a significant number of grossly ineffective teacher currently active in California classrooms.”

In essence, Judge Treu ruled that a quality education is guaranteed for all students in the state — which relies on effective teachers — and that anything less undermines the quality violates the equal protection clause in the state constitution.

In his ruling, Judge Treu added his voice to the political debate that has divided educators for years. School superintendents in large cities across the country — including Los Angeles, New York and Washington — have railed against laws that essentially grant teachers permanent employment status. They say such job protections are harmful to students and are merely an anachronism....Under state law here, administrators seeking to dismiss a teacher they deem incompetent must follow a complicated procedure that typically drags on for months, if not years. Teachers are eligible for tenure after 18 months, and layoffs must be determined by seniority, a process known as “last in, first out.”

Judge Treu...wrote that “both students and teachers are unfairly, unnecessarily, and for no legally cognizable reason (let alone a compelling one), disadvantaged by the current Permanent Employment Statute.” He added that current dismissal statutes are “so complex, time consuming and expensive as to make an effective, efficient yet fair dismissal of a grossly ineffective teacher illusory.”
Making it easier to get rid of people who would otherwise simply collect a paycheck for 35 years and then live out their days off their tax-payer subsidized pension will do more to improve education in this country than all the standardized testing and curriculum reforms put together. Maybe Judge Treu just toppled the first domino in bringing about real reform of American education.