California tenure ruling could have national implications

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California has long been considered a trendsetter for the nation, and that’s why a ruling issued Tuesday by a Los Angeles Superior Court judge blasting the state’s teacher tenure system could have ramifications far beyond the Pacific Coast Highway corridor.


In unambiguous terms, Judge Rolf M. Treu stated the Golden State’s teacher tenure laws deprived children, particularly poor and minority students, of a quality education because the rules are so Byzantine and the process of removing subpar teachers from classrooms so protracted that these hapless instructors end up inflicting their incompetence on students year after year without any prospect they will be shown the door.


Likening the wrongs endured by these students to the pre-Brown vs. Board of Education days of “separate but equal” schools – a comparison that is probably overblown – Treu wrote “the evidence is compelling. Indeed it shocks the conscience ... Every day that these laws remain in effect represents another opportunity denied ... I don’t think we need to watch for two generations more to fix this.”


Teacher tenure was first introduced in America as a Progressive Era reform designed to protect teachers’ jobs from the vagaries of patronage – a skilled, inspired teacher couldn’t be bumped from their post so someone’s well-connected, ne’er-do-well cousin could take it. But, a century later, teacher tenure has all too often become a sclerotic arrangement that guarantees clock-watchers, educators who are past their prime, or never had a prime in the first place, can keep their jobs with little to fear, and with little motivation to raise their game.


Moreover, California is just one of 12 states – Pennsylvania is another, along with our neighbors New York, New Jersey and West Virginia – that uses a “last in, first out” policy in layoff decisions. This means seniority is the pivotal factor when it comes time to decide who should stay and who should go. While some teachers and their unions have argued this is the only way to ensure fairness when the ax is swinging, it unjustly leaves teacher performance out of the equation. And would you rather a younger teacher who is eager to show up in the classroom every day and shows real enthusiasm for the task be bumped in favor of a time-server who is counting the days until retirement? A more balanced, less rigid approach should be adopted.


It’s expected Treu’s ruling will be appealed, so California’s teacher tenure statutes will not soon be nixed, nor likely will they be in other states. But the ruling should add urgency to debates on the role teachers play in education reform efforts. Yes, the overwhelming majority of teachers are steadfast professionals who work long hours without the remuneration provided to other professionals. And the frustrations they endure are reflected in the fact that a significant number drop out of the field before they reach the five-year mark.


Plus, educational attainment has a great deal to do with socioeconomic factors outside the classroom – a virtuoso teacher will not be able to effortlessly transform a youngster into the next Bill Gates if that child is growing up in a home where no one reads, or if they live in a neighborhood that is thick with crime, chaos and dysfunction.


But the quality of our teachers does matter. While they shouldn’t be scapegoated for all the woes of our schools, they should be subject to greater accountability over the entire course of their careers.


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