Making it easier to fire teachers won't get you better ones

The Vergara case won't cure what ails education

Tuesday's ruling by Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu, which held that California's contract with teachers violates the state's constitutional guarantee to an equitable education, is certain to set off legal battles across the nation. Explaining his ruling, Treu wrote that inequities in teaching quality, which disproportionately affect low-income and minority students, "shock the conscience." And he's right. They do. Yet his ruling will do nothing to solve the problem.

In challenging tenure, seniority-based layoffs and the teacher dismissal process, the Vergara suit was, its backers claimed, an effort to guarantee "an effective teacher in every classroom." The implication is that teachers are wholly uninterested in professional growth. Protected as they are by unions and collective bargaining agreements, teachers are likely to simply settle in and stop trying once they are awarded tenure.

Research does indicate that, though teachers tend to improve by leaps and bounds in their first few years on the job, they often plateau after that. And supporters of the Vergara suit would like the public to believe that there is a simple reason for this: job security. If it were easier to fire teachers, they reason, classroom educators would be motivated to continue growing over the full arc of their careers. Our most senior teachers would be our best teachers.

That logic, however, is deeply flawed. Teachers stall out not because they stop caring but because they lack guidance and support. Engaged in difficult and demanding work, even gifted teachers need relevant, robust and continuous professional development opportunities. But very few get it, particularly in schools serving high-needs students. As a result, most teachers realize only a fraction of their full potential.

Making it easier to fire teachers — even if we imagine that such powers will be deployed judiciously by school administrators — will do little to ensure an effective teacher in every classroom. Instead, it will further erode trust between teachers and school administrators.

If professional development is so unsupported, one might ask, why do teachers grow so much in those first few years? Because at first they're learning job basics: how to fill a whole hour of instructional time, for instance, and how to keep students from chatting in class. And they're also building up a store of knowledge and materials: content expertise, lesson plans and assessments.

What they aren't learning, though, is how to go beyond those basics.

Sure, many teachers do. They work relentlessly and read widely. They attend workshops and engage with colleagues. They experiment in their classrooms and evaluate the results, keeping what works and tossing out or improving on what doesn't. They carefully, and constantly, observe their environments.

But there's a lot stacked against them. American educators teach an average of 25% to 30% more hours than their counterparts in other industrialized nations, leaving little time for anything beyond treading water. They receive little guidance about what they should read or what new techniques are of the greatest value. Professional development is often problematic, delivered too infrequently, too generally and conveying ideas of questionable merit. And standardized accountability testing tends to discourage even the mildest forms of experimentation.

In short, the problem isn't that teachers don't care. It's that they work in a field with little support for professional growth.

Instead of working to erode collective bargaining agreements or promoting other policies that assume teacher negligence — like test-based accountability — we should be channeling our energies into building teacher capacity. And this work starts not with teachers but with those who employ them. Schools and districts need to transform themselves from administrative units into learning organizations, carving out more time during the school day for teachers to collaborate, observe one another and work with experts. They should expand coaching and mentoring programs and develop partnerships with scholars at local colleges and universities. The possibilities are as exciting as they are numerous.

Such work, of course, is not easy. But it has the potential to do something that current reform efforts have failed to do: produce teachers who grow every year, across their whole careers, and who feel ever more effective and more valued. Equally important, such a vision might put an end to the constant cycles of aggressive and interventionist reform, based largely on unfounded assumptions.

Instead of imagining a world in which teachers are easier to fire, we should work to imagine one in which firing is rarely necessary. Because you don't put an effective teacher in every classroom by holding a sword over their heads. You do it by putting tools in their hands.

Jack Schneider is an assistant professor of education at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts and the author of "From the Ivory Tower to the Schoolhouse: How Scholarship Becomes Common Knowledge in Education." He is a native of Los Angeles.

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