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The Vergara Decision

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This week Michelle and Jack discuss the Vergara case, which was decided last week in a California Superior Court, and which raises questions about the future of issues like teacher tenure.

Schneider: Much has been written in the past week about the recently issued Vergara decision. And you and I obviously have different perspectives on the case. So rather than rehash the arguments of either side, why don't we see what we can agree on.

What would true compromise around teacher tenure and dismissal procedures look like?

Rhee: In order to talk about what a good compromise would look like, I think it's important to be clear about what Vergara is and what it isn't. I see a lot of people who are against the Vergara case saying that it's taking away teachers' due process rights. But that simply isn't the case. There are three things the case is focused on: 1) the time period that it takes to receive tenure, 2) Last-in, first-out (LIFO) policies, and 3) the dismissal process for ineffective teachers.

Let's talk about the first one. How long should a teacher teach before receiving tenure? The argument in the case is that 16-18 months simply isn't long enough for this decision. I would say that we need to push this back to at least 3-4 years.

On LIFO, it's clear that conducting layoffs by seniority alone has negative impacts on schools and kids. I would say that layoff decisions should in large part be driven by effectiveness. Other "fit" issues like subject matter needs should also be taken into account. Can seniority play a role? Certainly. For example, if two teachers are equal on other factors could/should seniority be the tiebreaker? Yes.

And last, teachers should absolutely have due process. However, when it can take up to 10 years and $450,000 to dismiss a teacher, we need to fix that. I believe we can craft a system that is fair and which is not overly cumbersome and expensive to the point of making it nearly impossible.

Schneider: Teacher tenure, it's important to remember, isn't what many believe it to be. It isn't lifetime employment.

Permanent status entitles educators to the due process procedures negotiated in collective bargaining. And that's an important component of ensuring that teachers aren't arbitrarily dismissed, fired for teaching sensitive subjects, or punished for pursuing what they believe to be in the best interests of students. It also stabilizes the occupation in a way that makes it attractive to those who might otherwise be put off by low pay. I think it's important that we're on the same page about this.

Are some incapable teachers awarded permanent status? Yes. But there isn't much evidence that extending the process by another year or two represents a solution. The real problem here is that we lack adequate systems for observing and evaluating teachers. An extra year might give administrators some needed time, particularly in bubble cases. And I think some flexibility is important and could represent a kind of compromise. But I still worry about principals feeling like they don't have enough information to deny someone permanent status. In short, more time isn't enough.

Finally, as I've said before about LIFO, the challenge is identifying effective teachers. So while I theoretically agree with you about looking at effectiveness rather than seniority, I also see very real challenges. Without actually developing the tools to do this well—and knowing that test scores are inadequate—I don't see how overturning last-in, first-out will be any better than keeping it in place. Especially when there are built-in incentives to get rid of more expensive senior teachers. So how are we going to ensure that layoffs are conducted in a fair and effective manor?

Rhee: I'm curious about what you've said about teachers seeing stability in the profession as a trade-off for low pay. This very well may be true but I don't hear that from effective teachers at all. They are in education and teaching because they believe in kids and the power of what's possible in school. And as I said, I think due process so that teachers aren't vulnerable is important, but wouldn't you say that we can give that due process in a more reasonable way?

I agree that changing the timeframe of granting tenure isn't an end-all, be-all solution. I was simply saying that more time is probably better than less time.

In terms of LIFO, I think we ensure that teachers are laid off in a fair manner by putting in place better and more rigorous teacher evaluation systems. Again, you're focused on a solution that is "fairer" for teachers, but doesn't that have to be weighed against what is "fair" and good for students, too?

Schneider: Teachers are highly capable people with lots of other career options. Because education is publicly funded, salaries tend to be modest. But teachers are willing to look past that. Why? They're drawn into the profession because they feel the work is important, because teachers are held in high regard, and because working conditions tend to be fairly humane. When you erode any of those, you weaken the sustainability of teaching as a profession.

To say that effective teachers don't care about working conditions because they care about kids is misleading. All teachers care about kids. If they didn't care about kids the work would be meaningless. K-12 teaching, at its very core, is about work with children.

But everyone cares about pay. And everyone cares about working conditions. Teachers make $57,000 a year on average, which is often significantly less than they could make in other occupations. But they evaluate their lives holistically. They get to go to work and feel like they're making a difference. They get to follow a school calendar, giving them more time with their own families. And they don't need to worry—as many in the private sector do—about being downsized.

So when the rhetoric is about firing teachers, and when we see policies coming down the pike that threaten to destabilize professional life, I worry. Especially when the emphasis on high-stakes tests has already raised stress levels inside school buildings.

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