Law & Courts Opinion

Vergara Decision Feeds Testing and Teacher Turnover

By Anthony Cody — June 14, 2014 7 min read
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The Vergara decision feeds into our societal obsession with test scores, and propels us towards schools with even less stability, and higher turnover. Unfortunately, some who have been critical of test-mania are losing the plot. Education journalist John Merrow has recently been literally waxing poetic in his denunciation of high stakes testing.

Something there is that doesn't love more bubble tests
 And students bubbling and learning how to bubble
 When they might be making robots or reading Frost.
 They take test upon test in arid classrooms,
 Mixing memory and guesswork, stirring
 Dull anger and gnawing fear of failure.

But we are concerned not only with the quantity of tests, but with the consequences these tests carry, such as their use for decisions such as whether a teacher should be kept or terminated. In Merrow’s latest post, he mostly supports the Vergara decision in California, asserting that California’s tenure laws are “indefensible.” In so doing, he does not seem to see how the policies he suggests serve to build the strength of tests, not tear them down.

Merrow argues:

1) Tenure after TWO years? How can any organization, let alone something as complex as a school function that way? And by the way, the 'two year' rule actually means that a school principal has to make that 'lifetime' decision about halfway through the teacher's second year on the job, after he or she has been in charge of a classroom for perhaps 14-15 months at most. 2) Slavish devotion to "Last Hired, First Fired," as if the profession of teaching were labor's equivalent of sanitation workers or pipefitters. 100% seniority! Nothing else matters, not a principal's judgement, not student performance, not the teacher's contributions to the school, and not student evaluation. Just years on the job! 3) A convoluted and complex process to remove inadequate teachers that reportedly involves about 70 discrete steps, takes years and can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Merrow uses the language and reasoning of the anti-union litigants. Tenure is a “lifetime” decision. Seniority is described as befitting “sanitation workers.”

Teacher tenure is NOT a “lifetime” appointment. It is not even truly “tenure,” as is practiced in higher education. It is due process, which means that in order to be fired, just cause must be shown, and a teacher has a right to put forth a defense.

I worked with this system in Oakland for several years, as a consulting teacher with the Peer Assistance and Review program. I saw firsthand dozens of teacher evaluations each year, and worked with teachers who had received poor ones, to see if they could improve. The primary problem with the process was that principals at many schools do not have sufficient time to keep their schools running well, and as a result, sometimes the evaluations are not done thoroughly. School administrators have faced dwindling budgets, and have had to reduce their staff, eliminating the jobs of counselors and others who helped with these duties. If we want teachers to be evaluated in a thorough manner, we ought to provide adequate levels of funding and staff.

The Vergara decision follows the poorly founded logic of the Chetty study, which makes dubious claims of future student success based on differences in test score gains between teachers. What is the effect on teachers and students when “student performance” becomes a factor in teacher evaluation - as Merrow advocates here? Student performance is almost always measured by test scores, and we already have many states that have gone down this path, and are using Value Added Models to predict what student test scores should be, resulting in poor evaluations for teachers whose students don’t grow as fast as the VAM system predicts they should. English learners, special ed, and even the gifted and talented tend to perform poorly in these systems, meaning that teachers who work with these students are likely to suffer from poor evaluations. And ALL teachers will be obligated to make whatever tests are used for these purposes central to their teaching, to avoid being terminated.

Merrow closes his post with this statement:

The effort to blame poor education results on teachers and unions is misguided and malicious. It's scapegoating, pure and simple, but-it must be said-protectionist policies like those in California play into the stereotype.

Let’s think about what this stance suggests we ought to do.

In spite of the fact that the effort to blame poor results on teachers and unions is totally wrong, we should capitulate to the central demands of the “reformers.” Get rid of seniority. Base evaluations - and the decision as to who is terminated -- more on student performance (test scores) and principal judgment.

The result will be to make a profession that has become less and less desirable, even less so.

