California

How we can use the spotlight of Vergara to raise teaching standards

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I was in my second year of teaching when an English teacher at my school told me that Maria could copy her reading summaries right out of the book since “at least she tried to do her homework.”  Now 18, Maria is taking 9th grade math for the fourth time and barely has enough credits to be considered 10th-grader. I wish I had been a better advocate for Maria that day; instead, I looked the other way, too afraid to question a veteran instructor.

Kat Czujko

Kat Czujko

We know by looking at achievement data that students of color are two to three times more likely to encounter ineffective teaching, and that this affects their education and earning potential throughout their entire lifetimes. These statistics morph into personal stories, as I watch the children in the poor Latino neighborhood where I teach barely get by every day because our education system doesn’t serve their needs, set high expectations, or provide access to high-quality teaching.  The Vergara v. California decision offers a not-to-be-missed opportunity to react which is why I, along with twenty nine other teachers in Los Angeles, feel so strongly about putting forth a set of policy recommendations that gets at the problems identified by the case. We recently released these recommendations in a policy brief, “Valuing Performance and Honoring Experience: Teacher Solutions for a Post-Vergara Profession.”

Related: After Vergara, activists expect court battles over teacher tenure across the U.S.

For me, it begins with tenure. This should be a meaningful achievement for teachers, akin to earning a Master’s degree, yet I was given tenure just for showing up. I have watched other teachers earn it after a single administrator observed them for less than two hours during an eighteen-month period. Forty-one states require more than two years of teaching before an educator can earn tenure; it hurts our children that California provides full tenure protections to teachers based on such little data.  Our immediate recommendations include extending the time needed to gain tenure in our state to four years, so that a teacher can prove his or her effectiveness in the classroom.

Related: Where are most of California’s tenured teachers?

In addition to tenure, the Vergara case has put a spotlight on our state’s LIFO (Last-In, First-Out) layoff policies. Four years ago, three second-year teachers in my school received layoff notices. They were excellent educators but among the newest teachers in my district.  Our school was given the choice of keeping them in the classroom as substitutes (at half pay) or replacing them with “must-place” teachers the district forces on schools even when they are clearly not equipped to serve the needs of students. A more enlightened layoff system would couple seniority with the scores from teachers’ past evaluations. My colleagues and I recommend that teachers be laid off in order of performance. In each performance category, layoffs would begin with the newest teachers and continue with those based on seniority.  This would help ensure that the effective teachers remain in the classroom and the ineffective ones leave.

Related: Why this is California’s moment to help teachers, students grow

Our final set of recommendations focuses on California’s dismissal policies. Under the current system, just seven teachers out of the 33,000 in my district have gone through the dismissal process between 2000 and 2010.  At a cost of $3.5 million taxpayer dollars, four of these teachers were ultimately dismissed following several years of hearings. And yet it is clear that with our district’s 68% graduation rate, more than .02% of our teachers are ineffective. My colleagues and I believe that California needs to have a dismissal process that serves both students and teachers. Our goal is not to end teachers’ employment stability, far from it. We want struggling teachers to have support in order to help them improve, and with that to do away with ineffective teaching. And we want to have a fair and rigorous dismissal process that takes into account both the teacher’s experience and his or her performance in the classroom.

Related: Vergara v. California highlights the need for a teacher-powered educational strategy

I think about how different Maria’s life would be today if our policy recommendations were law in California. She might be able to escape her family’s cycle of poverty by graduating high school and attending college. That has always been her dream, yet our school community has failed to help her make this a reality. Let’s use the spotlight that the Vergara case has cast on the policies surrounding tenure, layoffs, and dismissal in our profession to raise the standards for teachers, and subsequently raise our students’ achievements. This will surely help students like Maria get more consistent access to high quality teaching that they need and deserve.

This story was written by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about California.

Kat Czujko teaches the engineering and robotics elective class at Hollenbeck Middle School in the Boyle Heights community of East Los Angeles. She is a National Board Certified Teacher in early adolescent science and was named a Los Angeles Unified School District Teacher of The Year for the 2013-2014 school year. She is a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellow.

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