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InterACT: Relying on Half-Truths in Vergara P.R. Push

Writing in The San Diego Union-Tribune this weekend, San Diego County Superintendent Randy Ward offered lots of rhetoric and insufficient evidence to explain the educational benefits leading to his support for the Vergara ruling. At various times over the years, I’ve formed a positive impression of Ward, and even enjoyed a brief chat with him at a California Teachers of the Year event. He has decades of experience as a respected administrator in multiple districts and counties around California. My earliest impression of him came from a panel discussion he did with John Merrow several years ago; when asked the extent to which he would hold unions responsible for certain problems in education, and Ward answered that every contract is signed by two sides, so you can’t hold just one side responsible.

This time around, I have to take issue with his assessment of the state’s current education policy drama. Regarding the Vergara decision, Ward offers plenty of basic observations about the challenges of educating children in high-poverty, high-needs schools, and the maldistribution of highly-qualified teachers among schools. Like the Vergara attorneys, he suggests, without evidence, that the most challenged schools would improve student learning if not for ed. code provisions relating teacher job protections – especially concerning seniority and dismissal proceedings; they want to remove bad teachers more easily, and target less effective teachers for layoffs when necessary. It sounds like I’m arguing against an idea with benefits that are self-evident, but there are some potentially flawed underlying assumptions:

  • Loss of seniority protections won’t have a negative impact on school climate and staff collaboration.
  • Schools are able to evaluate teachers accurately and effectively.
  • The new teachers coming in will be better than those they replace.
  • The ineffective teaching is mainly a result of flaws in the individual rather than in the school system.

Certainly, there are individuals who need to be dismissed. I tend to think that the much larger problem in our field is that over-stressed school systems create a lot of sub-optimal teaching, and unsatisfactory teachers.

Ward concedes that charter schools have the flexibility he wants the Vergara decision to create statewide – and yet don’t, as a sector, have better outcomes. Perhaps he could also have noted that many states are similarly challenged to show better educational outcomes, even though they also lack California’s due process protections for teachers, commonly but erroneously called “tenure.”

But what bothers me most are the points on which Ward is most specific. First, regarding teacher dismissals:

Pre-Vergara, out of 275,000 teachers statewide, 220 teachers were dismissed for unsatisfactory performance per year on average. Do you believe that only 0.0008 percent [sic] of professionals in any given field are unsatisfactory? Then why would that be the case in the teaching profession?

First off, let the English teacher correct the math here: 220/275,000 = 0.0008 or 0.08 percent.

Now, to the point Ward is trying to make. The state might be forgiven for only having data compiled for certain years by a certain point in time; I’m less forgiving when it comes to some information that Ward either should have had, or chose to omit. When LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy made up his mind in the past few years to have the district engage in more rigorous efforts to evaluate teachers and dismiss underperforming teachers, the number of teacher dismissals in that district jumped dramatically. It sure looks like willpower and resources can overcome the supposedly insurmountable ed code.

But Ward’s number is even more distorted, because as Ward certainly knows, teacher turnover is a staggering problem. With so many teachers leaving the profession voluntarily, Ward’s numerical argument only works if all of the teachers leaving are satisfactory, and the only unsatisfactory teachers are the ones who choose to stay in the system and fight their potential dismissal all the way to the point that it is accounted for in government statistics. Furthermore, we first and second-year teachers who turn out to be unsatisfactory are simply not offered contracts. Administrators need not take any steps to “fire” them, so their unsatisfactory work would similarly fail to enter into Ward’s calculations.

According to California government statistics in this blog post, 20% of new teachers are gone in two years, and 31% are gone in five years. Let’s focus on the 11% leaving in years 3-5 (since teachers can be dismissed without cause in the first two years). That’s 30,250 teachers (using the state’s percentage and Ward’s estimate of teacher workforce). Now, if you ask among teachers and principals, I think you’ll find some agreement that some of those departing teachers are ineffective, but leaving public education without going through the complete process that would land them in Ward’s statistics.

If a mere 11% of those 30,250 teachers departing in years 3-5 are doing unsatisfactory work – 1 out of 9 – then Ward’s numbers (via Students Matter?) are off by more than 500%.*

Yes, I’m engaging in speculation, but I think if Ward were pushed on this point, he’d back off from using those numbers; they only hold up if every teacher leaving the profession voluntarily is “satisfactory” and the only “unsatisfactory” teachers are the ones whose dismissal procedures go the distance through official channels. The bottom line is that he’s choosing a tiny number that we know something about in order to make a dramatic point, and ignoring a vastly larger number of teachers who leave for reasons unknown to state statisticians, but certain to significantly undermine his argument.

The one other point on which Ward is most specific is citing the costs of teacher dismissals, using the Vergara trial testimony of superintendents from Oakland Unified and Los Angeles Unified. It’s not surprising that the Vergara lawyers solicited testimony from among the poorest, largest, and most difficult to manage districts in the state. The struggles that they confront, however, hardly indicate to me that teachers in 1,000 other California districts have due process rights so cumbersome that they are unconstitutional. I’m sure there are plenty of additional superintendents who would have gladly testified for the plaintiffs – but Ward is silent regarding the superintendents who testified for the defense. Judge Treu’s ruling was similarly opaque on the same matter.

If Randy Ward was hoping his op-ed would encourage more people to embrace the changes Vergara might bring, I’d prefer if he offered a more complete picture of the issues, and without the misleading numbers.

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* 30,250 teachers leave in a three-year period = 10,083/yr.; 11% of 10,083 = 1,109, which is 5.04 times 220.

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David B. Cohen

David B. Cohen is the Associate Director of Accomplished California Teachers (ACT). His main responsibilities are in communications and membership, and he works t...