This month, a California appeals court overturned a judge’s decision in the Vergara case that challenged state tenure laws, teacher dismissal practices and the widespread practice of “last in, first out” layoffs.
The original judge agreed with the plaintiffs’ argument that teachers earn tenure too quickly (two years) for schools to determine their effectiveness, that rigid due process makes firing incompetent teachers costly and nearly impossible, and that layoff rules result in effective teachers being unnecessarily let go while ineffective teachers are retained. And since bad teachers are disproportionately at schools with poor and minority students, current laws violated their rights.
The appeals court, however, said that the fact some students, mostly poor kids, must learn from ineffective teachers more likely results from “teacher preferences, district policies, and collective bargaining agreements.”
Put simply, California’s policies are bad for students; they just aren’t necessarily especially bad for poor and minority students.
Some teacher union leaders are celebrating the decision as a victory for at-risk kids. Whatever else the ruling was, it was not a victory for kids.
Two courts have now found that the way the state compels districts to handle key personnel decisions results in lower-quality teachers. Whether this is especially bad for certain types of students is the constitutional question, but whether it is bad policy is not.
So let’s consider how we might better serve children. As researchers on these issues, we believe that no state or districtwide policies can provide the one best way to assign teachers. Principals and school leaders require the flexibility to make many staffing decisions on their own.
In New York City, we know that giving administrators more information about their teachers and holding them accountable for tenure decisions can meaningfully improve teacher quality. Delaying, but not ending, tenure can provide school leaders time to make better decisions about who to keep. When leaders in Washington, D.C., implemented multiple measures of teacher performance, more ineffective teachers voluntarily left, and low- and high-performing teachers alike improved.
Other evidence shows that small changes that cost little or nothing can make a major difference. One study has shown that inexperienced teachers are more likely to be assigned low-performing and minority students than their more experienced counterparts even within the same school. Changing these policies can reduce teacher turnover.
The appeals court decision implies that current policies will continue to guide staffing in California schools, at least until the state Supreme Court has its say or the Legislature acts. Our reading of the lower court and appeals court decisions is that both suggest – and substantial research on teacher quality confirms – that meaningful change is in order.
Katharine O. Strunk is an associate professor of education and policy at the University of Southern California and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Dan Goldhaber is a vice president at the American Institutes For Research who testified for the Vergara plaintiffs and can be contacted at email@example.com. Joshua Cowen is an associate professor of education policy at Michigan State University and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.