Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu rocked the education universe last week when he declared unconstitutional three teachers' job protections under California law. He was well aware that he was writing history. He invoked Brown v. The Board of Education at the beginning of his decision and said at the end that the state statute disproportionately impacts poor and minority students.
Union leaders cringed. Their critics cheered. Headlines declared the downfall of teacher tenure and the major defeats for teachers unions. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush hailed the demise of "indefensible laws" that he says deny students an equal right to learn. American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said the "the rhetoric and lack of a thorough, reasoned opinion is disturbing."
It's worth looking at where this lawsuit came from to pinpoint its value. It was brought by a Silicon Valley-based organization called Students Matter, which was founded by a fiber optics entrepreneur named Dave Welch. He holds 130 patents. Silicon Valley loves disruptions, and this lawsuit certainly succeeded in that. Whether or not you agree with the merits of the case or the judge's analysis of it, the fundamental question of how to ensure that all students receive equal opportunity to an education is suddenly at the forefront of educators' dialogue.
It's not an easy question, and Vergara v. State of California kicks at a hornet's nest of questions that would benefit from a full-fledged public conversation. For example, what exactly does it mean to say that all students have a right to a quality teacher? No one seriously disputes the concept, but entire careers could be consumed with coming up with a fair way to define and measure quality.
Even executives from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, no shrinking violets when it comes to assessments, have recently made the case that test scores from the Common Core State Standards shouldn't yet be part of teacher evaluations. They say the new Common Core tests don't yet have adequate benchmarks to determine the starting point for the teachers, and they are still determining whether the new measurements actually assess what they're supposed to. Their arguments for holding off make good rules for any evaluation system: Know what you're measuring. Know your starting point and your desired ending point. Otherwise your data is mush.
And what about teachers' rights? This may be an uncomfortable question, but teachers matter too. I've heard too many stories about teachers who get laid off and rehired every year to be persuaded that their chosen profession is a stable one. How can anyone be a really great teacher when their job always seems at risk? This op-ed from a San Francisco teacher gives a pretty good look into what it's like to exist in that environment. California put those teacher protections in place for a reason. They might need to tweaked or completely scrapped, depending on who you listen to and what you believe, but the sentiment that teachers need some certainty in an uncertain work environment deserves respect.
There has been a lot of finger pointing, crowing, and accusing in reaction to the Vergara decision. I think it's fascinating. I think it's worthwhile. Maybe the ensuing writings and conversations will clarify a few ways that more kids can be exposed to good teachers who are in healthy working environments. That, after all, is the real goal.
For our insiders: Why does the Vergara decision matter? Does it accurately represent the problem of ineffective teachers being disproportionately placed in disadvantaged schools? Are there quirks in the case that confuse the issue? Can the California laws be changed to respond to some of the complaints about them? What is the value of teacher tenure? What is the value of a seniority-based layoff system? What job conditions do teachers deserve?
(Note: This is a moderated blog on education issues. Comments are approved on a case-by-case basis. Contact me if you want to become a regular commenter.)
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