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The Trouble With “The Trouble With Tenure”

August 21, 2014

EDIT 8/24/14: Corrected information about Michael Johnston’s experience as a principal.

Frank Bruni, writing in the New York Times on Aug. 18, 2014, cobbles together a series of assumptions and quotations to join the trendy but under-informed chorus speaking out regarding “The Trouble With Tenure.” You’ve heard this all before: too few teachers are fired because it’s too hard to fire them, and since they know they can’t effectively be fired, they don’t worry about their job performance. Those assumptions are, at best, difficult to support and to apply broadly – and at worst, they’re just wrong about teachers and organizational management.

First problem – it’s not tenure, in the sense that university professors have tenure. It is not a “job for life,” but rather, a due process protection that ensures teachers who need improvement or dismissal are given appropriate chances to address the issues raised. The details of that process may be worth revisiting and refining, depending on the state or system. And to be fair, I don’t see anything (in this column) to indicate that Bruni, or the main subject of his column, Colorado state Senator Mike Johnston, are suggesting the elimination of teachers’ due process rights. The problem I have is that the underlying assumptions in their arguments for reform are the same underlying assumptions for elimination of those rights, and so the assumptions need to be challenged.

I’m going to quote Bruni from nearer the conclusion than the introduction of his piece. He recognizes the need for some caution in conversations about this issue: “There are perils to the current tenure [sic] talk: that it fails to address the intense strains on many teachers; that it lays too much fault on their doorsteps, distracting people from other necessary reforms.” That’s an important and appreciated caveat – but the problem is that Bruni, and Johnston, simply aren’t mindful enough of that peril. Their apparently shared viewpoint is one that fundamentally misdiagnoses the problems undermining our systems. Bruni, Johnston, and too many reformers are focused on pressuring, and maybe punishing the individual, seeing those “bad” teachers as a cause rather than an effect of struggling school systems. Instead, they should be focused first on addressing the systemic problems that create the “bad” teacher. (Yes, “create” – because if someone hires bad teachers, and retains bad teachers beyond the probationary years, that’s not a problem with due process).

Back near the start of the column, Johnston tells Bruni that teacher job protections “[provide] no incentive for someone to improve their practice [and] no accountability to actual student outcomes. It’s the classic driver of, ‘I taught it, they didn’t learn it, not my problem.’ It has a decimating impact on morale among staff, because some people can work hard, some can do nothing, and it doesn’t matter.”

Regarding incentives to improve, I suggest that Bruni and Johnston read, or review, Daniel Pink’s excellent work on the topic of motivation – Drive. There’s ample, well-researched evidence that people doing complex and cognitively demanding work like teaching are inherently and intrinsically motivated to improve, or in Pink’s terminology, motivated to achieve mastery. We don’t need a built-in threat of losing our jobs, and in fact, to the extent that fear motivates action, it leads to worse performance, or cheating (cf.: Atlanta, Washington, D.C., etc.). So, if reformers want to incentivize improvement, their first step should be to figure out what the hell already went wrong: how did the school or the system manage to crush the motivation to improve that we should assume was there at the start (and is probably still there underneath the surface)? At this point, my fellow teachers, you can stop reading and skip to the next paragraph – you know what’s coming. For those who are wondering, a teacher who doesn’t appear interested in improvement is actually a teacher reacting to stress. Sometimes it’s personal stress of the kind that might affect anyone in any job, coping with the challenges of living life. But if it’s job-related stress, reformers could go a long way towards motivating teachers by helping us tackle sources of the stress: overcrowded classrooms, lack of classroom supplies, inadequate facilities, inadequate or faulty technology, lack of training and professional development, lack of support for our students’ nutritional, physical health and mental health needs, the accumulation of non-teaching tasks and unsupported mandates, ill-conceived changes in policies around evaluation and accountability, and sub-professional pay and benefits. If we want to get those test scores up (good grief!)*, try SUPPORTING teachers instead of leaping to conclusions about why they lack motivation.

Johnston is partially correct: teachers don’t like working with colleagues who don’t pull their weight. But it’s too easy to point fingers at due process, or unions in that situation. In districts that function well, teachers who aren’t performing well are helped, and if they are impervious to help, removed. Union leaders and administrators testified to that fact in the recent Vergara trial in California, and New York has made progress in streamlining that process according to recent data from the state. And many teachers who should leave the profession simply reach a point where they decide to do so, without going through the formality of fighting the process. (Though hard data on that is admittedly hard to find, I think most experienced teachers have seen it first hand, and union leaders I talk to also say it’s common). When due process does seem to protect “bad teachers” it’s important to be clear about whether it’s a problem in the contract or a problem of administrative capacity. We should certainly be open to negotiating contracts and policies that help everyone do a better job and do it efficiently, but we should not give up protections just to compensate for the fact that districts and states have overburdened administrators.