Turnover has already been on the rise. Charter schools already are demonstrating the model at work, and have significantly higher teacher turnover to show for it. Moving public schools in this direction will drive turnover upwards there as well. Turnover has been shown to have a strong negative effect on student performance. This report should not be forgotten. It found that:

  • For each analysis, students taught by teachers in the same grade-level team in the same school did worse in years where turnover rates were higher, compared with years in which there was less teacher turnover. 

  • An increase in teacher turnover by 1 standard deviation corresponded with a decrease in math achievement of 2 percent of a standard deviation; students in grade levels with 100 percent turnover were especially affected, with lower test scores by anywhere from 6 percent to 10 percent of a standard deviation based on the content area.

  • The effects were seen in both large and small schools, new and old ones. 

  • The negative effect of turnover on student achievement was larger in schools with more low-achieving and black students.

As many have noted, Judge Treu has used a pious concern for disadvantaged students to justify this decision. But how will this actually serve these students?

In California, a large proportion of students are English learners. Given that VAM systems tend to yield low growth scores for teachers of such students, teachers whose evaluations depend on these scores will try to avoid them. Or will find themselves unfairly labeled ineffective.

The fundamental problem with the Vergara decision is that it has the model for how we might improve struggling schools exactly backwards. The decision suggests that we improve schools by increasing turnover, by pursuing laggards, who will be replaced by superior teachers who will sustain improvement. There is no evidence that this will work.

In fact, schools in low income neighborhoods already suffer from a high rate of teacher turnover. As I wrote several years ago, the students at these schools would benefit from a strategy that focused on teacher support and retention.

Here is what we did at my school:

We identified staff turnover as a big problem in our science department. We were losing two or three teachers a year from our department of ten. This turnover made improvement hard to sustain. Experienced teachers at our school had become a bit jaded about the newer teachers. Why should they invest energy and materials in someone who will be gone, maybe even before the year ends? But this tended to reinforce the turnover issues, and undermine the collaboration we needed to improve.

Our school was hardly unique in this regard. In fact, some Oakland middle schools experience turnover as high as 50% or 60% a year! And the higher the level of poverty, the greater the challenges are that these teachers face, and this, combined with lower salaries than schools in more prosperous communities, tends to make turnover a chronic problem.

So we set as our goal the retention of all the teachers in our department. Each experienced teacher became a mentor to a newer teacher. They met weekly, and shared management strategies and curriculum. We collaborated as a department to share ideas and resources, and went on several team-building retreats. When the next year began we had retained everyone.

The following year we were able to raise the level of our work, and we expanded to the math department - so now there were about 16 of us working together. While in the first year, our meetings were focused more on supporting the new teachers, in the second year we shifted to take on deeper strategies. We engaged in lesson study, and worked together on our assessment practices. The school saw its math scores improve every year, and we hosted a successful Family Science and Math event. The 6th graders arrived at our school performing at around the 33rd percentile, and by the 8th grade were past the 50th percentile. A few years later, we spread this model to a district-wide program, called TeamScience, which worked for five years to pair novice science teachers with experienced mentors.

We found that we did NOT need to fire anyone in order to improve. Instead, of trying to ferret out the weakest links, we sought to RETAIN everyone. Can “old dogs learn new tricks”? Yes. And old dogs KNOW a lot of valuable tricks, and if they are honored for this knowledge, and engaged in rich processes like Lesson Study and teacher research, they can build on what they know, and share it as well.

We should have effective systems to evaluate and, in some situations, terminate teachers who are not doing their jobs. But this should be done within the context of making our profession and our schools more stable and well supported, rather than feeding the instability that is bringing disorder and chaos to many schools.

Those like Merrow who decry the impact of test-obsession in our schools should think a bit harder about the effects of introducing “student performance” into the evaluation criteria alongside removal of due process and seniority protections. These changes are feeding the testing monster all over the country. We will not serve our students by capitulating to ill-founded reforms that only serve to destabilize our schools. Genuine reforms build up our schools, support teachers, and address the real inequities that hold our students back.

What do you think? Should teacher unions abandon seniority and allow layoffs to be made based on factors such as VAM scores or principal judgment?

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