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Opinion

Op-Ed: After the Vergara case, listen to the teachers

LAUSD teachers
LAUSD teachers attend a training session to improve their skills at using technology in the classroom at Los Angeles Elementary School on July 30.
(Christina House / For The Times)

Teachers know as well as anyone that there is room for improvement in the rules that protect their jobs. In the wake of Vergara vs. California, which is now on appeal in the state court system, many teachers see a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fix those broken rules.

The judge in Vergara found that tenure, dismissal and layoff practices in the state too often sustain ineffective teaching and impede improvements. He ruled the laws underlying those practices unconstitutional because they deny students equal access to a quality education.

One former colleague of mine, a mentor and one of the most passionate educators I know, has experienced the reality behind that finding. During the worst of the California recession, despite her abilities in the classroom, she received pink slip after pink slip simply because of her numerical place on the school’s seniority list. Even now, her more secure job is still not stable — she is being bumped from her current grade level, where she has had proven student success, into one where she has no prior experience, all because of how long she has been teaching.

As problematic as the old rules can be, teachers also have reason to fear that the changes Vergara brings will swing the pendulum too far in the other direction, badly eroding teachers’ due process rights. Yes, performance must be part of deciding teachers’ fates, but evaluations must be fair and schools should have to provide teachers with clear feedback and meaningful ongoing support in mastering the art of education.

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Finally, whatever policies are put in place shouldn’t provide an excuse or an incentive for school districts to fire more experienced teachers and replace them with less experienced — and less costly — newcomers.

Teachers live and breathe the opportunities and the risks identified by Vergara. They should have a voice in the development of any legislation to come out of the ruling. The policy change and reforms required should not be left solely up to the legal system or to non-educators.

In September, the teaching policy fellows of Teach Plus, a national nonprofit that emphasizes teacher input in education policy, released their post-Vergara recommendations. The fellows, all of whom teach in Los Angeles Unified School District public and charter schools, suggest reforms that are smart, rational and point toward a middle ground that blends the need to weigh performance with fair practices for California’s public school teachers.

First, tenure. Teach Plus recommends extending the time for a teacher to gain tenure from two to four years, so that she or he can fully demonstrate effectiveness in the classroom. Research shows that most teachers don’t reach mastery of their craft until after three to five years of teaching, so the extra time makes good sense. As a matter of policy, tenure should be a performance-driven job benefit, with teachers evaluated and given support using nuanced, composite measures, including but not limited to student performance and structured feedback.

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Dismissals and layoffs too must take into account length of service and performance. The process for both must be streamlined and transparent. Layoffs would begin with teachers who have the least seniority but are also documented as least effective with their students. Dismissals should emphasize performance first.

At the same time, programs that help new and struggling teachers must be mandated so that they get professional support before dismissal is considered or tenure is denied. The focus should be on getting rid of ineffective teaching, not teachers.

I know many wonderful educators in Los Angeles who go above and beyond to create the best learning environments for students: a teacher who single-handedly instills a love of gardening in her three-hour Friday after-school class; master teachers who train others in their free time; teachers who write grant proposals again and again so they can provide additional resources to their students; and teachers who make sure their schools include college nights, astronomy clubs and school beautification days, no matter what. Such teachers will always have a place in education, and they are why policymakers need to heed teachers on how to move forward from the Vergara decision.

Our students can’t afford to wait for the appeals process to play out in the court system. Changes in tenure, dismissal and layoff practices should begin now. The school district and the state should work with teachers to begin reforms: Make performance a meaningful part of the process with fair and nuanced evaluations; lengthen the time it takes to get tenure; mandate feedback and development programs that help all teachers get better.

Lacey Jung, who taught elementary school for eight years, is a program advisor at two LAUSD schools. She is a Teach Plus teaching policy fellowship alumnus.

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