Johnston has some experience as a school principal – multiple brief stints at alternative high schools – and he relays this lesson from his experience: “You saw that when you could hire for talent and release for talent, you could actually demonstrate amazing results in places where that was never thought possible,” he said. “Ah, so it’s not the kids who are the problem! It’s the system.” Interesting observation. On one hand, he sees that systems shape outcomes for students. On the other hand, it seems the teachers who were hired for talent are the same ones released for talent. Um, what did the system do with, or to, that talent in between? And logically, we should then expect schools without due process protections to generally outperform their counterparts with due process, since their teachers have incentive to improve and their principals can hire and release at will. Inconvenient truth: that’s not happening in charter schools, and not happening in state-to-state comparisons. I’m not saying Johnston didn’t do a good job managing “talent” – but even if he did, one school’s success hardly indicates that broadly reducing or eliminating teachers’ due process protections will bring about systemic improvements.

Until reformers, policy makers, and the media move away from this fixation on bad teachers as the cause rather than the effect of under-performing schools, we’re going to be spinning our wheels on teaching quality.

Think about that image for a moment. Do we need to change the engine? The suspension? The tires?

No – we need to get pulled out of the mud, and then learn to avoid it in the first place.


* Johnston cites test scores from Harlem’s Success Academy as evidence against tenure. Um, Sen. Johnston, be careful about that…




Time and Space to Learn and Reflect

August 19, 2014

Some thoughts prompted by ten days of Michael Brown, Jr., and Ferguson, Missouri in the news, and through interaction with many colleagues and acquaintances in various online communities, including #CAedchat …


What do we do in school communities when events of historic proportion take place? Or overwhelm us? What do we do when our communities are in grip of trauma, fear, or grief? How many ways are we willing to define, or redefine, “our community”?

I think we have to be willing to toss out the lesson plan, or revise it. This must be done thoughtfully and advisedly, of course. A teacher needs to know the students, the community, and have the skills and sense to manage whatever is about to replace the regular lesson. But certainly, if we place the lesson plan ahead of significant moments in our communal life, we not only rob students of a chance to learn something more lasting and potentially important, but we also unwittingly reinforce the oft-heard but incorrect message that school is separate from “the real world.”

Let me share a positive example first. When I was in fifth grade, Ronald Reagan was sworn in for his first term as President. That alone would be an event worth watching – on the small tv with the big antennae. Set aside spelling lists and geography for a while. The math lesson can wait an hour, or a day. (In 2009, I had the chance to watch the Obama inauguration with my American Literature classes, which made for an interesting study in the iconography and symbolism in American political rhetoric). IMG_1227Then, of course, on that same inaugural day in 1981, the American hostages were released from Iran. Our principal asked us to bring the American flags out of our classrooms to display in front of the school, to show our patriotism and celebrate that the hostages were coming home.

I can’t tell you any specific academic content I learned that year, except maybe that Louisiana is The Pelican State; I did a report on it. That may have been the first time I learned anything about Louisiana. Certainly, I learned and practiced some other skills that year. I probably made adequate yearly progress. After all, I went on to 6th grade with no struggles, and so on and so forth. (I’ve actually written about 5th and 6th grade before – a satirical Thanksgiving post, here).

What did I learn from watching the Reagan inauguration and participating in the patriotic display for our returning hostages? I understood on some level (that I probably could have articulated even then, had I been asked), that I was part of America, that I should know how our government works, and that I should show thanks for the safe return home of my fellow citizens.

Six years later, there was a tragedy: the space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after liftoff. I was on my way to physics class when one of my friends told me. Our teacher didn’t expect us to study physics that day – not in the expected, planned, or assessed ways, at least. We watched the tv again – I think there was cable by then – and again, I felt connected to a broader community, but in grief.

Do we, collectively, feel connected to the events in Ferguson, MO? Should we? Should our students?

Here’s the way I see it. With younger children, we actually have some influence over what they will remember, what they feel connected to. If my teachers and principals had ignored the events of 1981 and 1986, I would have less of a memory that they occurred, less of an authentic sense of meaning. My recollection of the events of January, 1981, are all connected to school, not home, not my synagogue. For some students, if we don’t talk about this, it will not be part of their memory of our country’s history. And for some students who will most certainly remember this time, we’ll have to explain why this particular event – and the tragic pattern in which it fits – that mattered so much to them, was not worth our time, not considered educationally relevant.

It’s true that events like this present us with a complex narrative, one that exposes divides and uncomfortable truths about our nation – legacies of violence and discrimination going back centuries, still unreconciled. Talking about these issues in the classroom may be daunting for some: it’s difficult for many of us to bring up even in passing, among adults. Or maybe I should say, it’s difficult to talk about for those of us who have the privileged option to ignore race in America when we choose to. If we don’t talk about Ferguson, about the life and death of Mike Brown, Jr., then we miss an opportunity to help our students understand and develop a connection to their country’s living history. That’s not something we cherish – the recognition of seemingly perpetual conflict – but if we ignore it, we don’t equip students to deal with it any better in the present or the future.

