A California judge’s Tuesday ruling that the state’s teacher tenure laws are unconstitutional is a landmark moment for the school reform movement. Students Matter, financier of the case (Vergara vs. State of California) with the funding of tech magnate David Welch, is preparing to bring similar suits to New York, Connecticut, Maryland, Oregon, New Mexico, Idaho and Kansas. This state-by-state strategy follows a historical precedent by similarly motivated groups, such as turn-of-the-20th-century women suffragists and contemporary gay marriage activists, seeking to challenge regulations at the state level to build a groundswell for national upheaval. Unlike the other movements, however, this shortsighted educational crusade will have unintended and deleterious ripple effects. As states consider terminating teacher tenure, their constituents must recognize that such reforms will do little to improve the day-to-day lives of students and will drastically increase the unpopular grip of high-stakes testing.
The judge, in issuing the ruling (PDF), said allowing incompetent teachers to remain in the classroom harmed students. But the firing of a few poor teachers is something of a red herring. A pivotal statistic cited by the judge in justifying his decision claimed that “one to three percent” of California teachers — as many as 8,000 educators — were “grossly ineffective.” But this data point, it turns out, was completely fabricated by a speculating expert witness (who also says he never uttered the phrase “grossly ineffective”).
A look at the bigger picture shows that tenure has fallen out of popularity in large part because of shifting federal priorities. As Dana Goldstein writes in The Atlantic, “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,” which allows states to vie for billions in education dollars by tying teacher evaluations to student performance. The mastermind of that program, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, issued a statement on June 10 contending that the Vergara case represents a debate that “every state, [and] every school district needs to have.” He added, “At the federal level, we are committed to encouraging and supporting that dialogue in partnership with states.” Duncan’s allegiance to this vision of nationwide reorganization suggests that it will be only a matter of time before tenure is repealed state by state — and, more worryingly, fierce interstate competition for funds becomes widespread.
The Vergara ruling will likely be appealed. But if it is allowed to stand, the reverberations of the case will put more emphasis on standardized student testing, more emphasis on centralized state control and more emphasis on “me first” survivalist mentalities in teacher break rooms across the country. In order to receive funds, administrators will be forced to put increased pressure on teachers to produce results on high-stakes exams. Employment will depend more than ever on isolated test scores — and without tenure protections, educators will yield to these demands.
If parents hated Common Core–aligned assessments before the Vergara ruling, their vitriol will only mount as other states remove their tenure protections. States will have less localized flexibility to counter federal mandates, because as long as teachers are vilified as deadwood enjoying cushy tenures, the real challenges to educational reform will never be addressed. And ironically, as more and more teachers are fired, there will be fewer professionals left to speak up for the remaining faculty and stick up for the students themselves.
Michelle Rhee, former schools chancellor of Washington, D.C., founder of the education lobby StudentsFirst and a vocal proponent of eliminating tenure, said in an interview with CNN that Tuesday’s ruling was a victory for kids. But Diane Ravitch, a professor of education at New York University, argued on her blog that students will not see any tangible educational benefits from this legislation:
Millions more dollars will be spent to litigate the issues in California and elsewhere, but what will students gain? Nothing. The poorest, neediest students will still be in schools that lack the resources to meet their needs. They will still be in schools where classes are too large. They will still be in buildings that need repairs. They will still be in schools where the arts program and nurses and counselors were eliminated by budget cuts.
Removing tenure is an attractive option for operating budgets, because novice teachers earn less than master teachers, but nothing ensures that funds originally allocated for teacher salary are redirected toward the classroom. In fact, in public charter schools, where teachers are untenured and financial transparency is limited, scandals abound.
In a Washington Post op-ed, Rhee proclaims that the Vergara ruling is also a ruling for great teachers. More accurately, however, it is a ruling for green teachers, who will be hired to replace the newly jettisoned veterans. And while many green teachers will do fantastic jobs, studies unfortunately show that great inexperienced teachers do not often make it to mastery, because work environment, salary and a lack of administrative support (PDF) push them to pursue other professions.
In local town halls, parents and students old enough to speak their minds must tap into their populist voices and broadcast the real issues facing their local schools. The actual civil rights issue in education is that an absence of skilled professionals will do more to undermine mastery and learning than any teacher’s contract status.