Doing what works for school success

The following Op-Ed by CFT President Joshua Pechthalt originally ran in the Orange County Register on Aug. 26. You can read it below, as well as here.

In my home, like millions across the country, kids and parents are preparing for the beginning of a new school year. New backpacks are stuffed with folders, pencils, pens and erasers. Kids hurry off to meet friends, check out their new teachers and classes and settle in for another year of learning, physical and emotional growth and hopefully some fun.

Lurking in the background of all the excitement of another school year is a recent superior court decision that could hurt the very kids for whom the plaintiffs claim to advocate. The Vergara v. California lawsuit, nominally brought by nine students but funded and supported by wealthy businessmen David Welch and Eli Broad, threatens to hack away at provisions of the State Education Code, particularly those involving teacher seniority and due process.

 

The Vergara decision, which will be appealed, proposes that teachers have too many job protections and that doing away with certain rights like seniority will help districts push out ineffective teachers and allow them to retain more committed teachers. In essence, it's a vision of education reform driven by how we fire teachers.

What Vergara won’t do is put one additional book or pencil into a child’s hands; it won’t result in hiring new teachers, nurses, librarians, counselors, mental health professionals; and it won’t lower class sizes or bring one additional dollar into any classroom. And for all the claims about the importance of putting outstanding teachers in every classroom, the Vergara lawsuit won’t improve teacher training, mentoring or evaluations.

Of course, we all want the very best teachers working with our kids. That happens through rigorous teacher credentialing and training and the follow up mentoring that takes time and money. Successful districts have strong relationships with local teacher unions and work collaboratively on mentoring and on peer assistance and review programs. That’s why during the Vergara trial a number of superintendents spoke against doing away with seniority and due process. They rightly contended that these protections are not obstacles to improving teacher performance or educational programs in their districts.

But seniority and due process also play a vital role in ensuring that teachers have the job protections to do their work in a way that benefits students. First let’s be clear, there is no “job for life” in California’s K-12 public schools. The only thing that a teacher who has passed his or her probationary status is entitled to is simply due process. That means the right to a hearing before a board where the district must provide evidence, not just hearsay, that the teacher has been ineffective.

Without this key protection, districts would be incentivized to push out more senior, better paid teachers, union activists or anyone who challenges the school site administration on budgeting, programming or other issues. Without seniority and due process rights, and with the real threat of losing their jobs for arbitrary reasons, teachers will be discouraged from advocating for students or raising the kind of challenging and sometimes provocative issues in the classroom that get kids to think about the world around them.

Teaching to the test will, of necessity, become the overriding concern for every teacher since a district-wide, quantifiable ranking will likely be the determining factor for retaining a job.

We have examples of this situation around the country where seniority and due process rights have been eliminated for teachers. These states are not models of academic equity or excellence.

It’s time to cut through the teacher and union bashing, and focus on how we improve education for all kids. That means dramatically lower class sizes, libraries that are open before, during and after school, full-time nurses in every school, and counselors who have the time to actually counsel and advise. And finally, we need mentoring and training programs that bring together beginning teachers with master teachers.

We can’t fire our way to educational excellence. But if we can focus on and properly fund the improvements we know actually improve teaching and learning, students will return to school every fall with a greater certainty of success.