Will California's Ruling Against Teacher Tenure Change Schools?

A judge said the state discriminates against poor and minority students by protecting the jobs of ineffective instructors. What will this mean for education?
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On Tuesday, a California superior-court judge ruled that the state’s teacher tenure system discriminates against kids from low-income families. Based on testimony that one to three percent of California teachers are likely “grossly ineffective”—thousands of people, who mostly teach at low-income schools—he reasoned that current tenure policies “impose a disproportionate burden on poor and minority students.” The ruling, in Vergara v. California, has the potential to overturn five state laws governing how long it takes for a teacher to earn tenure; the legal maneuvers necessary to remove a tenured teacher; and which teachers are laid off first in the event of budget cuts or school closings.

Tenure has existed in K-12 public education since 1909, when “good-government” reformers borrowed the concept from Germany. The idea spread quickly from New Jersey to New York to Chicago and then across the country. During the Progressive Era, both teachers unions and school-accountability hawks embraced the policy, which prevented teaching jobs from being given out as favors by political bosses. If it was legally difficult to fire a good teacher, she couldn’t be replaced by the alderman’s unqualified sister-in-law.

Tenure remains common in schools around the world, but since 2009, two-thirds of American states have weakened their teacher-tenure laws in response to President Obama’s Race to the Top program. California, where Governor Jerry Brown is far more sympathetic to the teachers unions than most governors, was not among them. The Vergara ruling is an especially big blow to unions on typically sympathetic turf.

Judge Rolf Treu’s decision will not take effect while the California Teachers Association mounts an appeal. Depending on the outcome of that effort, his ruling may or may not ever impact the lives of California teachers. But the ruling’s rhetoric is stern and memorable stuff, borrowed directly from the playbook of the Silicon Valley philanthropists and deep-pocketed advocacy groups that bankrolled Vergara. Citing familiar economic research showing that great teachers increase their students’ annual earnings by 1.3 percent, Judge Treu wrote that “grossly ineffective teachers substantially undermine the ability of [a] child to succeed in school. … The evidence is compelling. Indeed, it shocks the conscience.” Ending tenure and other seniority protections for teachers, he ruled, would protect the civil rights of California’s poor children to “basic equality in public education.”

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.”

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.

Too few of the best teachers are willing to work in the country’s most racially isolated and poorest neighborhoods.

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.

The lesson here is that California’s tenure policies may be insensible, but they aren’t the only, or even the primary, driver of the teacher-quality gap between the state’s middle-class and low-income schools. The larger problem is that too few of the best teachers are willing to work long-term in the country’s most racially isolated and poorest neighborhoods. There are lots of reasons why, ranging from plain old racism and classism to the higher principal turnover that turns poor schools into chaotic workplaces that mature teachers avoid. The schools with the most poverty are also more likely to focus on standardized test prep, which teachers dislike. Plus, teachers tend to live in middle-class neighborhoods and may not want a long commute.

Educational equality is about more than teacher-seniority rules: It is about making the schools that serve poor children more attractive places for the smartest, most ambitious people to spend their careers. To do that, those schools need excellent, stable principals who inspire confidence in great teachers. They need rich curricula that stimulate both adults and children. And ideally, their student bodies should be more socioeconomically integrated so schools are less overwhelmed by the social challenges of poverty. Of course, all that is a tall policy order; much more difficult, it turns out, than overturning tenure laws.

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Dana Goldstein is a staff writer at The Marshall Project. She is the author of the forthcoming book The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession.

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