This is the third segment of the debate between me and Whitney Tilson about education reform. Tilson is a key figure in the reform movement–which I usually call the corporate reform movement because it tries to adapt bottom-line, carrot-and-stick, measure-and-punish/reward approaches into education. Tilson was a founder of Democrats for Education Reform, which underwrites political candidates who support charters and high-stakes testing. DFER is a partner of the advocacy group Education Reform Now, which has the same goals. My position is that this movement is not about reform but about privatization by charters and vouchers. Whitney Tilson reached out and proposed an exchange, and I readily agreed. The way it works is like this: He sends me a statement of his views and questions, and I respond. We send our comments back and forth a few times. His comments begin with WT, mine begin with DR. If you want to see his post, where my comments are in blue, go here. Readers have asked why I am engaging in this exchange. First of all, I think it is always valuable to listen to people who disagree with your views. Second, this is a wonderful opportunity for me to correct some of Whitney’s ideas about testing and teaching that I think are misinformed. Third, it is a good opportunity to post my views on a blog where people normally would never see them.
Here is round 3.
Whitney Tilson writes:
WT: STOP THE PRESSES AGAIN!!! (continuing yesterday’s email)
My new BFF, Diane Ravitch, and I have continued our conversation and it’s gotten even more interesting, as we’ve moved past the high-level principles we mostly agreed on in our first exchange of emails (sent a couple of weeks ago and posted on her blog here and my blog here) and started engaging on the many issues on which we disagree.
Round 2 of our discussion, which I posted on my blog here and she posted here, covered many topics:
1) Whether reformers are now the status quo
2) Charter schools
3) Tests and how they should (and shouldn’t) be used
Today we continue with Round 3, which covers:
1) Who is the underdog in this battle
2) The tone of the debate and our shared desire to focus more on the issues and less on personal attacks
3) The details of the Vergara case – namely, a) the amount of time it takes teachers to earn tenure; b) how difficult it is for administrators to fire a tenured teacher; and c) whether layoffs should be done strictly by seniority
My original email is in italics, Diane’s comments are in blue (beginning with “DR:”), and my responses are in black (beginning with “WT:”).
DR: Whitney, let’s go back to the question with which this exchange began. You suggested that I was being insulting by referring to a “billionaire boys’ club.” Yes, there actually is a “billionaire boys’ club.” What else would you call the collaboration among the Walton Family Foundation, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, along with another dozen or two dozen billionaires, such as the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, the Emerson Collective (Laurene Powell Jobs), the Dell Foundation, the Helmsley Foundation, the Bloomberg Foundation, the Fisher Foundation, etc. In addition to these billionaires, the U.S. Department of Education can usually be counted on to throw in hundreds of millions to fund whatever the billionaires fund.
WT: I think you’re being sexist in using the word “boys” because, for example, Melinda Gates plays as large (if not larger) role than her husband at the Gates Foundation, and Alice Walton, Carrie Walton Penner, and other younger, less known Walton women are deeply engaged in this area. If you want to call it the “billionaires club”, fine.
DR: It really is irrelevant whether I call it the “Billionaire Boys’ Club” or the “Billionaires’ Club.” It is a distinction without a difference. The point is that these very rich people have decided that they should control public education, even though none of them was ever a teacher, and few ever attended a public school or sent their own children to public schools. The reality is that this small group of people has a lock on almost all funding for education.
I am president of a national organization of educators and parents called the Network for Public Education. We support public education, and we oppose high-stakes testing and privatization. The doors of all these foundations are closed to us. So is the U.S. Department of Education. When I try to think of foundations that support our goals–which are widely shared by millions of parents and educators–I can’t use up the five fingers on one hand.
WT: I find it so interesting how both sides see themselves as the outmanned, outgunned, outspent underdog. I agree with you that a number of major foundations have provided major funding over many years to support the “reform” agenda. But: a) I think the vast majority of mainstream/family/community foundations tend to support the existing system without really trying to change it: funding after-school programs, scholarships, trips and other special programs, paying for teaching aides in classrooms, etc.); and b) The resources the two teachers unions’ bring to bear dwarfs the efforts of the handful of foundations you cite.
They are among the most powerful interest groups in the country. The NEA is the largest labor union in the country with just under 3 million members and the AFT has 1.6 million more, meaning that 2.0% of U.S. adults (above age 20) are members. Their combined revenues at all levels probably exceed $1.3 billion a year, not including their PAC funds, foundations, and a host of special funds under their control. But their political power isn’t just in their money, it’s their grassroots organization to get out the vote, etc. They can provide a candidate a turnkey campaign operation with filings, yard signs, mailings, telephone calls, volunteers, fundraising and crucial foot soldiers. I haven’t seen the latest statistics, but at one point teacher union representatives accounted for approximately 10% of the delegates at the Democratic National Convention, more than any state except California. They are very influential in electing school board members, which means that in many cases they are, in effect, negotiating with themselves. As one Southern governor said: “There’s only one thing you have to know about politics in my state. Every teacher has every summer before every election off.”
