Thursday, June 12, 2014

An excellent take on Vergara v. California

Dana has a characteristically thoughtful and balanced take on the controversial ruling. It's that balance that makes the final paragraph quoted all the more striking.

Is the premise of Treu’s ruling correct? Will axing tenure and seniority lead directly to better test scores and higher lifetime earnings for poor kids?

Here’s where the judge is right: It is difficult—actually, close to impossible—to argue that California’s teacher-tenure system makes sense. Research shows that most first-year teachers are mediocre at best. But good teachers tend to make huge jumps in effectiveness by the end of their second year on the job, and those improvements are often visible through classroom observation and students’ rising test scores. Yet California evaluates teachers for tenure in March of their second year of work, before two full years of student-teacher data are available.

This means that under current California law, principals are forced to make high-stakes decisions about teachers without enough evidence. This disadvantages students, who might get stuck with sub-par instructors, but it also hurts teachers, who aren’t given enough time to prove their skill. Once a teacher earns tenure, it can cost tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars—and countless administrative and legal man-hours—for a district to permanently remove him from his job. And in the event of budget cuts or school closings, California law mandates that the least experienced teachers be laid off first, even if they are more effective than their older colleagues, a policy known as “LIFO,” or “Last In, First Out.”

[I have a couple of questions about the metrics that determine the effectiveness of those teachers but that can wait for another post -- MP]

California is an outlier. Only 12 states have formal laws on the books mandating LIFO. Nationally, teachers work an average of 3.1 years before they become eligible for tenure. Not even teachers support the idea of tenure after less than two years on the job. A 2012 survey of 10,000 teachers found that, on average, they believed it was reasonable to work 5.4 years before being evaluated for tenure. As Treu noted in his ruling, the arguments in Vergara revealed remarkable consensus between the prosecution and defense on the fact that California’s tenure policies are far from best practices.

But here’s where Judge Reulf’s theory is faulty: Getting rid of these bad laws may do little to systemically raise student achievement. For high-poverty schools, hiring is at least as big of a challenge as firing, and the Vergara decision does nothing to make it easier for the most struggling schools to attract or retain the best teacher candidates.

From 2009 to 2011, the federal government offered 1,500 effective teachers in 10 major cities—including Los Angeles—a $20,000 bonus to transfer to an open job at a higher poverty school with lower test scores. In the world of public education, $20,000 is a major financial incentive. All these teachers were already employed by urban districts with diverse student populations; they weren’t scared of working with poor, non-white children. Yet less than a quarter of the eligible teachers chose to apply for the bonuses. Most did not want to teach in the schools that were the most deeply segregated by race and class and faced major pressure to raise test scores.

Principals have known about this problem for ages. In Chicago, economist Brian Jacob found that when the city’s school district made it easier for principals to fire teachers, nearly 40 percent of principals, including many at the worst performing, poorest schools, fired no teachers at all. Why? For one thing, firing a coworker is unpleasant. It takes more than a policy change to overturn the culture of public education, which values collegiality and continuous improvement over swift accountability. That culture is not a wholly bad thing—with so many teachers avoiding the poorest schools, principals have little choice but to work with their existing staffs to help them get better at their jobs.

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