On June 10th, California Judge Rolf M. Treu declared that teacher tenure laws in California deprive students of their right to an education and declared them unconstitutional. The provisions that were specifically targeted were the time frame for awarding tenure to California teachers, seniority rules on firing of teachers colloquially known as “last in, first out” and rules for due process before removing a teacher after the initial probationary period. Judge Treu grandly compared his decision to Brown v. Board of Education and sent shock waves through the mainstream teacher community.
I do not think the ruling is likely to survive a challenge.
First, the evidence that Judge Treu said “shocks the conscience” and was presented by the plaintiffs is not precisely rock solid. Relying heavily upon the work of Professor Raj Chetty of Harvard University, the plaintiffs claimed that even one “grossly ineffective” teacher had long term lasting harm on student’s achievement and future economic success, and they claimed California’s tenure laws subjected students to such “grossly ineffective” teachers. The problem here is not that there are not a discernible portion of teachers who ought to be removed, but that the Chetty research, indeed most of the research used by the plaintiffs is, to put it mildly, disputed.
Dr. Audrey Amrein-Beardsley of Arizona State University writes the blog Vamboozled to discuss research and policy around the use of value added measures of teacher performance (VAMs), and she has taken on the flaws of Dr, Chetty’s work on numerous occasions, notably here and here. Dr. Amrein-Beardsley links to critiques from other scholars as well, and the obvious message that Judge Treu missed is that this scholarship “shocks the conscience” most powerfully when one thoroughly ignores that does not represent a professional consensus among education researchers. Indeed, it is easy to portray the handful of researchers who insist that single teacher impacts can be measured this way as outliers. So with appeals in the works, it is hard to believe that Judge Treu’s wholesale ignoring of contrary evidence will be replicated by every judge who reviews the evidence.
Second, as Dr. Diane Ravitch of New York University explains here, the plaintiffs in the Vergara case are of questionable standing. If the argument is that “grossly ineffective” teachers have damaging lifelong impacts on students, it would stand to reason that the plaintiffs could clearly demonstrate that they had been subjected to such teachers. Not so much. In fact, some of them apparently claimed that a given teacher was bad at teaching when those same teachers were widely recognized as excellent:
One of the plaintiffs (Monterroza) said that her teacher, Christine McLaughlin was a very bad teacher, but McLaughlin was Pasadena teacher of the year and has received many awards for excellent teaching (google her).
Dr. Ravitch refers to briefs by the defense that go on to note how none of the plaintiffs could tie any of the supposedly poor teachers to the specific statutes that were challenged in the lawsuit. Appeals attorneys were certainly make use of this, and given judges more inclined to consider all the evidence, they may have successes.
I am, therefore, tentatively hopeful that this case will die or be substantively altered on appeal. But I am still worried, and the reason is that the case provides a much desired legal win for a coordinated set of interests that have teacher unions firmly in their sights. The plaintiffs were sponsored by the group “Students Matter” which is funded by Silicon Valley technology entrepreneur David Welch and is financially allied with charter school funders and Michelle Rhee’s “Students First” organization that similarly attacks teachers’ union protections. Given the partisan position of the lawsuit’s backers, it was extremely troubling, if not surprising, to see Secretary of Education Arne Duncan welcome a decision that greatly undermines teachers’ workplace protections:
With strong financial backers like Welch, Rhee and organizations like the Walton Family Foundation and tacit approval from the administration, we can expect similar lawsuits in pretty much every state over the next few years. It fits one of the favorite narratives of the education “reform” camp: that everything hinges on teachers and if we only fire the right teachers, schools, everywhere, will improve dramatically
This is pernicious for a number of reasons. First, it relies of the very shaky and often laughable claim that all it takes to close the achievement gap is enough “great teachers” in a row. Michelle Rhee loves to repeat this claim, but the claim does not stand up to very strong scrutiny, most notably that the research basis for the claim merely extrapolated from one year gains in classrooms with an identified effective teacher instead of studying students over time.
Further, we should question the value of the metrics used to rate teacher effectiveness in the first place. As I have written previously, the American Statistical Association’s statement on the use of VAMs warns that only 1% to 14% of student variation on test scores can be attributed to variation in teacher quality. The does not mean, by the way, that teachers have no effect, but that statistically tying the achievement gap among students as measured by standardized testing to variability in teacher quality is looking at a very narrow slice of that gap’s origins. What else can account for persistent gaps in student test scores? Los Angles has a Residential Income Segregation Index of 51. 54% of children in the central city live in poverty. The impacts of poverty on children are by now well documented and cannot be excluded when considering school performance. Classrooms in Los Angeles are overcrowded, sometimes to a shocking extreme. California’s woeful education expenditures place it in the company of Arkansas and below West Virginia. But according to the proponents of the Vergara case, the only thing that matters is teacher effectiveness as rated by the test score gains made by their students, regardless of all of the other factors that may effect those scores.
And this is painful ground for teacher and student advocates. It sounds like I am saying that teachers have little impact, but what I mean to say is that teachers matter, but not in ways that are effectively measured by the value added models based on standardized testing. Professor Jesse Rothstein’s review of the Measures of Effective Teaching study funded by the Gates Foundation demonstrated that teachers who did very well in their value added measures did far less well in measures of students gaining higher order thinking skills, so it is highly possible that the measures favored by Vergara’s so-called expert witnesses improperly favor the wrong teachers. Anecdotally, such measures of effectiveness miss the realities of how teachers work with students. The worst teacher of my entire life was my seventh grade mathematics teacher who was a bully and the most demotivating individual I have ever known in my life. However, in a community where 95% of high school graduates went on to four year colleges and universities, the depths of his ineffectiveness would have been masked by the external advantages of his students. Influence and impact upon students can frequently be hard to see in any numbers, but they are real regardless. I have had former students contact me via social media to express appreciation for the role I played in their development towards adulthood, and not all of those students were long term academic successes (they are, however, remarkable people…testing misses that).
That is because an effective teacher is not merely a person who extracts a pre-determined gain in a standardized test over the course of one year. Effective teachers inspire students to take risks that may result in messy but instructive failures. Effective teachers help student manage social and emotional challenges to become more skilled at collaboration and leadership. Effective teachers challenge students to, as Maxine Greene phrased it, “stir” themselves and see the world in different and transformative ways. Effective teachers may simply convince a struggling student to stay in school for the stability it provides in his or her life.
As we prepare to challenge the Vergara decision and to brace ourselves for the flood of similar suits that the likes of Michelle Rhee are undoubtedly planning, it is vital that we not only confront the highly flawed assumptions of test based teacher competence, but also that we uplift a better vision of the importance of skilled and experienced teachers.