Accountability Opinion

Unions Shouldn’t Let Vergara Drive Out the Important

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — January 26, 2015 4 min read
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They’re right to fight. The California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers are pledged to overturn the trial court ruling in Vergara v. California, which threatens some teacher tenure and due process protections. It’s a necessary fight. If Vergara were to be upheld by an appellate court, it would create very bad constitutional law, which is a topic for a future post.

But making the Vergara fight the keystone of the unions’ political agendas and the focus of their energy misses the important opportunity of Gov. Jerry Brown’s historic fourth term. The unions —and California’s teachers —can get more out of these years than opposing Vergara, and Brown should encourage them to.

A window of opportunity

In earlier posts, I wrote about a 24-month window of opportunity opening for California’s teacher unions to bring teaching and unionism into the 21st Century and the inherent challenge in Brown’s “I would rather trust our teachers” stance. Trust is a fragile thing; it creates an obligation to reciprocate. It’s a time for big ideas, such as organizing around quality.

Constitutional issues aside, the Vergara trial illustrated obvious shortcomings in the way California inducts, trains, evaluates, and disciplines teachers. Making Vergara go away won’t make the issue go away. Last week, the EdVoice Institute, which tends to tilt toward corporate reformer views, charged that few California districts are complying with state law that requires them to evaluate teachers, in part, according to how much students have learned. Its review of 26 districts found that most did not. Can another lawsuit be far behind? Even if Vergara should disapper tomorrow, its key evidentiary logic —grading and ranking teachers based on standardized test scores —will not.

The Vergara issues also resonate with the public and with teachers. Earlier this month, Teach Plus released a survey of 506 teachers, 71% of whom said that layoff decisions should be made partly or entirely on classroom performance. These teachers valued tenure—81% said it was important to them personally—but that 69% said that tenure protected an ineffective colleague who should have been dismissed but wasn’t. And the Policy Analysis for California Education/University of Southern California poll, released last June, showed that 60% of respondents would do away with last-in-first-out layoffs, and a similar percentage would do away with teacher tenure altogether.

Deal with underlying issues

The CTA and CFT are right to fight Vergara, but they need to deal with the underlying issues at the same time. In the Vergara trial before Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu, the defendants’ expert witnesses pointed repeatedly toward the large systemic causes of student underachievement that were more potent than the due process and seniority statutes under attack.

They said that California needs better teacher education and a career induction system. The state used to be a national model, but both the beginning teacher program and the Leadership Training academy disappeared when funding collapsed during the recession.

Approaches to solving these systemic issues are contained in a 2012 task force report, Greatness By Design. The problem is that there has been little action.. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Toralkson used the report as one of his campaign planks, but it has been largely shelved for more than two years. And Brown has not dipped into his vast bank of political capital to push for or pay for its provisions.

Also, there needs to be more opportunity for teacher leadership. In an earlier post about the CTA Institute for Teaching, teaching and several posts about teacher run schools, we raised the question of why a teacher should have to leave the classroom to function as a leader in his or her school. The CTA and Stanford University are already collaborating on an Instructional Leadership Corps, whose vision for teachers should spread rapidly.

How does any of this deal with Vergara? Ken Futernick writing in this space advocated a “‘grand bargain’ that would address not only teacher incompetence but all the obstacles educators face that, in the end, prevent many students from learning.” Carl Cohn argued for “smaller bargains” in the form of flexibility for locals to experiment with time-to-tenure, for example, a proposal that died in the face of CTA opposition.

Build around Vergara issues

Without discounting usefulness of grand or little bargains, there is a third way: build around the Vergara issues. Create the kind of educational infrastructure that solves the larger problems and reveal Vergara as the sideshow that it is.

If there were a good teacher training and induction system, so that teachers were well trained and mentored as they began to teach, would any one care whether it took two years, or three, or four to gain tenure? Elements of due process could be built into early teaching, just as formative feedback should be built into all forms of teaching. Maybe tenure should roll in gradually like the tide.

If there were robust forms of teacher leadership in the form of peer review—a practice I’ve written about and endorsed for decades—why would anyone care whether there were five, or seven, or thirteen due process steps in dismissal cases? Teachers would have vetted the original evidence: both the individual supervising teachers and the local district peer review panel. All this would have taken place before the first step in the dismissal procedure.

With the exception of the seniority in layoff issue, which I will write about in a future post, all of Vergara can easily be built around. The new structures put its issues in the right perspective.

The Vergara appeal needs a second front: one that seizes the opportunities rather than protects an existing flawed system.

The opinions expressed in On California are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.