DSC_0189I titled this post Time and Space to Learn and Reflect.” That’s my hope for students in the coming days and weeks – that they’ll have time and space, in school, to learn about and reflect upon what’s happening in the country right now. Teachers, administrators, parents and community members – we all need to see this as part of our work. We pledge allegiance to the flag of our Republic, affirming that it stands for a nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. If we believe that pledge, we are not to be divided from Ferguson, nor are we to ignore liberty restricted and justice denied. We have a duty to ask why, and must be brave enough to follow where such questions lead.

I’ll leave the means and methods for teachers and schools to figure out, the how, where, when and how much. There are many, many ways to address this topic, acknowledge what’s happening, make it a teachable moment that has both personal and academic relevance for students. It’s important both to make an effort, and to get this right. Don’t back off because you can’t do it perfectly, but make sure you handle well whatever aspects of it you address. I think it’s possible to provide a basic context and framework for some conversation with even young children, and then to provide appropriate levels of depth and complexity for older students. It is not likely to be a discussion or series of lessons that lead to clear outcomes, answers, resolution. We need to be okay with that. And of course, the conversation will vary depending on where it’s taking place – Staten Island, NY, or Bainbridge Island, WA; Sanford, FL, or Stamford, CT. But I hope anyone who’s read this far sees that we can’t just carry on, business as usual.

We have history to confront, many threads connecting the past and present; we have differences to reconcile, and a potential for unity worth striving for. Ferguson is our country, our legacy, and our challenge for the future – you know, the one our students will be helping us create.

Update: When it comes to issues like this, my thinking and my pedagogy are deeply influenced by years of work with the wonderful educators at Facing History and Ourselves. Their L.A. network recently posted these resources for educators addressing this topic.


And now for something completely different

August 15, 2014
Back to school time (photo by the author)

Back to school time (photo by the author)

I went to the annual opening-of-school event for my district again this year – my 13th time. It’s a small enough district that we can bring together all 1,600 staff members to celebrate the start of a new year, hear from some of our district’s leaders, and acknowledge our new staff and those returning for their 10th, 15th, 20th, 25th, 30th, or 35th year. There are some people who skip it every year and consider it a waste of time, and if we measure the quality of time strictly in terms of getting stuff done then I suppose that’s true.

Not for me though – I look forward to this event each year as an opportunity to connect with colleagues across the district, and to take in some of the best of our district’s organizational culture. There’s food, music, humor, and genuine appreciation for the work of every staff member. Veteran teachers will tell you that the people who really keep our schools running, by the way, are the custodial and clerical staff. They know everyone and everything and they’re the ones we turn to for getting stuff done. I also heard today that our district staff, overall, includes roughly 50% teachers, 44% classified staff, and 6% administration.

I must really like this event, because this year, I’m on a leave of absence from teaching – and I went anyways. (More about that to follow. Something completely different. Please read on!)

I like clapping for my colleagues as their names are announced in honor of their years of service. I marvel at the longevity and commitment, and appreciate the depth of their experience. I chat with people sitting near me and as familiar names go by, we share what we know about these friends, neighbors, peers, the teachers of our own children in some cases. I enjoy even more applauding our new staff members. I remember feeling a bit surprised at that welcome myself, and now take note of those whose smiles or laughs reveal a similar feeling; I hope their work experience in our district is similarly positive, and includes more pleasant surprises.

This year we welcomed a new superintendent as well. My colleagues who missed the event will have to trust the rest of us to convey something of his message, his outlook, his personality. I think it’s important to know how our district leaders think and what they say they value. Their remarks at these events provide a useful insight into their way of thinking, their frame of reference. When the time comes to work together more substantively, it helps to have a feeling for the people leading the system. If we’re really doing our jobs, there will be times ahead that are challenging, even uncomfortable, and moving through those moments successfully seems more likely when we have a well-rounded view of our partners in this work.

Well-rounded is actually an apt description for our new superintendent. Without reciting his bio and resume for us, he managed to let us know about his experiences as a teacher, administrator, and scholar, his experiences working in schools with students of varied ages, in varied subjects, in rural and urban settings. He used his own children and former students as examples urging us to take the long view of students’ lives and their needs. He focused on relationships and potential and reasons for learning, without edu-jargon, without a single reference to standards generally or the Common Core specifically, without flattering us about our district’s test scores, rankings, or college placement successes, without using the word “data” even once. Of course there will be a time to discuss all of those matters in those terms – but I was grateful that he recognized this opportunity to engage people as people first, and to talk about students as people first as well.

He also challenged us, putting the district mission statement on the screen without identifying it, then asking who recognized it. I inferred pretty quickly what he was doing, but had I been presented a multiple choice question, I couldn’t have confidently picked our district mission statement from among three others. I have a feeling I was in the majority. He promised us we’ll be revisiting that mission statement in the future. And yet, that particular move didn’t feel like a scolding, delivered the way it was, and following his confession about arriving for the event having forgotten to put on a belt while dressing this morning.

