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Student Rights Lawsuit Worries Teachers

You don't have to be a lawyer to recognize that the case of Vergara v. California slated to begin trial on Jan. 27 has far-reaching implications for the future of the teaching profession ("California dreaming on education reform," New York Post, Jan. 18).  The suit claims that five teacher protection statutes on the books violate students' constitutional rights to an equal education.  

The attorneys representing nine public school students in the Los Angeles Unified School District point out that black and Hispanic students in the district are two to three times more likely to have a teacher in the bottom quartile of effectiveness than their white and Asian peers.  Their case is supported by educational research showing that teachers are the most important in-school factor in learning. Yet dismissing persistently ineffective teachers in California presents a daunting challenge because of the cost and time involved under existing laws.

I taught in the LAUSD for my entire 28-year career.  I readily concede that teacher quality varies enormously in the nation's second largest district. But what I question is the basis for determining which teachers are persistently ineffective.  Are they the teachers whose students do not perform well on standardized tests?  

If so, there is an inherent weakness in the Vergara case.  New teacher evaluation systems rely too heavily on off-the-shelf nationally standardized tests or standardized tests developed specifically for a given state ("Unfairly Fired Teachers Deserve Court Protection," Education Week, Sept. 18, 2013).  These tests have been shown to be "far too unstable to be considered fair or reliable" ("Problems With the Use of Student Test Scores to Evaluate Teachers," Economic Policy Institute, Aug. 29, 2010).

Moreover, so much of any teacher's success depends on how students are assigned.  Unless this is done on a random basis, which is rarely the case, teachers who happen to inherit a class of future felons will post worse results than teachers who happen to inherit a class of Talmudic scholars. I can't emphasize enough the importance of random assignment of students because teachers are not miracle workers.

Yes, data matter, but it depends on the kind of data used.  So far federal and state courts have refused to weigh in on the way teacher evaluation is carried out. Courts will only get involved when they can be convinced that the law has not been followed.  That's what the Vergara attorneys are attempting to do, but they have a high bar to clear.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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