A friend who observed the proceedings in the Vergara trial sent me the following notes, based on the testimony of Stanford professor Linda Darling-Hammond. She is probably the nation’s leading expert on issues related to teacher recruitment, preparation, retention, and support. Her testimony, based on many years of study and experience, was devastating to the plaintiff’s case.
Linda Darling-Hammond’s testimony
Yesterday, expert witness Linda Darling-Hammond, a renowned scholar and Stanford professor, has refuted the main arguments of the plaintiffs’ lawyers.
Darling-Hammond, whose insights come from both research and experience, stated that measures based on student test scores do not identify effective teachers, that two years is enough time to identify teachers who should be counseled out of the profession, and that extending that period beyond two years would harm students.
On what a good evaluation process looks like.
“With respect to tenure decisions, first of all, you need to have – in the system, you need to have clear standards that you’re going to evaluate the teacher against, that express the kind of teaching practices that are expected; and a way of collecting evidence about what the teacher does in the classroom. That includes observations and may also include certain artifacts of the teacher’s work, like lesson plans, curriculum units, student work, et cetera.”
“You need well-trained evaluators who know how to apply that instrument in a consistent and effective way.
“You want to have a system in which the evaluation is organized over a period of time so that the teacher is getting clarity about what they’re expected to do, feed back about what they’re doing, and so on.
In California – note related to the tenure decision, but separately – there is a mentoring program that may be going on side-by-side; but really, that does not feed into the tenure decisions. It’s really the observation and feedback process.”
On the problem with extending the tenure beyond two years
“It’s important that while we want teachers to at some point have due process rights in their career, that that judgment be made relatively soon; and that a floundering teacher who is grossly ineffective is not allowed to continue for many years because a year is a long time in the life of a student.
“So I think that having the two-year mark—which means you’re making a decision usually within 19 months of the starting point of that teacher – has the interest of allowing a – of encouraging districts to make that decision in a reasonable time frame so that students aren’t exposed to struggling teachers for long than they might need to be.”
Other reasons why two years is enough
“My opinion is that, for the first reason I mentioned earlier—the encouragement to make a judgment about a grossly ineffective teacher before many years go by is a useful reason to have a shorter tenure period – or pre-tenure period.
“But at the end of the say, the most important thing is not the amount of time; the most important thing is the quality and the intensity of the evaluation and support process that goes on for beginning teachers.
On the benefits and importance of having a system that includes support for struggling teachers
“Well, it’s important both as a part of a due process expectation; that if somebody is told they’re not meeting a standard, they should have some help to meet that standard.
The principal typically does not have as much time and may not have the expertise in the content area that a mentor teacher would have. For example, in physics or mathematics, usually the mentor is in the same area, so the help is more intensive and more specific.
“And in such programs, we often find that half of the teachers do improve. Others may not improve, and then the decision is more well- grounded. And when it is made, there is almost never a grievance or a lawsuit that follows because there’s ben such a strong process of help.
“The benefits to students are that as teachers are getting assistance and they’re improving their practice, students are likely to be better taught.
“And in the cases where the assistance may not prove adequate to help an incompetent teacher become competent, the benefit is that that teacher is going to be removed from the classroom sooner, if, sort of, they allowed the situation to just go on for a long time, which is truncated by this process of intensive assistance….
“The benefits to districts are that by doing this, you actually end up making the evaluation process more effective, making personnel decisions in a more timely way, making them with enough of a documentation record and a due process fidelity, that very rarely does there occur a problem after that with lawsuits; which means the district spends a little bit of money to save a lot of money and to improve the effectiveness of teaching for its students.
On peer assistance and review (PAR) and other mentoring programs
“A PAR program and other programs that mentor teachers typically improve the retention of teachers; that is, they keep more of the beginning teachers, which is where a lot of attrition occurs. But they do ensure that the teachers who leave are the ones that you’d like to have leave, as opposed to the ones who leave for other reasons.”
On firing the bottom 5% of teachers
“My opinion is that there are at least three reasons why firing the bottom 5 percent of teachers, as defined by the bottom 5 percent on an effectiveness continuum created by using the value-added test scores of their students on state tests, will not improve the overall effectiveness of teachers….
One reason is that, as I described earlier, those value-added metrics are inaccurate for many teachers. In addition, they’re highly unstable. So the teachers who are in the bottom 5 percent in one year are unlikely to be the same teachers as who would be in the bottom 5 percent the next year, assuming they were left in place.
“And the third reason is that when you create a system that is not oriented to attract high-quality teachers and support them in their work, that location becomes a very unattractive workplace. And an empirical proof of that is the situation currently in Houston, Texas, which has been firing many teachers at the bottom end of the value-added continuum without creating stronger overall achievement, and finding that they have fewer and fewer people who are willing to come apply for jobs in the district because with the instability of those scores, the inaccuracy and bias that they represent for groups of teachers, it’s become an unattractive place to work.
“The statement is often made with respect to Finland that if you fire the bottom 5 percent [of teachers], we will be on a par with achievement in Finland. And Finland does none of those things. Finland invests in the quality of beginning teachers, trains them well, brings them into the classroom and supports them, and doesn’t need to fire a lot of teachers.”