Vergara: A Quick Fix Masquerading as a Solution

If Judge Rolf Treu were my student, I would tell him his decision in Vergara v California, which threw out important teacher protection laws in California, needs some serious rethinking. If we look at the Vergara decision through the lens of the Common Core standards, it’s easy to see where Treu’s findings fall flat.

Let’s start with Reading standard 1. The 9th and 10th grade version reads: “Cite strong and thorough textual evidence.” In his decision, Treu referenced a widely criticized study about teaching quality and students’ lifetime earning potential. But the evidence that Treu cited had nothing to do with the plaintiffs’ actual experiences in public schools.

If any student of mine tried to turn in a paper with such a disconnect between their claim and reality—not to mention faulty evidence—you can bet I wouldn’t accept it.

And then there’s Writing standard 1a: “Introduce precise claims… and establish clear relationships [between] claims, counterclaims, reasons, and evidence.” The Vergara plaintiffs claimed that it’s too hard to get rid of incompetent teachers– the one to three percent (per Treu’s cited estimate) of teachers who are truly ineffective.

Removing ineffective teachers from the classroom and changing the tenure probation period are two totally separate issues. Treu’s relationships between claims here are pretty weak. I’d recommend tutoring after school.

It might be true that we need to change the processes for terminating ineffective teachers. (Apparently the state Legislature agrees, as they have just passed legislation to speed up this process.) But I fail to follow how that logic means we should eliminate tenure eligibility for our state’s newest teachers.

I believe that teachers should be evaluated for their effectiveness. Like other professions, teachers must meet certain expectations. But what would our education system look like if we focused on creating pathways for ALL teachers to truly improve their practice? What if we supported them through the difficult first years of teaching instead of pointing fingers and eliminating protections?

We should keep in mind that teaching is fundamentally different from other jobs. Schools are not just places of employment—they are communities. They are families. And they are built on relationships. Some measure of stability is necessary for those relationships to thrive. And until we have a better system, tenure provides that necessary stability. Making teachers accountable without providing them support and professional development means we will only continue to lose the good—and one day great—teachers who work in California’s classrooms.

A small percentage of teachers are superstars. And a small percentage are ineffective. But the reality is that the vast majority of educators fall somewhere between those two extremes.

Teachers, just like students, have the capacity to improve from where we started. But we need the proper resources and support to do so. I have to wonder—if we actually invested in the support structures that we know improve teachers’ practice, might some of those “mediocre” tenured teachers become pretty decent after all?  Making this possible would require regular and substantial time for teachers to be released from teaching duties so they can collaborate with other teachers. It would require regular observations and feedback on their practice from trusted peers, coaches, and administrators. It would require providing them with release time to observe and learn from the best practices of other teachers.

I appreciate Judge Treu’s deep commitment to educational equity. But if we truly believe that this decision will improve California’s schools, we are setting ourselves up for failure.

Kelley Leathers is an instructional coach (and previously an English teacher) at John O’Connell High School in the San Francisco Unified School District.

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