I don’t think I’m going to persuade you, but I hope you better understand why I feel like our side is the underdog here.
DR: The combined wealth of the Walton family, the Gates family, the Broad family, Michael Bloomberg, and the many other billionaires who fund the testing and charter movement—certainly more than $300 billion– dwarfs the assets and income of the two teachers’ unions. The puzzle to me is why these billionaires think they should run the nation’s public education system. They have no special knowledge of education. Knowing how to make money or inheriting money from your parents does not mean that you know more than professional educators. Aside from the question of their competence to take control of what they do not understand, there is the question of democracy. Public education belongs to the public, not to the highest bidder. Michael Bloomberg, who was a very good mayor in many respects, had total control of the New York City public schools for a dozen years, and no one today would say that they are a model for the nation. They struggle with the same problems as other cities that have large numbers of poor and minority students. How many years does it take for your idea of “reform” to take hold and benefit all children, not just a few?
WT: Specifically, I want to apologize to you for some of the things I’ve written about you in the past, in which I’ve made personal attacks and impugned your motives.
DR: I appreciate that. I didn’t realize until you told me that you had created a website called http://www.rebuttingravitch.com, and I don’t know the ad hominem things you have written about me. I would apologize for anything negative I wrote about you, but I don’t think I ever have. Sometimes, in the depths of frustration over the money and power arrayed against public schools and their teachers, I may have adopted a snarky tone, but I try to avoid ad hominem rhetoric. I can think of only one occasion (there might be more, but I can’t recall) in which I called out someone personally, and that was Ben Austin, who had arranged to get a Latina principal fired in Los Angeles, someone he never met, someone whose entire staff (excepting one person) resigned in sympathy with her. That made my blood boil, because he had an organization (Parent Revolution) funded with millions from Walton, Broad, Gates, and Wasserman, and the principal was on her own, with no funds to defend herself. I get very vexed by billionaires and their surrogates attacking hard-working educators who are doing their best under difficult circumstances. I know that those billionaires and their well-paid public relations spokespersons wouldn’t last five minutes in a classroom, but….I am human and sometimes my anger gets in the way of my efforts to remain civil.
WT: Thank you for accepting my apology. (By the way, I’ve made major changes to my web site at http://www.rebuttingravitch.org that reflect my attempt to engage solely on the issues.)
I cannot accept, however, your denials and rationalizations for the rhetoric you regularly use. Perhaps after all these years it’s become so deeply ingrained as to be instinctive and you’re not even aware of what you’re doing.
For example, in the paragraph above, in which you write about “billionaires attacking hard-working educators,” I don’t doubt the sincerity of your beliefs and I admire your passion, but it is inflammatory and insulting language.
DR: Hmm. I consider it a statement of fact. If billionaires feel insulted, they should think how teachers feel when they are fired based on flawed data, because Bill Gates thinks it is a good idea or Eli Broad believes in closing their schools. I have met some of those teachers. Losing your job and your reputation hurts worse than insults, and I still don’t consider my comments insulting.
WT: Can you not see the difference between the following statements:
1) “Members of the billionaire boys’ club, who wouldn’t last five minutes in a classroom, are attacking hard-working educators, using their well-paid public relations spokespersons, as part of their efforts to privatize public education for their own profit.”
DR: I don’t believe the billionaires are working for their own profit. They are already super rich. But they clearly don’t respect teachers, who work much harder than they do; they do have well-paid public relations spokespersons; and they do want to privatize public education with charters and vouchers. (And, by the way, there are for-profit corporations opening bad charter schools, whose goal is indeed profit. Eighty percent of the charter schools in the state of Michigan operate for profit without any accountability.) I certainly don’t think that Bill Gates and the Walton family want to make a profit. But they don’t discourage those who do use charters to make profits. I didn’t realize that billionaires had such thin skins. Or that they felt themselves to be outmanned, outgunned, and outspent (!) by those who support public education under democratic control. They are surely outnumbered, but I don’t believe they are outmanned or outgunned. They certainly are not outspent. They paid millions to underwrite blogs like Education Post and The 74. No one pays me to blog (nor does anyone pay the scores of teacher-bloggers who dominate social media). I have no public relations staff. All I have is a computer and the knowledge I have accumulated while studying and writing about the history and politics of American education over the past half century of my life.
