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Teachers' Job Protections Take a Blow

In a ruling that has national implications, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge held in Vergara v. California that state laws protecting teachers' jobs are unconstitutional ("California Teacher Job Protections Struck Down in Students' Suit," The Wall Street Journal, Jun. 11).  The decision was based on evidence showing that black and Hispanic students in the Los Angeles Unified School District are two to three times more likely to have a teacher in the bottom quartile of effectiveness than their white and Asian peers.  Attorneys for the plaintiffs successfully argued that teacher tenure laws make it extraordinarily difficult to dismiss these teachers, thereby undermining black and Hispanic students' chances for an equal education.

As I indicated almost six months ago, the lawsuit worried teachers for good reason from the very beginning ("Student Rights Lawsuit Worries Teachers," Education Week, Jan. 24).  It now has the potential to eventually abolish tenure for teachers at a time when pressure on them to perform has never been greater.  I continue to call into question the way effectiveness is determined by pointing to evidence about the unreliability of standardized test scores.  I also can't emphasize enough the importance of random assignment of students to teachers if fair evaluations are the goal.  

Lawyers for the plaintiffs cited one expert's estimate that about three percent of public schools teachers in California are "highly ineffective." I'd like to know the basis for this determination.  Even the best teachers can seem ineffective if they inherit classes filled with future felons.  The converse is equally true.  Bad teachers can seem effective if they inherit classes filled with Talmudic scholars.

Critics of teacher tenure are elated by the court's ruling, claiming that the interests of teachers have for too long overshadowed those of students.  But I see the decision more as a giant step toward busting teachers' unions and privatizing schools. The union says the decision will be appealed, but I believe the appeal will fail. If so, then the Legislature will have to make major changes in laws affecting teachers' jobs.  These will involve making it easier to fire teachers, eliminating seniority as the sole basis for layoffs, and lengthening the probationary period before tenure is granted.

What happens in California will eventually affect other states.  I see a new era developing in which even exemplary teachers can be harassed by vindictive principals and the highest paid teachers can be subject to dismissal in order to save money.  I also question if students will be the unequivocal beneficiaries that the National Council on Teacher Quality and others believe.

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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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