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A California judge recently ruled that teacher tenure and other job protections violate a student’s right to education and, as such, are unconstitutional. The case, Vergara v. California, prompted speculation about what it would mean for other states where similar lawsuits might be filed. But what does the ruling – if it survives appeals – mean for California? The impact may be greater on some areas of the state than others. The map below shows the percentage of teachers with tenure by county, according to California Department of Education data. Click on a county to see the amount of teachers who have tenure and the average years of experience.

Of course, the link between teacher tenure and student performance is murky. One side argues that more experienced teachers, generally those who have tenure, are better. The other side claims that job security provides a cover for teachers to slack off. The map below, which shows the percentage of students in each county who scored at least ‘proficient’ on the state’s 2012-13 Language Arts exam, suggests that tenure doesn’t guarantee any particular result, good or bad. Madera County, one of the lowest performing districts, and Marin County, the highest performing, both have given tenure to about 80 percent of teachers. One thing is clear, though: high percentages of tenure are more common than high percentages of proficient students.

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Sarah Butrymowicz oversees and contributes to The Hechinger Report’s investigative and data work covering all levels of education, from early childhood to K-12 to higher education. She has worked at...

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  1. I’m always glad to see the tenure discussion and controversy in California furthered by dispelling assumptions. I think you’ve done that, and I thank you for using actual data and comparisons! After reading your article, I’m left with these questions:
    Does your final statement, “One thing is clear, though: high percentages of tenure are more common than high percentages of proficient students,” leave readers with a false assumption drawn without ferreting out other contributing factors and investigation? Would a look at the role and expertise of those administrators/teacher-supervisors who evaluate teachers within the noted districts play a role in the 80% tenure/achievement connection? Would a look at the evaluations teacher-supervisors and building administrators have themselves earned be an important variable? Those are only two possibilities of other overlooked conditions complicating our complex education system. Is it possible those who study public education can see a bigger picture?

  2. I might suggest that, looking only at the two maps, there appears to be a correlation between high tenure and higher proficiency but there is clearly no causation that can be inferred from what we see. No inputs (i.e., educational resources available to students) are considered or controlled for. There is also a question about tenure and how local it is. Tenure does not transfer from district to district so many low tenured areas may have previously tenured teachers who have moved into the area, etc.

    Careful about drawing any causal conclusions from ice cream consumption and crime just because they correlate highly.

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