2) “I disagree with the agenda being pursued by the so-called “reform movement” and its wealthy backers. I think that their ideas in most areas – for example, favoring more charter schools, vouchers and testing – end up doing more harm than good because they demoralize teachers, weaken unions, and rattle the foundations of education without improving it.”
The former is name-calling, demonizing, bullying and impugning motives, which is unlikely to lead to anything productive, while the latter is a well-articulated point of view that might lead to fruitful discussions and compromises.
I have met Bill and Melinda Gates, John Walton, Eli and Edythe Broad, Laurene Powell Jobs, John and Laura Arnold, Michael Bloomberg, Dan Loeb, Paul Tudor Jones and many of the other billionaires you cite, and I can assure you that they are just as passionate about helping kids get a better education as you are. In addition, every one of them understands, as do you and I, that having high-quality, motivated teachers in every classroom is by far the most important way to achieve our shared goal. While some right-wing dingbats and Fox “News” have indeed been guilty of unfortunate anti-teacher rhetoric (similar in many ways to your anti-billionaire rhetoric), they do not represent reformers, any more than the worst union bosses and their sometimes thuggish tactics represent teachers. Every reformer I know celebrates, not demonizes, teachers.
So while you (and the unions and some teachers) may view the policies we reformers support as “attacking hard-working educators,” they are certainly not intended as such – and, in reality, I don’t think they are. For example, in the Vergara case (discussed at length below), I don’t think it’s an “attack on hard-working educators” to file a lawsuit challenging statutes governing: a) the short period of time before a tenure decision must be made, b) the long and expensive process to remove even the most ineffective teacher, and c) the strictly-by-seniority layoff policy.
Feel free to disagree with us regarding our policy ideas – and how you think they’re doing harm, not helping. Feel free to say that we lack experience that you feel is relevant (you point out that many of us haven’t been teachers or worked in the system, which is true, but I’d argue that, on the topic of fixing a big, broken bureaucracy, a business background is highly relevant).
But you diminish yourself and the debate when you stoop (as you frequently do) to hurling schoolyard insults like “billionaire boys’ club” and impugning reformers’ motives saying that their goal is to destroy public education, driven by their own greed (exactly how the Gates, Broad, Walton, Arnold, etc. families are profiting from giving away hundreds of millions of dollars a year has never been clear to me).
And it’s not just billionaires you attack. Of John King, you once said: “He is acting like a petty dictator, threatening to hurt the children to retaliate against the adults who did not do his bidding.”
And as for my friend Ben Austin, your attack on him was beyond the pale (“loathsome” “useful idiot” “you ruined the life of a good person for filthy lucre”), yet you continue to defend the indefensible and have left what you wrote about him on your blog. Unlike you, I know Ben and I can assure you that he has an enormous heart who cares passionately about giving every kid a fair shot in life via a good education. You would see this for yourself if you’d accept his offer to meet (or even have a discussion) about your differences (his email address is email@example.com and I know he’d be pleased to hear from you). (As for what happened at Weigand Avenue Elementary School in Los Angeles three years ago, I believe your narrative is contrary to the facts, as Ben detailed in his open letter to you dated 8/7/13.)
I asked Ben for his thoughts about our recent discussion and he replied:
“When Ravitch sentenced me to hell it was really one of the lowest moments on this whole journey for me.
I have never really understood her – she’s obviously a good person who cares about kids, is very smart, and has the very unique perspective of having fought passionately on both sides of this debate. But she is probably the most anti-intellectual voice in the whole national echo chamber. Her default is personal attacks and conspiracy theories.
As you note, I reached out to her multiple times to talk after she wrote all those terrible things about me (much of it incomplete or factually, provably incorrect), but she apparently wasn’t interested in meeting or even taking.
My observation and personal experience is that she often reaches hasty conclusions, based on incomplete or biased information, then, convinced in her righteousness, closes her eyes, ears and mind and attacks any opponent as a tool of the Koch Brothers and a “vile” human being. That’s often her shtick. You’d think it’d get old after a while.
It seems like we should all be able to adhere to the simple rule that no adult in the debate about the future of American public education should be allowed to use language they wouldn’t be allowed to use in my kids’ elementary school yard. Ravitch wouldn’t survive five minutes in the school yard without being called into the principal’s office for foul language and bullying.”
In summary, how would you feel if someone said “Diane Ravitch is a thinly disguised shill for the teachers unions because she’s friends with Randi, has accepted speaking fees from them, and has a personal vendetta against Joel Klein”?
