Students from Oakland High School

Should it be easier for California public schools to fire teachers? A Silicon Valley entrepreneur is spearheading a lawsuit against the state challenging teacher tenure and seniority, which critics say make it harder to remove ineffective instructors. Advocates for teachers say job security and other benefits are essential to lure good teachers into low-paying jobs. We’ll get the latest developments on the trial and examine the implications of the case.

John Fensterwald, reporter for EdSource
Theodore Boutrous, attorney for the nine student plaintiffs challenging California's teacher tenure rules
James Finberg, lead attorney in the Vergara lawsuit trial representing California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers

  • thucy

    This is fascinating. There is a pointed letter from a Mr. Skeels, a former bilingual catechism instructor at St. Theresa de Avila, to David Welch, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur who is funding the Vergara lawsuit:

    When you have private Catholic school instructors like Mr. Skeel going to the mat for public school instructors against a Silicon Valley multi-millionaire, I think it’s safe to assume the bullying plutocrats have pushed everyone just a tad too far. Even if Welch succeeds, he’ll have at best a pyrrhic victory, as most Americans know and trust their teachers better than they trust the soi-disant “meritocracy” represented by David Welch. I’ll be enjoying this fight with a bowl of popcorn, and should Welch prevail, I’ll proudly join any peaceful demonstration in support of hard-working teachers.

  • Livegreen

    We have good teachers & bad teachers at our overall good public elementary school in Oakland. However for the bad teachers nothing is ever done. Nobody informs parents how they can complain. The teachers, even the good ones, act like nobody should do anything about the bad ones because it violates their “rights”. Why is it anti-teacher to even share with families how they can file a complaint against bad & mediocre teachers? Well what about the rights of the kids?

    • Amar Singh

      Lets stop pretending that teachers union spends millions for benefit of students in every election cycle. Their objective is benefit of teachers which is not same as that of students

  • John

    What is behind this is Silicon Valley wants to take over public education and be the financial beneficiary of the privatization of our public schools. You saw this last year with people like Sebastian Thrun trying to force our public universities to accept for-profit MOOCs for credit. These are very serious threats to public education that must be resisted.

  • David

    The comments are coming in early! I hope people are listening closely, because the plaintiffs in this case may be skilled at presenting stories and statistics, but they cannot prove cause and effect, and looking at laws in other states, there’s no evidence that their proposed solutions would help at all. Students Matter is asking the court to undermine teachers and school stability statewide to cover up inadequate management in some districts. (I’m not necessarily blaming the managers – they may simply be overwhelmed and under-resourced). Also note, when plaintiffs cite a study about the long-term effects of a single great teacher, they’re relying on economists who found modest, non-causal correlations and then extrapolated those effects out for forty years or so. It doesn’t really sound as dramatic or life-changing to suggest that great teachers help students eventually earn an extra few bucks a week.

    For more:

  • Bob Fry

    Generally I agree with reward = f(performance).

    But how does one measure performance? With teachers, one could test students at the start of the school year, and at the end, and see their improvement. Compare that class’s improvement with other classes, and you’ve got an idea of teaching ability, especially over some years. People who are good at their job in any endeavor come to resent those who are not, and who receive the exact same rewards as the good ones.

    That said, the entire industrial educational establishment (K-University) needs an overhaul. K-12 now is part education, part baby-sitting. If ONLY education were important, we could do a much better job, much cheaper, using 21st century technologies. But we need expensive, labor-intensive teaching methods to baby-sit the kids.

    • thucy

      “But how does one measure performance? With teachers, one could test students at the start of the school year, and at the end, and see their improvement. Compare that class’s improvement with other classes, and you’ve got an idea of teaching ability, especially over some years.”

      But Bob, How do you account for the massive differences amongst individual classes? I think teachers are critically important, however, they may account for only 80% of student performance. The biggest factor is parents’ income and class status.

