Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu recently ruled that California teacher tenure laws are unconstitutional. His opinion is far too sweeping and will likely do little, if anything, to improve educational outcomes for Black and other low-achieving students. There are other issues of equal or greater importance concerning teacher effectiveness such as diversity, i.e., getting more Black teachers in the classroom, teacher recruitment and training and the need for constant demands from parents, education leaders and other advocates for reform of traditional public schools.
Understandably, teachers are up-in-arms over Judge Treu’s opinion that generated nationwide comment and controversy. He ruled teacher tenure laws violated the state’s constitutional commitment to provide “a basically equal opportunity to achieve a quality education,” and cited parallels with prior cases concerning school desegregation and funding levels.
“This court finds that both students and teachers are unfairly, unnecessarily and for no legally cognizable reason, let alone a compelling one, disadvantaged by the current permanent employment statute.” And though noting teachers have a right to due process when targeted for dismissal, he found the current system “… so complex, time-consuming and expensive as to make an effective, efficient, yet fair dismissal of a grossly ineffective teacher illusory.”
Opponents of the current teacher tenure laws like LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy, welcomed the ruling. Deasy testified for the plaintiffs and previously, wanted legislation giving school districts the ability to quickly fire teachers. (Did Deasy testify as an individual, or with the knowledge and consent of his boss, the LA Board of Education?)
Jesse Rothstein is an associate professor of Public Policy and Economics at UC Berkeley. His article in the New York Times (June 12, 2014) reflects the view of many who reject Judge Treu’s ruling. They cite barriers, as important as of tenure, as causal for ineffective teachers.
Rothstein highlights the difference between recognizing students’ rights to integrated, adequately funded schools, and Judge Treu’s conclusion that teacher employment protections are unconstitutional. The issue is balance. Few would suggest that too much integration or too much funding hurts disadvantaged students. However, decisions concerning firing teachers are inherently about trade-offs, and although it is important to dismiss ineffective teachers, it is also important to attract and retain effective ones. Limiting tenure will do little to address the underlying barriers to effective teaching in impoverished schools and may well make them even worse.
A major challenge is to increase the number of high-quality applicants and one of the things that helps to recruit good people into teaching is job security. Obviously, that is not to say teachers should never be dismissed…..but when and how to do that requires careful balancing. In a recent study, Rothstein examined the effects of changing job protections, not just on the quality of teachers given tenure, but also on a district’s ability to attract and retain good teachers. Some surprising findings:
First, firing bad teachers actually makes it harder to recruit new ones, since many new teachers don’t know what they want to teach. That risk must be offset with higher salaries—but that, in turn, that could force increases in class size which may harm student achievement. Second, while it might seem better to wait on granting tenure, early decisions actually improve student achievement. That’s partly because stable faculties are better for students, but also because an attentive school district knows a great deal about which teachers are good and bad after just two years and waiting longer provides little additional information.
In short, while the notion of “getting rid of bad teachers” seems attractive, it is almost impossible to get right in practice. No conceivable system can eliminate all “grossly ineffective” teachers, and efforts aimed at doing so can do more harm than good. (Even most teachers would agree that every effort should be made to do so for the students’ benefit.) Everyone agrees that closing the achievement gap should be a high priority but the remedy must fit the problem. The lack of effective teachers in impoverished schools contributes to the gap but, tenure is not the cause. Teaching in low income, low achieving schools is a very difficult, challenging (and rewarding) job- and many teachers prefer easier work in less challenging schools. Of course, the challenge leads to high turnover and difficulty in filling positions. Left with a dwindling pool of teachers, principals seem prone to keep, rather than dismiss ineffective teachers , whether they have tenure or not.
Principals and policymakers should continue creating incentives to attract good teachers, as well as ways to reduce the transfer of effective teachers out of schools where they are most needed. Attacking tenure as protection for ineffective teachers makes for good headlines but it does little to close the achievement gap and risks actually compounding the problem.
Judge Treu’s ruling that tenure unconstitutional will make good teachers harder to recruit and harder to keep. Meanwhile, the underlining causes for California’s educational decline will go substantially unaddressed and disproportionately, Black students will continue to suffer.