It’s so easy to assume things about people, and so easy to be wrong. Our superintendent advised us that his approach is “seek first to understand” – and that’s part of why I go to these kickoff events every year, seeking to understand the people I work with and the place where I work, where my children are going through school. I think that approach serves us all well – as teachers, parents, school leaders, and policy makers. Not only to understand, but to facilitate understanding in others by speaking plainly and focusing on what matters most in the moment. (And for a quick example of how action unsupported by understanding can fail an individual or organization, check out the criticisms of Michelle Rhee/Johnson in this article on the occasion of her decision to step down from leading Students First [sic]).

And now, for something completely different.

IMG_2144This post is about the beginning of a school year, but the year ahead has many differences and beginnings in store for me. In a way, “seeking first to understand” is an idea that is leading me out of the classroom for a while – or rather, seeking to understand more, and better. I’ve taken a leave of absence from teaching for 2014-15, and plan to visit and write about dozens of schools and teachers all around California. My work in various settings and organizations has created an opportunity to learn more about great teaching and schools by actually visiting, and after a few years of thinking and imagining, I’ve decided to act on my ideas and take my chances. I’ll be creating a new website, starting a new blog, and writing a book about the experience. Details coming in the next couple weeks – stay tuned!


August 1, 2014
Teacher leaders from Washoe Co. School District  (NV) discuss their work at TURN Conference in Chicago (7/28/14, photo by the author)

Teacher leaders from Washoe Co. School District (NV) discuss their work at TURN Conference in Chicago (7/28/14, photo by the author)

For the past couple of years, I’ve been connected with the Teacher Union Reform Network (TURN), primarily through its affiliated regional network in California, CalTURN. On the occasion of my most recent TURN experience (in Chicago the past few days), and also due to some questions and criticisms surfacing in social media lately, I’ve decided to write a bit about why I participate in TURN, and how I think it contributes to strengthening unions, the teaching profession, and public education.

Before I go into the details, let me establish some basic points:

  • I strongly believe in collective bargaining, and have found TURN entirely committed to strong unions using collective bargaining to improve teaching and learning.
  • I also believe our unions must address labor issues, the professionalization of teaching, and social justice; I have always found TURN leadership and participants share those values.
  • I am an advocate of expanding teacher leadership as part of every phase of school and district governance, and have been engaged with TURN because it is helping this to happen within a strong union framework.
  • I want to pursue expanded career pathways for teachers, formalizing new roles in educational systems, allowing us to exert greater influence on curriculum, professional development, and school improvement; I have consistently found TURN supporting those ideas.

These were my beliefs before I found TURN. If I didn’t think TURN was supportive of these principles, I wouldn’t be involved. My allegiance to these principles supersedes my commitment to any organization, and I hope this blog post (along with others if anyone really wants to dig into it) will help clarify where I’m coming from, and what motivates me and others with whom I’ve shared this work.

My awareness of TURN goes back several years, but my own involvement began shortly after I worked with a group of educators in Accomplished California Teachers to help produce a policy report on teacher evaluation. I was invited to present that work at a CalTURN conference in Santa Monica, and found the group was engaging in some interesting work around labor-management collaboration and interest-based bargaining. There were district teams attending the meeting with both union and administrative leaders, working together, taking time to find common ground, wrestle with challenges, and learn from other unions and administrators at the conference. The conversations in the room were productive, and consistently focused on helping teachers do a better job of helping students learn more effectively.

In my own district, I had always seen a spirit of cooperation and good will among union leaders and administrators. Again, it’s not perfect – but it wasn’t divisive or vitriolic. In my twelve years there, we’ve gone through a few variations on teacher evaluation and professional development, conversations and work in which I had a little more insight and input, and I have seen how a district’s positive working relationship contributes to better teaching and learning. Though my district has not participated in CalTURN in the time that I have started to, I stayed involved on my own, and was eventually invited to participate on the steering committee (though, please note, I do not speak for CalTURN or anyone else on the steering committee). I’ve written about CalTURN in prior blog posts for those who want more insights into the conferences I’ve attended, and what they accomplished.

This week was my first time attending a TURN conference drawing attendees from around the country. Again, I saw labor-management teams attending together, and importantly, working together, having substantive conversations about how to to do better work for our students. There are TURN-affiliated districts around the country, representing tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of teachers.

Labor and management at the table together, planning future collaboration. (TURN, Chicago, 7/29/14, photo by the author)

Labor and management at the table, planning future collaboration. (TURN, Chicago, 7/29/14, photo by the author)

The recent tensions on social media, I think, are largely arising because the conference focused on Common Core implementation. Putting those three words together pretty much ends the debate before it starts for some people, and I started seeing critical posts on Twitter, Facebook, and blogs. The argument is that helping implement Common Core is helping corporatize and privatize public education. By implication, the critics seem to argue that any union member or local association that is implementing the common core is selling out. They do not seem to accept that many of our union brothers and sisters look at the same information and reach different conclusions about the implications of that information, or the best course of action. My approach is to accept that my fellow professionals, and our associations in various states and in various political circumstances, can be trusted to determine their own priorities and directions on a variety of complicated issues in challenging times.