  • Sam Badger

    As someone going into Academia, I can see how tenure is an important way of protecting educators. It’s false to make it out that most educators somehow want to get rid of it. Perhaps there should be some limited reform of the tenure system, but this should come with more access to re-training, pay raises and reduction of class size. We shouldn’t focus on fixing education by just firing teachers we see as “ineffective” but on finding ways to help teachers do a better job to begin with. Taking an antagonistic role towards teachers and focusing on “punishing” bad teachers won’t fix the education system – fewer people will want to become teachers, and more teachers would be losing their jobs. If anything, a decrease in job security will just reduce the incentive to become a teacher.

  • smhll

    It is cheap rhetoric and wrong to describe teachers who are not “highly effective” as highly ineffective. Teacher effectiveness exists on a spectrum. Teachers who are not in the top 10% are in the bottom 90%, not the bottom 10%. Describing all teachers who do not merit the description HIGHLY effective as “highly ineffective” is bullsh-t.

  • Livegreen

    The Teachers Union is not holy here, even among individual democrats like myself. Why? The Teachers Unions are protecting Abusive Pedophile Teachers just like the Catholic Church.

    Why isn’t this part of the lawsuit?

    • avalonsensei

      The teachers union does not hire or evaluate teachers. Management does. We don’t want these losers on our work force either. Please tell management to stop giving them jobs, and monitor them effectively.

  • Aimee Dewing

    As a California native, I’m wondering how our state stacks up against the rest? Are we facing a unique problem within out educational system? How far have we fallen behind?

    • thucy

      As a fourth-gen San Franciscan, I wonder how much of that comparable performance amongst states has to do with the ability to fire teachers? Probably not that much. This lawsuit reeks of a witch hunt against working class teachers.

      • Aimee Dewing

        Probably not that much? You think that an ineffective teacher’s influence over a child’s success if “probably not that much?” As a third-Gen Angeleno I think our children ought to be our first priority.

  • Lola

    For TB: How does California compare to other states on these issues?

  • Danielle

    When Mr. Finberg says that teachers voluntarily leave, isn’t he largely referring to settlements, where those teachers are paid thousands of dollars to leave the classroom? Why is this necessary and how does this help cash-strapped schoolsl provide the best teachers to its students?

    • thucy

      How do we explain multi-million dollar payouts to private executives who fail, paid for by taxpayers?

      • $22645798

        Exactly. Both are a poor use of taxpayer money.

  • Paola

    How do you explain teachers of the year being let go because of the last-in-first out out? (including Sacramento teacher of the year, Michelle Apperson)

    • avalonsensei

      Shouldn’t the question be why were so many teachers let go in the first place? Why did public education take such a hit in the last 5 years? Who wrecked the economy? Why should any of the teachers face reduction in force? Why did class sizes increase disastrously? Do you want your child in a 52:1 history class or 42:1 English class?

      Why won’t districts collectively bargain for better dismissal rules? What did the districts set as priorities as a concession to current rules? Hmmm…maybe allowing billions in iPad purchases?

      Again, the right questions are being asked, but the wrong conclusions are being reached. Yes, the teacher dismissal process can be improved. But the number of problem teachers is minimal. The bigger question is the quality of the curriculum, whether the Common Core will foster a passion for learning, whether the corporate takeover of public schools will fulfill the promise of public ed for all. Why isn’t anyone asking these questions?

  • Andrew

    Would these changes take away due process rights for teachers?

  • Jackie Matthews

    The CTA blames all of the problems in school on a lack of funds, but supports laws that make it take $450,000 to dismiss just one bad teacher! So sure, it might be possible to get rid of a bad teacher, but when it takes half a million dollars to do it, how can you blame supts and principals for choosing to pay for books and facilities upgrades instead??

    • avalonsensei

      Should policies be made based on the exception or the rule? How many cases of a half million dollar dismissal exist? Do the vast majority of teachers get evaluated effectively? If so, then why is the dismissal process on trial? Wouldn’t it be better to be proactive and get administrators better training on how to spot future “ineffective” teachers?

      I agree tenure should not be awarded until the 4th or 5th year of teaching. This gives administrators more time to make a better decision.

