Vergara: The silver bullet that wasn’t

Is eliminating tenure the answer for ensuring high-quality teaching in high-need schools? Hint: no.

Silver bullet for ensuring educational equity? Last week’s Vergara v. California decision is more like a shred of tinfoil. Shiny… and insufficient for solving the problem at hand.

This was no “big victory” for students of color and poverty.

The empirical evidence is clear: teacher tenure is not a sure path to the closing of the student opportunity gap. Yes, tenure has benefits for kids—like protecting their teachers from administrators’ whims—but it won’t close the gap.

And California’s teacher tenure laws are worth questioning. David Cohen, a NBCT from Palo Alto, points out that this is the defense’s weak link—and I agree. Two years is a grossly insufficient amount of time to determine someone is worthy of tenure. In fact, a recent survey found that American teachers, on average, believe they should be considered for tenure only after five years in the classroom.

That said, eliminating tenure will not solve the problem. Other issues are far more relevant to whether kids in high-need schools have effective teachers. A few facts…

Teacher turnover is bad for kids.

Economists have concluded that teacher turnover has a deleterious affect on student achievement, even if districts can recruit “better” teachers. The constant churn of new recruits has a deeply negative impact on long-term school improvement.

Teaching experience matters.

Much of the anti-tenure policy approach rests on the assumption that teaching experience does not matter a great deal for student achievement, but recent research proves otherwise. Teachers with more than 20 years of classroom experience can make a big difference in terms of test scores as well as important non-cognitive outcomes (like student attendance).

It’s not about the money, by the way.

The USDOE recently offered a $20,000 bonus to 1,500 effective teachers in 10 major cities—including Los Angeles—to transfer to a higher poverty school with lower test scores. Less than a quarter of the eligible teachers chose to apply.

It’s about the working conditions.

Poor working conditions are the root causes of teacher dissatisfaction and turnover in high-need schools. Education sociologist Richard Ingersoll has been warning policymakers of this for more than two decades, finding that poor administrative support, lack of faculty influence, and intrusions on classroom time are the top three key factors in dissatisfaction of teachers at high-need schools.







Economist Jesse Rothstein said it well:

Attacking tenure as a protection racket for ineffective teachers makes for good headlines. But getting rid of tenure does little to close the achievement gap, and risks compounding the problem.

So, yes, let’s make tenure more sensible in California. AND let’s focus on the fact that better working conditions for teachers are better learning conditions for students.

(As for the shred of tinfoil—I mean “silver bullet”—it’s time for the recycling bin, from whence “reformers” can retrieve it for other harebrained messaging schemes.)