Teacher tenure case: Another sign the judge’s ruling deserves an F

Student Beatriz Vergara,15, testifies before Judge Rolf Treu in Los Angeles County Superior Court in February. Did he keep an open mind?
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

That most percipient education critic, Diane Ravitch, takes a closer look at Judge Rolf Treu’s verdict overturning California’s job protections for teachers, and finds indications that he approached his task with a closed mind.

Treu found that the difficulty of removing “grossly ineffective” teachers posed an unconstitutionally discriminatory burden on their students, especially in low-income or minority communities. So Ravitch asks “whether the plaintiffs in the Vergara trial actually had ‘grossly ineffective teachers.’”

She concludes, “No, they did not.”

As Ravitch points out, lawyers for the unions intervening in the case checked out the records of the teachers of the nine plaintiffs, who were all California public school students. “Two of the plaintiffs attend charter schools, where there is no tenure or seniority,” she observes. Two others (the Vergara sisters) attend a pilot school in the Los Angeles Unified School District where teachers can be dismissed for any reason, including “ineffectiveness.”


In other words, their teachers weren’t even subject to the rules on teacher dismissal they were challenging.

As for the other plaintiffs, their testimony identifying some teachers as “bad” or “ineffective” only underscored the complexity and difficulty of making teacher evaluations. It’s certainly not uncommon for a teacher to be detested by some students and adored by others. In this case, one of the teachers identified as bad by a plaintiff had been named a “teacher of the year” by the Pasadena Unified School District and others had excellent records.

This reminds us that removing teachers’ due-process protections will make them vulnerable to subjective, and potentially dishonest, judgments by their principals or other personnel with hiring and firing authority.

Then there are the multitude of other factors influencing teacher hiring, firing and turnover at California schools as well as student achievement, especially in those low-income and minority communities for which Treu expressed such sympathy.

Ravitch quotes from the testimony of one teacher at the Vergaras’ school: “There was a back-to-school night where there was drive-by shooting 30 to 50 yards from behind my classroom. I remember talking with a mother at the time. And I was just about to say to the mom, ‘And your son has trouble paying attention,’ and seven to nine shots rang out.”

Ravitch observes acidly, “None of this testimony impressed the judge.”

Treu’s single-minded determination to blame the ills of the California educational system entirely on due-process protection for teachers only guarantees that this case will spend years making its way through the state courts without resolution. It may prompt the legislature to address education through a similarly cloudy lens, leaving untouched the real reasons for educational underachievement.


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