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June 11, 2014

California court knocks down teacher tenure

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In a landmark decision, a California judge declared the state’s strong tenure laws for public school teachers are unconstitutional. This move could make it easier to fire ineffective teachers.

Nine California students initiated the Vergara v. California case in 2012, claiming that the tenure laws, which restrict a principal’s ability to fire teachers, denied their right to quality education.

Elizabeth Vergara and her sister Beatriz are two of the students who brought the complaint. The sisters said their education suffered because of issues such as chaotic classrooms and little to no instruction.

Their middle school history teacher, claimed Elizabeth, “Would just be at his desk, like, just using his computer or sleeping. I didn’t even learn anything. Like, I was getting behind.”
Individual states have established their own tenure systems. In California, teachers are eligible for tenure after 18 months on the job. Once they have tenure, principals must go through a series of complicated and expensive steps to initiate dismissal proceedings.

Attorneys for the state and teachers unions argued that these laws are an important part of hiring and retaining talented teachers.

But the student plaintiffs in the lawsuit pointed out that statutes protecting teacher tenure, dismissal procedures and layoff policies result in the schools retaining ineffective teachers and also hurt students’ chances to succeed.

“What the judge decided today, made it quite clear that, taken together, the statutes that guarantee lifetime employment after 18 months that don’t look at factors like whether teachers are actually teaching kids and whether they’re learning, statutes that make termination nearly impossible… and statutes that ensure that those most new to the profession are first fired… violate the quality right to an education guaranteed by California’s Constitution,” said Russlynn Ali of the U.S. Department of Education.

However, state attorneys and teachers unions opposed the ruling, saying that the laws play a vital role in ensuring educators are not dismissed unfairly.

“I think we’re going to continue to work with parents and community around a vision for a quality public education that both raises up kids and also values the men and women who work with them, which is the complete opposite of what this ruling attempts to do,” said Joshua Pechthalt, president of the California Federation of Teachers.

The Los Angeles Superior Court’s decision will be appealed and may end up in the California Supreme Court and then possibly the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.


Warm up questions

Note: Please do not use the specific names of teachers you have had in this warm up activity.

  1. Defining what a great teacher is can be hard to do. You may have teachers who you think are very good, but they may teach in totally different ways. Can you quantify the characteristics of a really good teacher? How would you measure their greatness?
  2. What about a teacher who isn’t great, or even below average? How and who would measure that? What would be the consequences for those teachers?
Discussion questions
  1. How did poor teaching affect the girls featured in the video? Do they deserve better? Explain your answer.
  2. Did the teacher who said she supported teacher tenure have a good reason to do so? What was it? How do you think this court decision will affect California schools?
Writing prompt

Imagine that you are the new Human Resources (HR) boss and it is your job to create a method of evaluating teachers. Briefly explain the who, where, what, why, when and how of your evaluation plan.

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