TURN is addressing Common Core implementation because that’s what member associations and districts are doing, some enthusiastically, some still expressing varying degrees of concern. TURN is not in the position of telling anyone to implement CCSS, but rather, meeting the needs of members that are going through that transition. The overarching goal is to ensure that teachers, through their unions, have the ability to negotiate policies and collaborate in decision-making to improve teaching and learning.

In the past few days, I heard presenters consistently describing ways in which labor-management collaboration and union advocacy have created new professional development and leadership opportunities for teachers. I heard about districts making policy changes that entrust teachers – and unions – with new roles and greater responsibility. These are concrete gains, solid improvements in the profession. As the assessment and accountability landscape evolves, I believe we are now in a better position to influence policy improvements. I do wish more of this progress had come without CCSS in the picture, but my hope now is that teachers and unions will protect these gains, ensuring the continued improvement of teaching in their districts. If we do that, we’ll have stronger unions, better teaching, and lasting improvements that will persist through the inevitable transition through CCSS to the Next Big Thing, whenever that might occur.

I do understand the concerns around Common Core. I’ve been critical of the Common Core in the past, especially the processes by which they were crafted and adopted, and this blog has featured posts (mine and others’) critical of CCSS. I’m deeply concerned that the assessments will be abused the same way that testing was abused under NCLB. I’ve also previously written about why I am not actively resisting Common Core in my context at this time, though I remain vigilant to see what will happen in the future, and remain engaged to try to prevent outcomes such as the misuse of test scores for teacher evaluation. If I were teaching in New York, I’m sure I’d be taking a different approach, and I may yet in California. The fact that at times I’ve been a member or leader connected to any organization – my local union, CTA, TURN, NBPTS, NCTE, ASCD, Learning Forward, etc. – does not mean I automatically subscribe to all of their positions and agree with all of their policies. That’s partly why I engage – not only to support what I think is good work by good organizations, but also to try to influence their work and make it better.

That approach won’t appeal to everyone. So be it. But the critics win no converts by implying that any thinking, informed person who shares their core values regarding schools must also share their opinions about the One True Path to help schools. It’s implied we are supposed to avoid or resist anything connected at all with the Common Core, or the Gates Foundation, or Pearson… you get the idea. I fully understand the criticisms of those entities; I agree on many points, have made many of those same points myself at times, and I’m glad that there is a vigorous debate around the issues. But if you reject everything and everyone connected even tangentially to the largest initiatives, largest vendors, and largest funders in education, you don’t have much to work with.

So, instead of engaging in an ideological battle that divides everyone into one camp or the other, I’m finding ways to do the most productive work I can, guided by the principles outlined above, to help students, teachers, and public schools.

National Board Certification to Build Professional Capital

July 8, 2014

The blog post below is copied from a comment I left on José Vilson’s blog. You should probably read his entire post (click here to open it in a new window/tab), but here’s a taste of what he was saying about teacher leadership, empowerment, and National Board Certification. The event described is the recent NEA Empowered Educators Day:

For one, I found the diversity (i.e. the number of educators of color) somewhat refreshing, and the strongest presentations in the main plenaries came from representatives of color. I found Monsterrat Garibay’s contributions to the first panel on leadership powerful because she added the contexts of equity and race to her work. None of our work is without context, which is why I found NBCT educator and Mitchell20 protagonist Daniela Robles’ contributions also sparked me. For many of us who work in turnaround schools, which are predominantly of color, it’s refreshing to hear someone say, “I used my expertise BECAUSE of the conditions I was put in, not in spite.”

Even with these powerful stories, I still left with more questions than answers.

What, for instance, is National Board, and why would folks want to try National Board in the age of VAM-validation? Is it enough to say that we want to de-emphasize alternative certification programs in favor of professionalizing / streamlining the teacher recruitment process and why? How do we address career changers and an economy that accosted teachers of color who often work in high need areas? How will getting NBCT-certified address the often subjective ways in which leadership is chosen, even with ostensible application processes?

As someone who’s a candidate for National Board, these are questions I might have as someone who had never heard of National Board. Also, is NBCT the end-all-be-all of teacher leadership, and what exactly am I entering?

Furthermore, is Daniela Robles any less of an educator if she doesn’t do National Board? Does she not deserve a movie for tolerating the nonsense of mid-level executives posing as educational experts telling her what she’s doing wrong? How do we harvest the power of all the educators in that auditorium to not just do better as teachers, but flip the image of what it means to be an expert educator? How does the NEA as both a collective bargaining organization and professional organization endorse and support the work of educators trying to elevate the profession in a substantial way, without the resentment and pettiness that sometimes comes with the territory?