I used to believe – and write – that, and I was wrong, which is why I apologized.
I hope that you might one day see that your rhetoric is sometimes similarly over-the-top and destructive and stop it.
DR: Whitney, I have met Michael Bloomberg, but I don’t know any of the other billionaires or their functionaries that you mention. I assume that they have good intentions, but they need to understand that the consequences of their actions and investments have created turmoil in American education and have not improved education at all. They are hurting children by their demands for testing, which consumes an inordinate amount of the school year. They are literally driving teachers out of their profession with their unsound ideas. They are damaging our nation’s public education system. If no one wants to teach, how does that improve the schools?
What do I want? I want all children to have the same kind of education that the billionaires want for their children and that I wanted for my children when they were young. I want to see all kids going to beautiful schools that have excellent facilities, experienced teachers, small classes, superb playing fields and gymnasia, the latest technology, and many opportunities to learn and grow. I want the equivalent of Sidwell Friends or Lakeside Academy or Dalton or Nightingale or the University of Chicago Lab School for all children. (By the way, the Lab School has a teachers’ union.)
I want the billionaires to become outraged about child poverty. I want to hear them say that it is a crying shame that half the kids in this country live in low-income families and nearly a quarter live in poverty. I want them to fight for major investments in infrastructure that create good jobs for the parents of these children. I want the Waltons to pay their one million employees $15 an hour so their children have a better life. I want the billionaires to use their enormous resources to fight against poverty and racial segregation, instead of complaining that teachers are uniquely responsible for overcoming poverty and inequality.
I guess I am thick-headed, but I don’t see my rhetoric as insulting or over-the-top or destructive. I have always strived to have a civil tone; four-letter words are not permitted on my blog. I sincerely believe that a small group of very wealthy people have spent money to weaken public education, by promoting high-stakes testing, constantly complaining about teachers, and investing in privately managed schools that enroll the students they choose. It is my considered judgment that these investments have made schooling worse for students and teachers. I am not a hot-head. I have a Ph.D. in the history of American education. There has never been a time in our history when the very existence of public education was at risk. It is at risk now. The billionaires’ antagonism towards public education and the people who teach in public schools has been destructive and demoralizing. I am in contact with a great many teachers and parents. I reflect what they complain about. Nothing I have written has caused any billionaire to change his (or her) course of action or to look at the consequences of their actions. My pen must be mightier than I know. I don’t think I have destroyed any billionaires, but the billionaires have been responsible for closing beloved schools, driving teachers out of their profession, and dividing communities. The billionaires have spent large sums buying elections in districts and states where they do not live, to make sure that people who agree with them win crucial seats. That undermines democracy. Why should they buy control of school boards when their children don’t attend public schools? Why should they buy state boards in states where they don’t live?
As for Ben Austin, I responded to his open letter here (I added this to our exchange after Whitney posted it; I forgot that I had written a reply to his open letter). I apologized for calling him “loathsome” but said that what he did to principal Irma Cobain was loathsome. I have never been invited to meet with him. I see by his email address that he now works for Silicon Valley billionaire David Welch, carrying the flame for the fight against tenure and seniority. If Ben wants to see me, he can come to Brooklyn anytime.
WT: The Vergara Case
This case was back in the news recently (when an appeals court overturned the trial’s judge’s initial ruling in favor of the plaintiffs), so let’s talk about it.
You wrote (long ago) that this case is about “a rich and powerful coalition of corporate reformers are trying to eliminate due process rights for teachers… My view: the trial continues the blame game favored by the Obama administration and the billionaire boys’ club, in which they blame “bad” teachers as the main culprit in low academic performance.”
Let’s put the rhetoric aside and see if we can agree on the facts: that the lawsuit challenges three specific things that the plaintiffs claim have disparate impact on poor and minority students (like the named plaintiff, Beatriz Vergara):
1) The amount of time it takes teachers to earn tenure (currently two years or 16 months in the classroom);
2) How difficult it is for administrators to fire a tenured teacher; and
3) How layoffs are done (current law mandates strictly by seniority).
(I posted a 54-slide presentation the plaintiffs prepared here and also attached it to this email.)
Can we agree that the lawsuit challenges these three things? (It’s have to have a debate on something without first starting by agreeing on the facts.)
Let’s go through each of these three:
1) How long do you think it should take for a teach to earn tenure? Note that the lawsuit doesn’t bash teachers (in fact it celebrates them – see pages 7-15 of the plaintiffs’ presentation), nor challenge tenure itself – it simply says 16 months in the classroom isn’t enough time to know if a teacher deserves to be tenured. Note also page 22, which shows that California is an outlier, one of only five states in which teachers can earn tenure so quickly. The majority of states, 32, require three years. That may not seem like much, but that’s 50% more time to make a very critical judgment. Do you really oppose extending the probationary period to three years???
