There's been lots of talk this week about winners and losers in Tuesday's judicial ruling that scrapped the state's public school tenure system.
It's considered a loss for unions, whose role has always been to protect the rights of teachers, and a win for a new breed of deep-pocketed reformers who want to remake public schools.
But it ought to be considered a wake-up call for forces on both sides. It's a chance to lift the status of a profession that's been unfairly maligned — and an opportunity for reformers to stop demonizing unions and actually get something done.
The ruling is bound to embolden reformers in districts across the country. Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu decreed California's tenure laws unconstitutional because they compromise students' rights to a quality education by protecting incompetent teachers.
The tenure system in California is especially generous. It gives teachers a virtual lifetime lock on their jobs if they perform satisfactorily in their first two years. Most states require at least three years of good performance to qualify for tenure.
Treu recognized a reality that politicians don't want to talk about and unions refuse to consider: Tenure laws and seniority provisions may serve teachers, but they shortchange disadvantaged children who need the most from schools.
The tenure system is a holdover from an era when public school teachers — almost all women — could be fired for getting pregnant or wearing trousers instead of a dress. It was intended to protect teachers from petty bureaucrats with personal vendettas, or meddling parents trying to dictate what goes on in class.
Both of those bogeymen still exist, but market forces help keep them in check: Principals can't afford to run off good teachers because their own jobs are tied to student test scores. And parents don't have much say in the standardized lessons teachers are wedded to.
The bigger threats to teachers today are stagnant pay, crowded classrooms, little professional support and a relentless focus on test scores that stifles creativity, increases workload and makes teaching feel like a chore.
The tenure ruling hasn't yet taken effect. Unions have vowed to appeal, and the state Legislature is likely to do their bidding by tinkering with the system in ways that address specific objections but change little in schools.
That hasn't stopped the hyperbole flowing from both sides.
Los Angeles Unified School Supt. John Deasy is crowing about the victory — as if untying the bosses' hands is all that's needed to transform struggling public schools.
Local teachers' union leader Alex Caputo-Pearl considers the ruling an "attack on teachers" and predicts catastrophe. It will turn schools "into teacher turnover factories," he said— as if they aren't now.
National studies show that in urban districts like Los Angeles, about 20% of teachers leave their jobs each year. Almost half of new teachers quit within five years; many are overwhelmed and disillusioned by the realities of teaching.
Good teachers have long been aggravated by the poor performers in their midst. Those good teachers' classrooms become triage centers for children who've been saddled with teachers too incompetent, unprepared or disengaged to manage a class, explain a lesson or motivate students.
School reformers want flexibility to assign the most successful teachers to the neediest kids. That might help raise stubbornly low student achievement in struggling schools.
But that calls for more than diluting the effect of seniority, as Tuesday's ruling did. It will require cooperation and creative thinking to turn this judge's ruling into a victory for kids.
I understand why this ruling scares the teachers' union.
Remove or loosen tenure protection, and you open the door for accountability metrics that tie teachers' jobs to other factors, like students' test scores. That encourages self-serving reformers who've never spent time in a classroom but think they have all the answers.
That's why teachers in Chicago went on strike two years ago over the sort of job protections that California just struck down. The walkout was empowering for unions across the country.
They "were willing to draw a line in the sand," said California Teachers Federation President Joshua Pechthalt when that strike ended. "That points the way for the rest of us."
Since then, the path has gotten muddier and the light has dimmed. Public education has become a political football, loaded with symbols and agendas, captive to private money and hijacked by high-tech trends.
I think the judge's ruling is a wise and necessary decision. If we act like grownups — with children at the center of this debate — getting rid of tenure won't hurt teachers.
Eliminating rote job protections that depend on nothing more than longevity gives us a chance to look more closely at what teachers actually do. We trust them with our most important assets, year after year. We need to find better ways to encourage them and honor their contributions.
Maybe job protection won't matter so much if teachers get what they really deserve: smaller classes, more administrative support, higher pay, better student services — and a union and district that don't use them as fodder in a philosophical war.
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