A court decision last week to throw out state teacher tenure rules may lead people to think that this is the solution for providing quality education for all students, a shortsighted view in the opinion of local educators.
A Los Angeles Superior Court judge on June 10 decided that tenure rules, which allow teachers to get lifetime job protection after just 18 months, were unconstitutional because they allow ineffective teachers to stay in the system, thereby depriving equal access to a quality public education for all students.
"I think some people believe that if you get rid of tenure, you've solved the problem and quality (of education) will go up," said Deborah Stipek, dean of the school of education at Stanford University. The problems are elsewhere, she said, in teachers' lack of social status and paychecks that don't reflect their value to the community. Society needs to invest in the best and brightest, train them well and provide on-the-job support, she said.
"Tenure is a red herring," Woodside High School English teacher Tony Mueller said in an email. "Rather than going after labor unions and worker's rights, 'reformers' should confront the real problems with our education system: gross inequity in funding based on geography, the drastic cuts in social spending for the poor, the obscenely small amount of money spent per pupil in California, the constant attack on teachers from those intent on privatizing the system, and inherent American anti-intellectualism that is suspicious of science, poetry, foreign languages, and history."
Nine public school students represented by Students Matter, a nonprofit with a mail-drop in Menlo Park and founded by Atherton resident and Silicon Valley entrepreneur David Welch, sued the state and the state Department of Education in May 2012, alleging "outdated state laws that prevent the recruitment, support and retention of effective teachers."
The statutes in question -- on tenure, dismissal and last-in-first-out teacher-layoff policies -- were declared unconstitutional in a June 10 decision by Judge Rolf M. Treu of Los Angeles County Superior Court. Judge Treu suspended the decision pending an appeal by the state.
The lawsuit asserted that teachers play a crucial role in the lifetime achievements of their students, and that ineffective teachers can have a dramatically negative impact. Lawyers for the students claimed that such teachers are "disproportionately situated in schools serving predominantly low-income and minority students," which has adverse effects on the quality of their education, Judge Treu wrote in summarizing his decision.
Testimony at the trial included a study asserting that a typical classroom of students collectively loses $1.4 million in lifetime earnings when taught by an ineffective teacher for one year, the judge noted. A witness testifying for the state said that up to 3 percent of California's 275,000 public school teachers, about 8,250 teachers, are "grossly" ineffective. "The evidence is compelling. Indeed, it shocks the conscience," Judge Treu wrote.
He compared the students' plight to the separate-but-equal schools for African-American students, a practice struck down by Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.
The ruling is "certainly a dramatic decision," and tenure is symbolic on both sides of the issue, Ms. Stipek of Stanford said. "I think most teachers oppose getting rid of tenure because they don't believe or have not experienced that other strategies for judging the quality of their work are fair," she said.
Two evaluation tools are now available: assessment by the principal and measurement of the achievement of students taught by the teacher. For the first to be useful, Ms. Stipek said, principals need to know effective teaching when they see it. "Some do, many don't," she said, and training is uncommon.
As for measuring student achievement, if students arrive in the fall prepared for the work ahead of them, assessing their progress can be uncomplicated. Students not adequately prepared can still learn a great deal and make "huge progress," but it won't show up in a by-the-numbers evaluation of the teacher, Ms. Stipek said.
Progress is being made on effective evaluation techniques, but teachers have no faith that current methods are fair and unbiased, she said. Job security -- tenure -- is a fall-back position, she said, adding that she is very sympathetic to administrators whose hands are tied by union rules when trying to reassign teachers.
Woodside High teacher Tony Mueller said that some of the "world's best education systems have highly-unionized teachers with even better job security than in California." The lawsuit, he said, is "an attack on unions, workers, and teachers with the intent of breaking unions and privatizing public education."
Students Matter did not respond to interview requests for this story.
Woodside High English teacher Sue Rhodehouse said in an email that she has seen ineffective teachers removed, often speedily. "The current system just ensures due process," she said. "This is a challenging job. Those years that I am given a difficult assignment, I am eager to take up the task because I know that I am guaranteed due process should the need arise. Without this process ... I would question my career choice and discourage others from entering the field."
Teaching as a profession loses 50 percent of its new teachers within five years, said Fred Glass of the California Federation of Teachers. The current system protects academic freedom, he said. "One thing that makes teaching attractive is that somebody has your back," he said. "If you raise a controversial issue such as religion or politics, you won't be fired."