DR: I don’t know what the right amount of time is to decide whether a teacher has earned due process rights. If there are good principals in place, they will not award tenure to anyone who is incompetent. In some cases, it might be as little as two years, in others, three or four. I don’t think that an administrator should be required to make that decision immediately. If they need more time, they should be able to take it. I have no objection to extending the probationary period to three years. This is a decision that should be made in the process of collective bargaining. Both sides must agree to set a timetable for a decision.
WT: My overall view on your comments related to the Vergara case is that I’m pleased at how much we agree on. We agree (as does the appellate court and pretty much every newspaper in the state) that change is needed, that our policies need to better support and retain great teachers and exit ineffective ones, and that the legislature needs to take the lead to fix this.
Regarding the first of the three challenged statues, that a tenure decision must be made within two years, I’m glad we agree that this is misguided. Where we disagree is whether a lawsuit is the right way to fix this this.
You argue that this “is a decision that should be made in the process of collective bargaining.” That sounds reasonable enough – except one must remember the context: this is the state of California, a very liberal state in which: a) Democrats control nearly all branches of government (something I’m generally very happy about, by the way); and b) the California Teachers Association controls the Democratic party in the state to such a degree that I question how much “bargaining” is really going on in the “process of collective bargaining” you talk about.
Additionally, the constitution of the state says that education is “essential to the preservation of the rights and liberties of the people” and courts have held that CA schoolchildren have a constitutional right to “substantially equal opportunities for learning” and that “the State itself has broad responsibility to ensure basic educational equality.” (slides 4-5)
The CA state constitution supersedes any labor contract (no matter how fairly collectively bargained it might be), so a lawsuit is an appropriate tool if provisions of any labor contract violate the constitution and the legislature fails to remedy this.
More on this below…
2) Your main concern about the Vergara lawsuit appears to be that it challenges the process that must be followed to dismiss a tenured teacher, which you say is an attempt “to eliminate due process rights for teachers.” But this statement is factually incorrect. There is nothing in the lawsuit that calls for teachers to be stripped of their due process rights – in fact, it specifically say the opposite, that “teachers will always have due process rights” (slide 37).
Rather, the lawsuit says that the current 17-step process (see slide 28) is so “lengthy, costly and burdensome” – costing LAUSD, for example, $238,000 and 4+ years to remove a single teacher (slide 30) – that it is effectively impossible to remove any teacher for poor performance.
Teachers agree that this is a huge problem: in one survey , 65% agreed with this statement: “Based on my experiences and observations, ineffective teachers with permanent status/tenure in my school are unlikely to be dismissed for unsatisfactory performance.” And 62% agreed that “Students’ interests would be better served if it were easier to dismiss ineffective teachers.” (See slides 33-34)
So the real question here isn’t due process vs. no due process – of course teachers should have due process to protect them. Rather, it’s whether the pendulum has swung too far. As slide 37 shows, all CA state employees have substantial due process protections in eight areas – which teachers also have – plus a dozen more! I think it’s clear that the pendulum has swung too far.
I assume you disagree. I’d be interested to hear why, and whether you’d make any changes to the current dismissal process in place in CA today.
DR: These are complicated issues. As the Appeals Court ruled, they are not matters of equal protection of the law; they are issues to be resolved through collective bargaining and through the legislative process. I oppose a process so burdensome that ineffective or abusive teachers are left in place and/or that it takes years and hundreds of thousands of dollars to remove them. If the process is so costly and so time-consuming that “bad” teachers remain in the schools, then that process should be reviewed, changed, and streamlined, without compromising the teacher’s right to a fair hearing, requiring evidence and an independent arbitrator. Bad teachers should be promptly fired. If they don’t have tenure, they can be fired without any reason. If they have tenure, they should get a hearing, to be sure that they are bad teachers, not just someone the principal doesn’t like. If the evidence is genuine, they should be removed.
WT: Other than the second sentence (“they are issues to be resolved through collective bargaining and through the legislative process”), we are in 100% agreement!
These are indeed complicated issues and I agree that there are, unfortunately, many, many cases of teachers being wrongly terminated (or threatened with termination). So I have no quarrel with tenure, due process and a “teacher’s right to a fair hearing, with evidence and an independent arbitrator.” I completely agree with you agree that teachers should be protected from arbitrary, capricious and unfair behavior by administrators/districts, whether in the context of termination or anything else.
