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A right-wing astroturf group, Students Matter, has escalated the war on California’s teachers with a lawsuit seeking to overturn five state laws related to teacher tenure, seniority and the dismissal process.
The law suit, which was filed on May 14 in Los Angeles County Superior Court on behalf of eight students, argued that "A handful of outdated laws passed by the California Legislature are preventing school administrators from maintaining or improving the quality of our public educational system," the Los Angeles Times wrote this week.
The suit is full of logical inconsistencies. For example, it argues that teachers can earn tenure too easily (in two years), well before their actual skill in the classroom can be determined. If successful, this would make it much harder for teachers to earn tenure and the right not to be fired without cause. Yet at the same time the suit aims to abolish seniority rules that protect experienced veteran teachers (i.e., those who have demonstrated skill in the classroom) during layoffs. This would make it much easier to fire veteran teachers with a proven track record, exactly the teachers districts should want to protect assuming they were really interested in providing the best teachers possible for students.
The suit cynically claims to be fighting for the rights of low income students under the equal protection provisions of the California Constitution. It argues that the current law protects ineffective teachers and “creates arbitrary and unjustifiable inequality among students,” according to Thoughts on Public Education. In short, the suit is saying that tenure, seniority and due process violate the state’s constitution, a claim that would be laughable if there wasn’t a powerful national movement behind it.
While it is true that low income schools tend to have higher percentages of younger teachers, it is not because of seniority, tenure and due process. Rather, these are the toughest schools to teach at and require teachers to work much harder than at more affluent schools, but for the same pay. In districts like LAUSD, where student test score data are used to evaluate teachers and where teachers’ Value Added (VAM) scores are publicly posted, there is a significant disincentive to teach at these schools.
One should also question why we have an Apartheid system in which some schools are filled predominantly with low-income students, while others within the same district (and sometimes only a few miles away) are predominantly affluent. Likewise, California continues to have among the lowest per pupil rates of K-12 funding in the nation. These are the real stories of educational inequality and they have nothing at all to do with the teachers or their job protections.
In reality, abolishing tenure, seniority and due process rights has nothing to do with protecting children or making their schools better. It is really about three things: union-busting, increasing administrators’ power, and cutting salary costs so they can be reallocated to other things, like administrators’ salaries or irrational and unproven reform efforts.
The lawsuit would provide administrators with much greater flexibility in getting rid of higher paid veteran teachers, as wells as union activists and vocal advocates for student and teacher rights. By stacking schools with rookies and novices who must keep their mouths shut and suck up to their bosses longer in order to avoid being laid off, administrators can more easily push through “reforms” like increased class sizes and teacher evaluations based on student test scores and student surveys that are detrimental (see here, here and here) to both students and teachers.
This suit could have monumentally negative consequences for students and schools. Making it easier to get rid of experienced teachers could result in a large influx of novices who not only lack the experience to teach well, but who also have a much higher attrition rate than veteran teachers, thus increasing the turnover of teaching staffs. It could also accelerate the exodus of experienced teachers from teaching to other professions. And while it could save schools money by allowing them to replace relatively expensive veterans with much cheaper rookies, it would hurt K-12 education in the long run through its tacit acceptance of educational defunding by the state.
Students Matter, which is a relative newcomer to the teacher bashing game, was founded by Silicon Valley entrepreneur David Welch and, not surprisingly, has received much of its funding from Ed Deform Czar Eli Broad. Its advisory committee includes Students First, Michelle Rhee’s fake student advocacy group; teacher-bashing former state senator Gloria Romeo; and the Parent Trigger charter school front group, Parent Revolution.
The Thoughts on Public Education (Toped) blog says that California’s dismissal law can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars per teacher to fire a teacher for unsatisfactory performance, thus compelling districts to find workarounds, like shunting teachers from school to school [or filing trumped up disciplinary charges against the teacher].
This really misses the point. If a teacher is truly doing a bad job of teaching, but really wants to continue teaching, he should be provided professional development, mentoring and other support at the district’s expense. This would be far cheaper than going through the 10-step dismissal process and all the accompanying legal costs.
It also glosses over the important question of what really constitutes bad teaching and how is this being assessed? In my 15 years of teaching I have seen very few truly rotten teachers and only a handful of mediocre ones. This may be coincidental; however, I think the whole bad teacher hysteria is really a red herring, something intended to rally the public to support union-busting in the guise of children’s innocence and safety.
Indeed, Toped notes that while the suit claims 8 students suffered because of ineffective teachers, it did not cite any evidence of any specific teachers having a negative impact on the plaintiffs. Rather, if focused on research by the National Council On Teacher Quality and Eric Hanushek. The latter concluded that by dismissing the weakest 6-10% of teachers, students’ academic success and earnings as adults would increase.
“Weakest,” however, does not necessarily mean bad, inadequate or worthy of throwing into the unemployment line. As in any profession there is a spectrum of different skill levels and this is not necessarily detrimental. For example, I may not be able to see the same physician who treats the 49ers, but that doesn’t mean my orthopedist is doing a bad job or should be banned from practicing.
Furthermore, there is no accurate method for determining who the weakest 10% of teachers are. Even if there was such a method, we could find that 100% of teachers were effective, but there would still be a bottom 10% who would be fired just to fill Hanushek’s quota and mollify the Ed Deform wolves.