To which, I responded:

Hi José –

Yes, that was a thought provoking, and question provoking post. If I may be so bold, I’m wondering if we might have a more helpful look at these issues by expanding the frame a bit. “Mitchell 20” is a compelling bit of storytelling, and yes, Daniela is the spark or the center for that story, and yes, she’s a wonderful spokesperson. I don’t think either of us begrudge her any of what has come her way. But that’s the storytelling part, not the hard work. Let’s focus on the “20” – because what happened there was a shift in the culture of a school, and I think those can be hard to come by. Yes, we all know those “above and beyond” teachers who deserve recognition. We need them, admire them, we’ve been them – or maybe have moved in and out of those roles as our energies and life circumstances permit. But in the long run, I hope National Board Certification is not only an expectation for the individual teacher (as Renee Moore advocated in her comment), but also a centerpiece for shifting the cultures of schools and the culture(s) of the profession.

I’m reading Professional Capital right now, and that’s the one of the key take aways so far: we need to discuss teaching quality as a systemic issue, and we need systems that are supportive of the individuals who make them work – but we need less focus on the heroes-and-villains narratives of great teachers and awful teachers. What is it about our systems that make teachers thrive or flounder?

Of course, for that to happen, there will be some heavy lifting necessary, important matters of equity and access to address. From what I understand, the new format and requirements for certification have been designed in part to provide flexibility that was introduced with teachers’ needs in mind (more family friendly to spread it out, and maybe more possible to embed it in our work at school). There are also issues of race and class involved (ha – I’m telling you?) – in terms of incentives and supports for certain teachers, schools, communities. How do we expand these circles of inclusion, strategically and intentionally? We need NBPTS, NBCTs, and policy makers to share the responsibility of advocating, and call attention to the differences between certification and what currently passes for “highly qualified” in education policy. The individual narratives can provide a hook for those conversations, but in the long run, we need to help create, and then tout, systemic benefits that generate more professional capital – and better schools for our students.

Watch José perform his poem, This Is Not A Test, at the Save Our Schools March (2011), and check out his book, too!

Shaky Methods, Shaky Motives: A Recap of My Critique of the NCTQ’s Review of Teacher Preparation Programs

June 17, 2014

The reblogged post below discusses the shoddy methods and questionable conclusions in teacher preparation reports by the National Center for Teaching Quality. The blog post’s author is Dr. Ed Fuller, who “currently serves as an education consultant to a number of research organizations in Texas and across the nation. He is also employed as an Associate Professor and Director of the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy Analysis in the Education Policy Studies department in the College of Education of Penn State University and as Associate Director for Policy for the University Council for Educational Administration (UCEA). The views communicated on this blog do not necessarily represent the views of the department, college, Penn State University, or UCEA.” [Bio quoted from Dr. Fuller’s blog].

A "Fuller" Look at Education Issues


The following is based on my complete study published in the Journal of Teacher Education. This version leaves out some examples, technical points, and suggestions for an approach to evaluating preparation programs. Sage Journals has been kind enough to make the complete study available for free to the public for a one month period. The study can be found at:


After last year’s release of the NCTQ’s ratings of teacher preparation programs, headlines and leading remarks about US teacher preparation programs proclaimed: “Teacher prep programs get failing marks” (Sanchez, 2013); “University programs that train U.S. teachers get mediocre marks in first-ever ratings” (Layton, 2013); and, “The nation’s teacher-training programs do not adequately prepare would-be educators for the classroom, even as they produce almost triple the number of graduates needed” (Elliot, 2013).

Critics of traditional teacher preparation have used the report as evidence that US teacher preparation is…

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“Strict scrutiny” of Vergara ruling a setback for California teachers

June 11, 2014


Yesterday, California Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu handed down a ruling in the education policy lawsuit commonly referred to as the Vergara case. People I know who were closer to the case were not surprised that the judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, finding unconstitutional certain parts of the California Education Code pertaining to teacher rights. The case was brought by an advocacy organization called Students Matter, formed just for this purpose – litigating education policy changes they felt they couldn’t achieve via legislation. I’m going to attempt a moderate and reasoned interpretation of the ruling, but my feelings are less moderate when it comes to organizations that invoke children and students in their name, but fight for policies that do so little to help children. Because students do matter, but the money and power organized here are not really helping students. They have decided on a political battle transferred to the courtroom. I’m suspicious of wealthy and powerful individuals and groups whose advocacy for children leads to “reforms” that won’t cost a cent, but will weaken labor.

