Carl Cohn is one of the most respected and wisest figures in American education today. He was a successful superintendent in Long Beach and San Diego. He currently is a member of the California State Board of Education.

He writes here about the flawed logic of the Vergara decision, in which the judge ruled that teacher tenure and seniority were unconstitutional in California.

Cohn says the decision contradicts the reality of schools today, as well as what he observed as a superintendent.

He writes:

“What’s wrong with the ruling is that it reinforces a completely false narrative in which incompetent teachers are portrayed as the central problem facing urban schools.

“Serving as superintendent in both Long Beach and San Diego for 12-plus years, I didn’t see the “teacher jails” or “rubber rooms” – the places where teachers are assigned and do nothing while any of a range of charges against them are adjudicated – that have become a part of the popular-media-driven narrative about urban schools and districts.

“I saw remarkably heroic classroom teachers who delivered high-quality instruction on a daily basis. Sure, there were times when a teacher wasn’t performing up to par and needed help. And yes, there were times when a teacher needed to find a new career. But the notion that the only choice facing an urban district is to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars removing such teachers says more about poor leadership and poor human capital management in that district than it does about the existing state statutes under consideration in this court case.

“In my experience at Long Beach, the biggest help in counseling a teacher toward finding a new career was the head of the local teachers union, who understood that keeping a sub-par teacher in the profession was bad for both the district and the union. Most of the heavy lifting on getting that resignation was done by the union, not the district.

“In recent years, it has become fashionable to suggest that the battle in urban districts is all about adult interests versus the interests of schoolchildren. The truth is that an effective leader of an urban school system goes to work every day trying to figure out how best to motivate, inspire and develop the adults who work with kids. Those superintendents who feel that they can transform kids’ lives by fiat from the superintendent’s suite are kidding themselves and fooling the public. Enlisting, engaging and collaborating with classroom teachers are the only ways to genuinely move the needle on student achievement.”

He adds:

“Some change may well need to be considered in the length of time teachers must serve before gaining tenure. Most observers are waiting for some grand bargain to be crafted at the state level. But I think this would be best done from the “bottom up” in urban districts like San Jose and others, where district and union leaders are coming to the same conclusion that some beginning teachers are better served by lengthening the probationary period. State leaders and CTA need to get out of the way and let this happen.

“The work of improving urban schools is a long, hard slog. It requires stability of leadership and governance, along with taking the time to develop mutual trust between administrators and unions on building the capacity of the vast majority of the teacher workforce. Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts.

“California is a great state that should never consider turning back the clock either on the civil rights of urban students, who have the right to a high-quality public school education, or on the employment rights of the dedicated teachers who I saw serving them so well in both Long Beach and San Diego.”