But the devil is in the details – and it is here that we likely disagree. The key issue – and it’s a tough one – is how to develop a system that adequately protects good teachers, yet also allows principals/districts to remove ineffective ones.
DR: In California, principals can remove ineffective teachers within the first two years of hiring. Maybe it should be three years. Whether it is two years or three years, a good principal should be able to make the termination decision promptly. No one should give due process rights to an incompetent person.
WT: As I wrote in our previous discussion, I think in some states (like CA), the pendulum has swung far out of whack to the point that there’s an insane system in which it’s a four-year, quarter-million-dollar process to remove even the very worst teacher. That has to change – and since the legislature hasn’t acted, some reformers (rightly in my opinion) turned to the Vergara lawsuit.
You believe that those who disagree with the three statutes should seek remedy through the collective bargaining and the legislative process, not via court challenges. Allow me to explain why I disagree.
Let’s imagine for a moment that, as part of a collective bargaining process, a statute was passed that allowed every parent to pick their child’s teacher at school, until each teacher’s class was full – and white parents got to pick first, then black and Latino parents.
Obviously the courts would immediately overturn this statue because it’s plainly discriminatory toward minority parents and their children, resulting in the children getting far fewer great teachers (and, of course, far more ineffective ones).
You see where I’m going with this, right? The Vergara lawsuit is claiming that the three statutes at issue harm students, especially poor and minority ones, and are therefore unconstitutional.
Critically, the relief the Vergara lawsuit seeks is not for a judge to impose a new system (for instance, mandating three years rather than two to earn tenure) – rather, for a ruling that forces the legislature and the CTA, via the collective bargaining process, to revise these three statutes such that they comply with the state constitution.
I understand that we no doubt disagree on whether the three statutes do, in fact, harm any students, but I hope you better appreciate the argument for why a lawsuit is a valid remedy and the intent behind it: to help all schoolchildren, especially the most disadvantaged ones, get a better education by changing statutes that, the plaintiffs claim (and I believe), make it nearly impossible to effectively manage the system in the best interests of children.
DR: The Appellate Court rejected your arguments here. Tenure and seniority do not violate constitutional rights. Students in high-performing districts have teachers who have tenure and seniority. I think you have to overcome your obsession with the idea that bad teachers are to blame for poor academic performance. Look at the research. Test scores all over the world show achievement gaps between the haves and the have-nots. The gaps are usually not as large as they are in the U.S., because income inequality and poverty are so much greater here. But since “your side” doesn’t like to talk about income inequality and poverty, it is easier to talk about getting rid of bad teachers. In the meanwhile, plenty of good teachers are exiting because of the poisonous atmosphere that Vergara and teacher-bashing have created.
The reason the Vergara case attracted national attention was not because the Silicon Valley billionaire who funded it wanted to change the probationary period to three years and to streamline the process of hearing claims against tenured teachers, but because he wanted to get rid of tenure and seniority. The claim made by the plaintiffs was that poor and minority children were denied equal protection of the law because of the laws protecting their teachers’ tenure and seniority. Of the nine plaintiffs, as I recall, two attended charter schools, where teachers have no tenure or seniority. One had a teacher who had been recognized as Pasadena’s “teacher of the year.” And at least one had a teacher who did not have tenure or seniority. No harm was ever established to these nine plaintiffs.
WT: Yet again, instead of engaging on the issues of the case, you choose to attack the person funding it. What is your evidence for your statement that Dave Welch “funded it [not because he] wanted to change the probationary period to three years and to streamline the process of hearing claims against tenured teachers, but because he wanted to get rid of tenure and seniority”?
Yet again, unlike you, I know David Welch and I believe that he is motivated solely by what he believes is best for kids. As a highly successful businessman and serial entrepreneur, he is quickly able to grasp how the challenged statutes put principals and superintendents in a straightjacket that makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for them to put the best teacher possible in every classroom and, in particular, to make sure that poor and minority kids get their fair share of the teacher talent.
DR: It is true that I never met David Welch. But I know that behind the lawsuit lay the belief that children with low test scores would have high test scores if only the schools could get rid of tenure and fire teachers sooner, rather than later. As I argued in one of our other exchanges, teachers leave at an alarming rate now, with or without tenure. Many districts across the nation have teacher shortages because veteran teachers are leaving, and the number of new teachers coming into the profession has plummeted. The teacher-bashing has gotten out of control and is creating terrible consequences. It is certainly not improving the teaching profession; it seems to be ruining it. Our greatest need is not to get rid of teachers, but to develop ways of supporting people who want to teach, helping them improve, and retaining them for a satisfying career.