Students matter – but apparently, California’s shamefully inadequate funding levels don’t. That’s the status quo they accept; teacher protections are apparently the status quo to fight. In many funding categories, California is at or near the bottom of the state rankings. Students Matter has done nothing that will put a needed book or computer in a school. Not one wifi hotspot. Not one more librarian, nurse, or counselor. Not one more paintbrush or musical instrument. Not one hour of instructional aide support for students or professional development for teachers. They don’t have any apparent interest in the more glaring inadequacies that their considerable wealth and PR savvy could help. But forming a non-profit organization for litigation purposes and calling it “Lawsuits Matter” wouldn’t be as catchy. Their arguments regarding education problems and policy were flawed and unconvincing. Their standing in the case may be legal, but has the look of opportunism, with some incredible wealth and some powerful connections to education “reform” and charter school interests permeating the organization.

Venting done. On to the decision.

It seems to me crucial parts of the trial came before it started. (And if I get any part of the legal analysis or terminology incorrect, I welcome feedback). Questions about the plaintiffs’ standing and their ability to prove any harm were dismissed. In fact, the burden of proof practically switched from plaintiffs to defendants when Judge Rolf Treu ruled that the case would proceed under the judicial review principle of strict scrutiny.” By this standard, where the constitutional rights of a protected class may be abridged, it is essentially up to the defense to prove that a law serves a compelling state interest in the narrowest possible way. Judge Treu describes his role as follows:

This Court is asked to directly assess how the Challenged Statutes affect the educational experience. It must decide whether the Challenged Statutes cause the potential and/or unreasonable exposure of grossly ineffective teachers to all California students in general and to minority and/or low income students in particular, in violation of the equal protection clause of the California Constitution.

So, we can all agree in that California students need consistently high quality teachers, and that harm is done when incompetent teachers retain their jobs. We can agree that teachers with less experience and lower qualifications are disproportionately concentrated in schools serving poorer communities and students. But since the plaintiffs don’t have to show any actual, direct harm caused to individuals by these laws, it seems to become a battle of anecdote vs. anecdote, and researcher vs. researcher. And the strict scrutiny burden falls on the defense.

Sure enough, when Judge Treu’s ruling addresses evidence of “the specific effect of grossly ineffective teachers on students” he does not then mention any of the plaintiffs, or any of the relevant schools or districts. He cites research done by economists (outside of California). Treu says “The evidence is compelling. Indeed, it shocks the conscience.” First he cites the testimony of Dr. Raj Chetty, whose major study of testing data and various personal data for former students found correlations which, extrapolated by several decades, suggest (in Treu’s words) “a grossly ineffective teacher costs students $1.4 million in lifetime earnings per classroom.” Of course, divided by 30 students over 45 years of earnings, that would mean a little over $1,000 per year, or a little over $20 per week (48 weeks) per person. Hmmm. When you look at it that way, the conscience isn’t quite as shocked. (And that’s assuming the study proves what it claims to prove. For more details and critical views of that study, see this compilation of sources by Larry Ferlazzo). Treu also cites testimony by Dr. Tom Kane that students “taught by a teacher in the bottom 5% of competence lose 9.54 months of learning in a single year compared to students with average teachers.” The proxy for competence is presumably test scores, and the proxy for learning is also presumably test scores, so the cause/effect issues here would seem to be at issue; indeed, Jesse Rothstein’s research found testing data can produce “evidence” that 5th grade teachers appeared to influence their students’ test scores from 3rd grade. In other words, if you don’t have randomized samples, you can’t assume that teachers have equivalent groups of students. But you have to admire the confidence exhibited in those significant digits: yes, the effect has been measured down to a hundredth of a month, down to the hour.

If only Californians’ consciences were shocked by the fact that we have an economy greater than that of most countries, and concentrations of wealth that boggle the mind – with extreme poverty and grossly inadequate school funding. But, moving on, here are the specific elements of yesterday’s ruling.

The first challenged statute was California’s requirement that new teachers should be selected for permanent status (commonly but imprecisely called “tenure”) after two years. Treu cited testimony from both sides to suggest that the two-year period (actually, less, since notification must occur on or before March 15 of the second year) serves both students and teachers poorly – students because an undeserving teacher may be “reelected” and teachers because they may be released if there’s any doubt, even in situations where one more year might serve the teachers well. Applying strict scrutiny, Treu found that the logical possibility of harm to students is enough to compel the defense to show the need for a two-year period. The judge pointed out that most states with similar laws use longer periods of time, typically three years, some 4-5 years. He also noted from the testimony that it seems illogical to make a permanent status decision in a time-period shorter than the new teacher induction program.

Without agreeing with the reasoning used by the plaintiffs, or the remedy of simply throwing out the law, I would say this is the weak link for the defense case. I helped write a teacher evaluation policy report – with a dozen other teachers – in which we also advocated for a three years rather than two for this decision. However, we were talking about a set of interrelated changes that should be taken together, modifying teacher induction and evaluation. We certainly didn’t advocate making this change in isolation, or without a deliberative process. One local union recently requested (but didn’t receive) a waiver from the state to work with district administrators to craft a new induction and evaluation system that included a three-year probationary stage.

