Can New Tricks Save Old Dogs When Tenure is Removed?

Image On June 10th, a California Superior Court judge determined that provisions of the California Education Code regarding teacher tenure and dismissal were unconstitutional because they unfairly affected students in low-income and majority-minority schools. The Plaintiffs claimed that ineffective teachers were predominately placed in these schools and therefore the quality of education received was unfair and unequal. The judge’s decision compared the outcome in this case, Vergara v. California, to previous education-based decisions (including Brown v. Board of Education) that found students had a fundamental right to equality in their educational experiences. The court applied strict scrutiny to the question of whether the quality of education received in schools could violate the equal protection clause of the California constitution which requires the State to prove a compelling state interest that makes the statutes necessary to further state interest.

The judge writing this decision seemed especially persuaded by the Plaintiffs’ evidence and expert testimony about the economic costs of ineffective teachers on students. The judge noted that the evidence presented “shock[ed] the conscience” when he heard testimony that a single school year with ineffective teacher could cost a student $1.4 million in lifetime earnings. The judge also acknowledged that competent teachers were critical to the success of students’ educational experience and that the quality of that teaching matters more than any other factor. The judge also heard evidence that 1-3% of all California teachers would be considered grossly ineffective which translates to 2,750-8,250 teachers throughout the state. This evidence met the burden of proof that the challenged statutes “imposed a real and appreciable impact on students’ fundamental right to equality of education and that they impose a disproportionate burden on poor and minority students.”

The judge further reviewed the procedures for granting teacher tenure in California. Currently, a teacher may be granted tenure after only 18 months of teaching and before being officially credentialed by the state. The judge found the system unfair to both teachers and students because evaluation after 18 months of teaching is not enough time to fairly determine effectiveness. The judge also found the system in place for dismissing tenured teachers was too costly and burdensome, at one point calling it “tortuous,” taking between two and ten years and costing between $50,000 and $450,000 each time. This deters districts from taking action against grossly ineffective teachers because the system in place makes it nearly impossible. The Court found the idea of a state interest in retaining ineffective teachers unsupportable because the overall cost to students and their access to competent teachers are paramount to state interests in education.

The question created by this decision for educators is what to do if tenure is in fact removed? For many teachers who are already considered competent and measured in value-added systems the answer seems to be nothing, to continue doing whatever it is they are doing to push student achievement and growth in classrooms. For teachers who are currently measured as ineffective, however, the changes that must be made are likely significant. This will also require districts to determine how they assess teacher performance and the professional development opportunities provided to currently ineffective teachers. This decision is tentative and will not be enforced until all appeals are exhausted, but the loss of tenure in the profession will require a variety of responses from districts who must evaluate, train, and develop all teachers. The unions will likely seek all avenues to prevent enforcement of this decision and claim that teachers require due process before dismissal, but ultimately the impact on students will likely be determinative in the courts, especially with evidence of a disparate impact on low-income and minority students.

There is no single solution that will be guaranteed to work every time to improve ineffective teachers. Technology, however, may be the best answer for both ineffective teachers and the districts that currently employ them. Considering the financial state of many inner-city schools, access to professional development and teacher resources may be limited. Development provided by educational technology and websites, however, may allow for efficient, responsive, and inexpensive alternatives with support from highly-effective teachers around the country. If we truly believe that good teachers borrow from each other, technology may help establish the foundations of a shared system of teaching where all teachers can benefit from great teaching practices. An investment in technology and tech-based professional development for teachers would likely be cheaper than litigating the dismissal of a tenured teacher.

If tenure is removed technology may be the best way for districts to meet the needs of ineffective teachers seeking to improve their practice. The current availability of both free and/or inexpensive teacher resources available online would allow districts to target specific skill or knowledge gaps of teachers who need further development. Technology could allow coaching and mentoring to occur without the burdens of scheduling or travel. Technology may also increase the application of strategies when teachers are learning and using the development immediately within their school context and community. Considering the benefits technology-based professional development could offer ineffective and struggling teachers, these opportunities should be explored by districts regardless of the outcome of this case and the existence of tenure. Ultimately, students’ education is at stake, so new tricks using technology may be exactly what veteran teachers need to engage and meet the needs of their current and future students.


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Sarah Whittington is a current School Director at the Delta Institute for Teach For America and a rising third year at Penn State Law School. She taught 8th and 4th grade for six years in East Feliciana Parish in Louisiana. She enjoys studying the intersection of law, policy, and education and the impact on children.

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