Can America Really Fire Its Way to Better Teachers?

With a ruling in California's Vergara case, tenure laws are set to disappear in the Golden State.

(Photo: Rob Lewine/Getty Images)

Staff Writer Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at GOOD.

To the average American there’s only one Vergara that matters: Modern Family actor Sofia Vergara. But despite never gracing a single magazine cover, Beatriz and Elizabeth Vergara, two Los Angeles Unified School District students, have a bombshell court case named after them, one that's likely to have a greater impact on the nation than the talented television star. The way teacher tenure is decided in K–12 education in the Golden State has been found unconstitutional in response to a lawsuit the Vergara sisters and seven other plaintiffs filed in 2012.

Citing the Brown v. Board decision, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu ruled that the last-hired, first-fired policies that govern teacher tenure in the state, as well as firing and discipline procedures, violate students’ right to an excellent and equal education.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan hailed the decision as a step in the right direction. “For students in California and every other state, equal opportunities for learning must include the equal opportunity to be taught by a great teacher,” said Duncan in a statement. “The students who brought this lawsuit are, unfortunately, just nine out of millions of young people in America who are disadvantaged by laws, practices and systems that fail to identify and support our best teachers and match them with our neediest students.”

The case rests on the idea that the key lever to improving education outcomes is boosting teacher quality, and that making it easier to get rid of ineffective teachers is at the heart of ensuring students learn. In Waiting for "Superman," filmgoers saw the infamous “dance of the lemons” in which, because of tenure rules, ineffective teachers are moved from school to school instead of being dismissed.

However, advocates of teacher tenure maintain that the protection doesn’t mean a job for life. Instead, it means due process. "Administrators have the right within two years to dismiss teachers absolutely without cause, and they have no due process rights whatsoever," California Federation of Teachers Vice President Gary Ravani told KPCC's AirTalk. "So it's up to administration to do an effective job of evaluating teachers in that time and making the judgment as to whether or not the teacher's effective or not. There's nothing to suggest that two years isn't sufficient time to do that."

In 2011, the “Futures of School Reform,” a collaborative project run by Harvard's School of Education, found that poverty and other non-school factors, like access to health care and the amount of violence in a community, are key factors in student achievement. Nearly one-fourth of American children live in poverty, and when their test results are disaggregated from the results of the most influential standardized test in the world, the Programme for International Student Assessment, America scores higher than any other nation, including much admired Finland.

What’s particularly problematic with the Vergara case is that the three teachers—Christine McLaughlin, Anthony Mize, and Dawna Watty—who were named “ineffective” by the plaintiffs’ lawyers have never received a single negative evaluation from their administrators. They also never received complaints from parents or students.

Noted education historian Diane Ravitch did a little more digging to see if the plaintiffs' teachers were terrible. “Not only did none of them have a ‘grossly ineffective’ teacher,” wrote Ravitch, “but some of the plaintiffs attended schools where there are no tenured teachers.” That’s because, wrote Ravitch, “two of the plaintiffs attend charter schools, where there is no tenure or seniority.” It turns out “Beatriz and Elizabeth Vergara both attend a 'Pilot School' in LAUSD that is free to let teachers go at the end of the school year for any reason, including ineffectiveness.”

In an op-ed in the San Jose Mercury News, California Federation of Teachers President Joshua Pechthalt said that the case is legal maneuvering by Silicon Valley millionaire and charter school proponent David Welch. Pechthalt claims Welch “backs an ‘education reform’ strategy that, without an overtly anti-union agenda, nonetheless would result in the reducing or dismantling of teacher rights.”

The appeal of the case is sure to stall implementation of the ruling, so we should all expect to hear more about the legal wrangling over this very unglamorous, non-Hollywood Vergara. However, as New America foundation director Kevin Carey warns over at The New Republic, a court system is “an inherently problematic venue in which to resolve fundamental education questions.”

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