      I disagree that hard fought rights such as due process should be terminated as a way to supposedly provide students a better education. It is the wrong answer to a good question.

  • Guest

    Why does the teachers union insist that it’s impossible to tell if a teacher is good at his or her job? No one is arguing that this needs to be based on test scores, but it seems offensive to good teachers to argue that no one can tell the difference between them and incompetent teachers.

  • Angie

    Why do you claim teacher effectiveness is such an important part of a child’s education?

    • Bob Fry

      I remember an exceptional 5th grade teacher.

      I also remember the best and worst teachers from high school. My math, chemistry, and physics teachers were so good that most of my Newtonian physics and chemistry I learned in high school, and I was well-prepared for the “hard” calculus in college.

      Teachers can make a great difference in school.

      • thucy

        I agree, Bob, and remember all my best teachers, however, I performed better under those teachers than did my poorer classmates. Parental income is the leading factor in performance.

  • Jim

    The teachers union and its representatives lose all credibility when they claim things like Mr. Finberg did that only 2% of the teachers in the California public schools were shown to be performing below acceptable performance level. In any activity in life and in any profession you can name there is absolutely no chance that only 2% of the people in that profession are performing at a substandard level. The rates of disbarment from the legal profession and doctors who lose their licenses are many many times higher than the rates of public school teachers who lose their jobs. I have children in public school and I understand that the teachers unions in some ways have an important role to play but on this issue of whether incompetent teachers can be effectively removed from the system I think they have absolutely no credibility.

  • Pat

    As a SF public school teacher in a low income, high- need school with over 20 years experience, I have felt the demands and expectations on teachers go through the roof. In every school I have worked, there has been 1-2 teachers who were ineffective. It is up to the administrator to honestly evaluate, support struggling teachers and dismiss chronically ineffective teachers. In my 5 years at my current school, my administrator has been able to dismiss/ move out 3 ineffective teachers. Attacks on teachers and our unions are misplaced.

  • Kathryn Kantner

    thucy: I am a LAUSD parent who is following this case. You will see people commenting without prior history on KQED, because it is linked to LA School Report. Not an astroturfer, and no one is paying me. Public school parents, like myself, want effective teachers in the classroom teaching our kids. At our school, we have had District administration place pool teachers that our principal did not even get to interview or select. They were never a good fit for our school. But they were “must place” simply because they have seniority. You refer to Mr. Robert D. Skeels, and provide a link to one of his articles. Please understand that Mr. Skeels is a colorful LA character who was running for the school board last spring. He seems to enjoy the limelight and to enjoy controversy. He didn’t win the race, and his views are not mainstream. He has written articles rife with misinformation about how the Breakfast in the Classroom program in LAUSD is funded by the Walmart Foundation, when this is NOT the case for any California BIC program. Just because he posts articles frequently, does not mean that his information is true or accurate.

  • Anne

    I am mystified with Mr. Finberg’s assessment as to how well these legislative laws for tenure are working. There are many inherent problems with the system. I have worked for many years in education, most recently with new teachers. When a teacher receives a bad review, yes, many resign instead; but it is only to be able to get another job elsewhere. This practice is actually referred to as “passing the lemon.”
    He also mentions how education needs to draw new teachers into the system; yet they are the first to be let go in budget cuts. They live in fear for the first couple of years of teaching that they might be let go regardless of how effective they are or how hard they have worked.
    The timeline for tenure is a problem. Meaningful evaluation can’t be done in just 18 mos. which is the timeline to tenure to really get to know if a teacher is effective or not or to work with a teacher who needs extra support. One principal I work with has 29 evaluations to do this year alone. He can’t possibly observe in classrooms as much as he needs to to get a real sense of the daily performance of each teacher on his staff. That’s why, if tenure is to stay, it should take at least 5 years before anyone is tenured.
    However, I’ve also seen teachers who basically quit quality teaching once they have tenure because it is virtually impossible financially or time wise to be let go. This is an outdated system that no longer works.

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