Regarding the steps and procedures involved in teacher dismissal, Judge Treu says the defense must meet strict scrutiny to prove why teacher dismissal must involve “über due process” and he points out that if education code in this area is stricken, teachers will be treated like other public sector employees, who do have due process rights. I’m not sure teachers are well-served by alarmist social media messages suggesting Treu’s ruling would leave us without due process. At the same time, I think there are compelling reasons that teaching is different from other public sector employment, necessitating some special consideration in dismissal procedures. However, Treu’s discussion of the evidence in this area seems particularly selective; he says that the current system is so complex and expensive that “dismissal of a grossly ineffective teacher [is] illusory.” The word “illusory” suggests that it just doesn’t happen – when in fact, it does happen.  LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy, a witness for the plaintiffs, even testified about the fact that greater attention to ineffective teaching in LAUSD has led to more teachers being dismissed. (A former superintendent, called by the defense, also testified regarding the fact that ineffective teachers often choose to leave rather than engage in the full dismissal process). I’m entirely open to the idea that the process could be improved, and in fact, CTA has worked with legislators, key stakeholders, and education advocacy groups around certain dismissal procedures quite recently. But I do to take issue with “illusory” and question Treu’s vision in that regard. And keep in mind, no evidence was cited (nor is there any I’ve read about) to suggest that any of the plaintiffs endured a teacher who would have been fired if not for these burdensome laws; under strict scrutiny, it seems that’s not necessary – but it would be more compelling.

I think the greatest weakness in Treu’s ruling concerns seniority as the deciding factor in layoffs. He writes that “last-in-first-out” policies (LIFO) are “unfathomable”– because the state would have to show a compelling interest for keeping students away from better, junior teachers, and instead, place them in the classrooms of a hypothetical “senior/incompetent” teacher. Treu’s argument is framed on the assumption that a school is employing a teacher identified as “incompetent,” and not merely less effective, or in need of support. That seems to me a flimsy premise upon which to engage in such hypotheticals about layoffs. If a teacher has been officially deemed incompetent, that should be the end of it – why would that person still be employed? But I have a feeling this hypothetical is about the senior teacher who might be incompetent, or has a reputation as such – and I don’t think education code should work that way. It might even be a teacher who’s in the middle of the dismissal process – but the difference between the middle and the end is the difference between maybe and definitely. While Treu offers supporting studies and testimony elsewhere in his ruling, this section refers to neither research nor trial evidence. He merely engages in a thought exercise, and then compares California’s statute to laws in other states, where for the most part, seniority is less binding than it is in California. The outside observer cannot infer how he concludes that the elimination of LIFO would help California students in general, nor is there evidence that it would help anyone specific, such as any plaintiff in this case.

This is the issue I’m most concerned about. Seniority is a rational basis for handling layoffs – the recent prevalence of which should be entered as evidence in a more appropriate lawsuit, regarding California’s failure to meet constitutional obligations concerning public education. Seniority serves a compelling state interest by providing a bulwark against politically or fiscally motivated layoffs, and by fostering the necessary collaboration to help schools thrive. (Note: there are already some legal exceptions to seniority as the sole criterion in layoffs. I think there’s reason to discuss ways of shielding certain schools in a district while adhering to seniority in other schools; however, see these InterACT blog posts by Martha Infante for some idea how complicated that can become). Eliminating LIFO opens the door to evaluations that favor less expensive teachers, and provides a potential end-around for administrators to avoid due process. Furthermore, it creates competition in place of collaboration; if layoffs are looming, there’s a perverse incentive to protect oneself at the expense of others. Admittedly, I’m engaging in my own thought experiment here, but with careers, pensions, and health care coverage at stake, teachers would have reasons to look out for themselves first, rather than put much effort into supporting others.

Judge Treu’s ruling closes by invoking Alexander Hamilton on the topic of separation of powers; he reminds us that judging and legislating are separate functions, and that the legislature must remedy what the court finds unconstitutional. Therefore, with years of appeals ahead, and then a legislative process to follow, I think it’s too soon for teachers or unions to begin talk of disaster. Mine is an admittedly amateur reading, but it would seem possible to under this ruling to pass constitutional muster with laws that make the following changes:

  • Permanent status awarded in third year rather than second year
  • Streamlined (not eliminated) due process laws
  • Seniority used as one factor rather than the sole factor in layoffs

Don’t get me wrong: just on principle, I’d rather see the whole case rejected on appeal. But if the ruling, or parts of it, should stand several years from now, then teachers still have room to advocate for a strong profession. Let’s stay informed and engaged. Stay vigilant, even adversarial as necessary – but calm.


Some other links you might want to check out:

KQED-FM “Forum” will discusses the Vergara ruling (Wednesday, June 11, 9-10 a.m.)

EdSource Today

California Teachers Association response

Diane Ravitch blog post (contains NEA and AFT reactions)

Charles Kerchner and David Menefee-Libey – in EdWeek blog “On California”

Two posts by Benjamin Riley (Quick reaction…, and Additional Thoughts…)

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