Poor kids have rights: why CA's teacher tenure laws had to go

Poor kids have rights too: Why California’s teacher tenure laws had to go

5 Comments

Big news in education: a California court has struck down teacher tenure laws as unconstitutional. The reasoning: these laws sent the worst teachers to the poorest schools, and made it nearly impossible to fire them. Poor and minority students are therefore denied equal rights to a quality education.

But what about the rights of our generally underpaid, overworked, beloved teachers? Wasn’t one of the few job perks tenure? (The other three: June, July and August.)

For someone like me who is a civil rights advocate for poor kids (see my book Swagger) and an employee rights advocate (it’s one of my primary areas of law practice), this was a tough one.

Until I read the ruling. Then it all became clear. This isn’t about teachers, or their rights generally, or whether we love or even value them. This is about the worst performing teachers, and how they harm kids, especially poor and minority kids, who get stuck with them. It’s about how damaging those teachers are, and why they’ve got to go.

All parties in the case, Vergara v. California, agreed that a competent teacher is probably the most important factor in a student’s success in school. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu said the evidence presented at trial that bad teachers harm students “is compelling. Indeed, it shocks the conscience.” For example, students with teachers in the bottom 5% lose nearly ten months of learning per year compared to students with just average teachers. I understand this to mean that students with the bottom-of-the-barrel teachers are almost entirely just wasting their time.

We can’t allow poor kids’ time in school to be squandered that way. We need them stimulated, educated, motivated to study, stick around and graduate. Without that degree, they’re in for a lifetime of poverty.

Yet because dismissing a tenured teacher can take up to ten years and nearly half a million dollars in legal expenses, the court found, many school districts don’t even bother to try, leaving thousands of ineffective instructors in place. In the poorest neighborhoods. Where so many kids hate school, give up, and drop out. Is it any wonder why?

In California, schools have only about eighteen months after they have hired a teacher to either fire them or to award them with strong job security. This is not even close to enough time to make an informed decision, which leaves some poor performing teachers protected in the system. Another tenure law, LIFO, the “last in first out” rule, protected senior teachers over junior ones in firings, even if the junior teacher was a terrific teacher and the senior instructor terrible. Seniority may certainly be a factor in deciding who stays, the court sensibly ruled, but it ought not be the only factor.

As the court points out, the majority of teachers themselves do not want grossly ineffective colleagues in the classroom. This isn’t a case about whether we care about teachers. Most of us love most of them. But that does not mean that the worst teachers should have such ironclad job protections that they remain in the classroom year after year, failing to educate kids – poor kids, who need good teachers the most.

So I’m convinced. California’s tenure laws were too extreme, and caused too much harm to economically challenged kids. If we are going to do more than pay lip service to the importance of children’s education, hard choices like this must be made.

Now that California’s tenure laws have been struck down, can we give all the good teachers a raise? And can we send the best teachers to the worst schools? (Where is it written that poor kids must have the worst teachers?)

Image credit: De Visu / Shutterstock.com

Lisa Bloom, Avvo Legal Analyst

About 

Lisa Bloom is the founder and managing partner of The Bloom Firm, a civil and criminal general practice law firm. Admitted to practice in all state and federal courts of California and New York, Lisa partners with local attorneys nationwide to bring justice to clients all over the U.S.

Lisa Bloom is a legal analyst for Avvo.com and NBC News, and the author of three books, Think: Straight Talk for Women to Stay Smart in a Dumbed-Down World, Swagger: 10 Urgent Rules for Raising Boys in an Era of Failing Schools, Mass Joblessness and Thug Culture, and SUSPICION NATION: The Inside Story of the Trayvon Martin Injustice and Why We Continue to Repeat It.

5 Comments

  1. Susie / July 30, 2014 at 3:21 am / Reply

    I live in a community that is somewhat rural and would be considered low income. My child goes to an awesome school here at which we have many “poor”, but very hard working parents. There are some of those parents who we can see don’t put much interest in their children that Mr. Glover was mentioning. Most of our parents seem to care very much about their kids, the school and their community. We have some pretty awesome teachers too who go that extra mile to provide extra attention and activities to their students. However, we also have some teachers who are ineffective and some who are downright aggressive! Our school environment is not one in which we have a lot of violence or even disrespect from our kids so aggression from the teachers is not something I expect from a third grade teacher and yet here it was. So, a couple of examples of what I don’t like seeing in a teacher:
    Ineffectiveness- this teacher was disorganized, frazzled and impatient and so her classroom was just like that. And so a terrible learning environment.
    Aggression- some teachers think being strict means being a tyrant. I hate this even more than frazzled lady. We had kids who would cry every morning begging not to go into her class.
    And yet there was nothing we could do about them. I truly appreciate our good teachers and I am well aware that teachers are just people too, but you are working with kids and although the job is difficult it really is the kind of job where you want to be there and you have the personality for it.

  2. Troy Glover / July 4, 2014 at 6:10 am / Reply

    Yet another opinion on teachers without solving the real problem; What constitutes an effective teacher? Why on earth would “good” teachers want to go to a predominantly poor/minority school. What does poor have to do with hard work and studying? It appears that you are saying minorities are inferior and dumping money to try and enhance a shiftless mentality is the answer. As the spouse of a teacher I can tell you after 14 years she is fed up. Being placed in a poor school with parents and kids who could care less for the same pay as teachers in other schools is what makes an innefective teacher. Strong familiy support and hard working students is what makes a strong school. Teachers are the bridge to success. Not the end all. They are being made to be scapegoats by the Liberal agenda for poor parenting and lack of work ethic by minority groups. The reason someone is “poor” is, though not always, a lack of work ethic and poor decisions when it came to their education. Poor performing schools gave students who excel and go on to college do they not? Take a look at the families of those students compared to families of students who do not bother to give a damn. Quit shouldering the blame on teachers. Besides, wouldnt placing the “good” teachers in poor schools make the good schools poor schools? Do we put the best Doctors in the worst hospitals for the lowest pay? Hell no. The best Doctors are in the highest paying hospitals. The best Lawyers are in the best paying firms, etc.

  3. Kendra / June 26, 2014 at 5:10 am / Reply

    What is diffucult, though, is that you can only hire who applies. If “bad” teachers are applying in poorer districts, then that is their pool to hire from. You can’t involuntarily transfer all the good teachers to bad schools. In my district you need at least 2 years of good evaluations to get tenure and even then most take longer. If a principal is doing their job, and observing at varying times, not just when a scheduled evaluation is happening, and analyzing ongoing data from assessments, after 2 years you have a pretty good idea what’s going on with that teacher. Problem is a lot of principals don’t do that, and the bad teacher performs ok at the 2 scheduled evaluations that they are prepared for, and they’re granted tenure.

  4. Matt Lewin / June 20, 2014 at 7:43 am / Reply

    Thank you for explaining the ruling so clearly. I couldn’t agree with you more–especially that 18 months is not sufficient time to evaluate the long-term potential of teachers.

  5. Juanita Richburg Seon / June 20, 2014 at 6:14 am / Reply

    Ms. Bloom, I agree with you that “poor kids” need the best teachers. We definitely need to raise the pay for good teachers but also to honor and value them for the work they do.

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