WT: Again, I agree with everything you write in this paragraph except for one sentence, the first one. Yet again, where is your evidence for your assertion that: “Behind the lawsuit lay the belief that children with low test scores would have high test scores if only the schools could get rid of tenure and fire teachers sooner, rather than later.”? This is as silly as saying, “Diane Ravitch believes that all teachers are identically effective and not one should ever be fired.” While rooted in a tiny shred of truth, it’s obviously a farcical pile of nonsense.
Similarly, having reviewed the lawsuit and spoken to the people behind it, the true underlying beliefs of the lawsuit, I believe, are that:
a) There’s a big range of abilities among teachers;
b) Having a great teacher – and especially a string of great teachers – can make a massive difference in life outcomes for a student;
c) The most disadvantaged students most need the best teachers and best schools to have any chance in life and escape the powerful (as you rightly point out) demography-is-destiny trap;
d) Teacher talent, both within schools and among schools, is NOT evenly and fairly distributed: by far, wealthy students get more than their share of the best teachers, and poor and minority students get more than their share of the least effective ones; and, lastly:
e) While there are many, many factors that lead to this gross injustice, one important one are the laws/regulations/understandings built into collective bargaining agreements.
I hope we agree on the first four, and suspect we’ll have to agree to disagree on e). But stop making false characterizations about the lawsuit and impugning the motives of those behind it.
DR: I agree that there is a wide range of abilities among teachers, as there is in every other line of work.
I would love to see every child have a great teacher every year, but you should know that the claim that a string of great teachers closes the achievement gap has never happened. Some teachers are “great” one year, not great the next year, probably because of the composition of their class. In any event, I don’t know how you identify a great teacher in advance. Do you mean a teacher who raises test scores every year? Is that a great teacher? How about one who inspires a love of music or history or science? Expecting that every teacher in a school will be a “great” teacher, however he or she is defined, is like hoping that a baseball team will have a bullpen of pitchers who can pitch no-hitters every week, or nine starting players who hit over .300. It is theoretically possible but hasn’t ever happened.
I agree that the neediest students should have the best teachers, as well as the best resources and smallest class sizes. And I agree that they don’t. Many teachers flee to the suburbs, where salaries are higher, schools are beautifully equipped, students come to school well-fed and healthy, and their parents can hire tutors if they have a problem.
Our society is unwilling to close the income gaps and inequality gaps that cause the opportunity gaps and score gaps. Now, that would be a worthy project for the billionaires! Work on root causes and stop castigating teachers.
WT: 3) The last thing the Vergara lawsuit challenges is the current CA law that when layoffs occur, districts must layoff last-hired teachers regardless of effectiveness.
I understand your concern that, in the absence of this law, senior teachers would be laid off to save money because they’re more expensive. Fair enough – but surely you don’t think the best answer is a crude and obviously flawed policy of strict seniority-based layoffs?
I’ve seen compromise proposals that include developing a comprehensive and fair teacher evaluation system and then limiting seniority-based dismissals only to those teachers who have consistently been rated ineffective.
Perhaps you feel that such an evaluation system doesn’t exist right now in CA, so in its absence the best policy is the current one, but can we at least agree on the principle that, if layoffs are necessary, we should strive to keep the best teachers and lay off the least effective?
DR: If I knew how to identify which teachers are the most effective, I would agree with you. Some teachers are highly effective with students with disabilities; some are highly effective with English language learners; some with gifted students; some with a very diverse mix of students. I am not saying that every teacher is equally effective, but that we do not now have any method of fairly evaluating who is most effective and who is least effective. The best system of which I am aware is Montgomery County’s Peer Assistance and Review program. New teachers get mentors; tenured teachers whose effectiveness is in doubt get mentors. Excellent teachers serve as mentors. Their progress is judged by peers and supervisors. If they can’t improve and won’t improve, they are asked to leave. This is a far more effective system that judging teachers by their students’ test scores. That is the worst way to evaluate teachers, because it favors those who teach in affluent districts, and it disadvantages those who teach English language learners, students with disabilities, gifted students, and others who are not likely to see big score gains year after year. The American Statistical Association said in 2014 that test scores should not be used to judge individual teachers because the teachers do not control most of the factors that affect test scores (like home and family income, the curriculum, the school’s leadership, the school’s resources, the effect of teachers from prior years, the student’s own motivation, etc.). According to ASA, individual teachers influence from 1-14% of test score variation.
