Law & Courts Opinion

Grounding Vergara in the Realities of Teaching in California

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — July 10, 2014 4 min read
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By guest bloggers Julia Koppich and Daniel Humphrey

The recent ruling by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu striking down parts of California’s long held teacher tenure laws has roiled California’s educational landscape. Whatever the impact of the ruling, one thing is clear. Whether one supports or opposes the Vergara decision the ruling raises critical issues regarding teaching quality with which California policymakers soon must grapple in order to strengthen the state’s system of teaching and learning. Addressing these issues will require thoughtful and careful state action that builds on a foundation of solid understanding of teachers’ experiences in school districts throughout the state.

A year ago we released a study titled, “California’s Beginning Teachers: The Bumpy Path to a Profession.” That work focused on California policies, including tenure (called permanence in the Education Code) and evaluation, which shape beginning teachers’ careers. Our findings reveal how California policy has failed early career teachers. Legislative remedies for these inequities could serve as a precursor to addressing the challenges posed by the Vergara decision.

Teachers Don’t Get Tenure after Two Years

First, contrary to assertions about a too quick path to tenure, our research shows that most California teachers do not experience getting tenure as a 2-year process.

State policy assumes that teachers are hired into probationary positions and, after 2 years of successful teaching as measured by performance evaluations, are awarded tenure (permanence). This description does not match the reality for most California teachers.

According to available state data, most teachers are hired into temporary or other non-probationary status, and do not reach probationary status for many years. This pattern has continued for more than a decade. Under the California Education Code, districts replacing a teacher on leave of absence or filling a position supported by temporary funds (e.g., grants, non-mandatory categorical funds) can hire teachers on temporary status. Our study showed, however, that some districts cannot specify the teacher on leave teacher for whom the temporary teacher is filling in or the grant or special fund that is paying for the temporary teacher’s position.

Teachers who are classified as temporary do not accrue time toward tenure. As a result, in 2000, only 31% of third-year teachers and, in 2012, only 45% of third-year teachers had permanent status. The 2-years-to-tenure policy bears little relationship to the experience of the majority of California’s teachers. The amount of time it should take to earn tenure remains a valid topic of debate. What is not debatable is that, with regard to tenure, many teachers’ realities do not match current state policy.

Evaluation Does Not Differentiate Between Effective and Ineffective

Second, evaluation does not adequately differentiate between effective and ineffective teachers. Moreover, for most teachers, evaluation is not useful, accurate, fair, or meaningful.

The Vergara decision states that 1% to 3% of teachers are “grossly ineffective.” But not only is there no empirical evidence as to the number of ineffective teachers, our “Bumpy Path” study found that the current evaluation system does a poor job of determining teacher effectiveness. Most teachers find the evaluation system that is supposed to determine their effectiveness to be inadequate and inconsistent. More importantly, teachers say their evaluation is largely unhelpful in diagnosing their needs or designing support for them. Many principals we interviewed concur with this view.

To better understand the quality of teacher evaluations, we examined a sample of beginning teachers’ official evaluation records. We found that these files contained little documentation of teacher performance and almost no guidance to the teacher about how to improve. The vast majority of teachers received an “effective” rating, though the basis for that rating, however legitimate, was unclear.

Compounding this dilemma, whether a teacher is supported or evaluated at all depends on the teacher’s employment status. State policy requires only that probationary teachers--those on the path to tenure--be evaluated. Teachers serving in temporary status, even for several years, often are neither supported nor evaluated.

Remedying the challenges raised by Vergara hinges on an accurate and meaningful evaluation system. California should require that all teachers, regardless of status, be supported and evaluated. Policymakers, working with stakeholders should develop a system that ensures teachers are fairly and consistently evaluated and given opportunities to improve. Once teachers are identified as ineffective, they should enter a peer assistance and review program that offers a thorough assessment of areas of weakness, deep support, and a targeted path to improvement or exit.

Absent clear and consistently applied tenure regulations, accurate and meaningful evaluation focused on support and improvement, and a program for addressing ineffective teachers, California will be hard-pressed to successfully address the policy challenges that lie at the heart of Vergara.

Julia Koppich is President of J. Koppich & Associates, a San Francisco-based education consulting firm. Daniel Humphrey is a Senior Researcher at SRI Education, a division of SRI International in Menlo Park, CA.

(Clock photo by africa via FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

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