I think that evaluation must be based on human judgment, not a pseudo-scientific system. Administrators should have a background as teachers, so they can fairly evaluate and help teachers. As for seniority, it is best to keep the best teachers, but those are not likely to be the young teachers in their first or second year; those are years when new teachers are developing their craft. I hate to see anyone laid off for any reason other than incompetence, laziness, hostile treatment of students, or moral turpitude, but if there must be layoffs due to budget cuts, then seniority may be the fairest way to make the decisions about who must be laid off. If you can think of a fairer way, let me know.
WT: I’m glad that we agree on the principle that, if layoffs are necessary, we should strive to keep the best teachers and lay off the least effective.
I also agree that the best teachers aren’t likely to be those in the first or second years – though some will be. And finally, I agree that, in most districts, there isn’t a foolproof (or even a very good system) for evaluating teachers. I understand and appreciate the concern about teachers being victimized by an imperfect system, and agree that our school systems need to make a lot more progress in this area.
The question is: what do we do in the meantime? Do we hold our noses and continue with a system, layoffs strictly be seniority, that we both know is unfair and hurts kids because the alternative might be more unfair and hurt more kids?
Apparently, your answer is yes. My answer is no.
In the absence of a perfect evaluation system (of which there is no such thing), I think we should simply let principals decide (subject to discrimination laws of course). It’s their job to know who’s making the greatest contribution to the school and student learning. They make the hiring decisions – why shouldn’t they also make layoff decisions? That’s what they do at the private schools my daughters and your grandchildren attend. What’s so different about public schools?
DR: My school-age grandson has attended a public elementary school in Brooklyn for four years. This year, he is attending a progressive independent school in Los Angeles (No testing! Very limited homework! Creativity!). He is thriving. At his Brooklyn public school, the principal was free to hire and fire teachers in their probationary period. She has some new teachers and some veteran teachers. It is a good school, despite the testing.
WT: You will no doubt raise the concern that principals will lay off senior (more expensive) teachers, to which I have two responses: a) it would be foolish to fire a great teacher making $55,000 and keep an ineffective one making $50,000; and b) if one teacher costs $50,000 and another $75,000 and they’re both equally effective, then I certainly hope the principal lays off the more expensive one – and then uses the $25,000 savings to, say, hire a part-time reading specialist or whatever he/she judges is most needed by the students.
You will also no doubt raise the concern that principals will just lay off teachers who they don’t like, even if they’re outstanding, and keep their good-for-nothing cousins, friends, sycophants, etc., to the detriment of students. No doubt there will be some of this, but principals displaying such unfairness and poor leadership will likely lose the confidence of their teachers, see their school’s performance decline, and (hopefully) soon be out of a job.
DR: Whitney, my reflection on this dialogue is that you want to do things to help kids, but you are focused on the wrong problems. You think that unions and contracts mean bad schools, but many (not all) of the world’s best school systems have teachers’ unions. In Finland, 100% of teachers and principals belong to the same union, and their schools are wonderful, no matter where they are located. You think that tenure and seniority are hurting poor and minority kids, but there is no evidence that this is the case. The best public schools in New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut have teachers who belong to unions and have tenure and seniority. There is already too much teacher churn in low-income schools. Kids in poor schools need skilled, experienced teachers, but instead they get Teach for America, idealistic young kids who are not well prepared to help the students.
Pasi Sahlberg, the great Finnish educator, once wrote an article in which he proposed switching the teachers in a high-performing Finnish school with the teachers in a low-income, low-performing American school. He concluded that it would not have much impact, if any. The American teachers would discover that they were free to teach; the Finnish teachers would be overwhelmed by the poverty of the children in the American school and would not know how to help them.
So much of the reform agenda focuses on the teacher as the great problem of American education. This is wrong. By treating teachers as the problem, teachers feel demoralized and beaten down. They have no autonomy. They have a steady stream of outside consultants who arrive to lecture them. Mandates flow from the legislature, whose members couldn’t pass the eighth grade math tests. The teaching profession is in deep trouble. Good teachers are quitting. The pipeline of new teachers is drying up. Every teacher preparation program reports a sharp drop in enrollments.
I encourage you, in the spirit of this dialogue, to think hard about these issues. Stop blaming teachers. Stop believing that a supply of great teachers is waiting to get into the classrooms. The doors are open, and they are not there.
Please, think about the conditions in which children and families live. Think about the root causes of academic failure. Think about ways that schools might become wonderful places for children and teachers alike.
Imagine schools for all children that are like the schools you chose for your own children.
Think about what you can do—along with your colleagues in the philanthropic and financial communities—to change what matters most: The shameful fact that nearly a quarter of our children live in poverty.
I look forward to our next exchange.
WT: I look forward to hearing your thoughts.