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Bruno: Vergara Plaintiffs Shouldn't Put Individual Teachers On Trial

4322493690_e0bab53950_mThe plaintiffs in Vergara vs. California believe that the state's tenure and seniority protections for teachers are so detrimental to student well-being that they should be considered unconstitutional.

I'm skeptical the evidence on that count is sufficiently abundant and clear to justify judicial intervention, but one can at least imagine what a data-driven argument from the plaintiffs might look like. Rigorous statistical analyses of student outcomes would likely be appropriate, for example, and at times the plaintiffs have attempted to provide them.

What has been more puzzling and disheartening, however, is the apparent need for the plaintiffs to demonstrate that they were personally wronged by the laws in question by impugning the competence of protected teachers.

Last week - and for the second time so far during the trial - a teacher took the stand to defend herself against complaints made by a student plaintiff.

In other words, the Vergara trial entails teachers being forced to defend their competence and professionalism in court because a few students were unhappy with them.

What, precisely, is this sort of public humiliation supposed to accomplish?

It may very well be that these teachers are incompetent. On the other hand, it may just be the case that these students - or their parents - are particularly finicky or demanding.

None of the testimony thusfar has really settled the question, nor is it clear how it could. What we're left with is an uncomfortable he-said-she-said back-and-forth in which both children and teachers accuse one another of being insufficiently caring and capable.

It's got to be embarrassing for both sides, and to what end?

A public middle school teacher may have in excess of 150 students in any particular year, many of whom would prefer not to be at school in the first place. The odds that none of those kids - or their guardians - will be dissatisfied with that teacher are extremely small. 

That is not evidence that the vast majority of teachers are incompetent, it's a sign that a 100% student satisfaction rate is probably an unreasonable requirement for teachers.

Moreover, even if it could be shown that as a result of California law these students were in fact subjected to inadequate teachers, to what extent would that really illuminate the aggregate effects of the these policies across the entire state?

All policies have winners and losers; demonstrating that a few students were losers - even hypothetically - seems neither necessary nor sufficient to justify judicial action in what is, at its core, a set of complicated and technical policy problems.

So what, exactly, is the fact that a few students are unhappy with some of their teachers supposed to prove beyond the fact that teaching is hard? - PB (@MrPABruno) (image source)


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How about some testimony for tenure for public school teachers? An effective way to be a good teacher is to advocate for the children you teach. After all the children are right there in front of you day after day. Consequently the teacher and the parent are the people who know the children best and know best what they need.

But advocacy as a teacher sometimes puts you in a position of going against an administrator whose perspective is different from yours. Without tenure this is difficult if not impossible. If you are to act as a professional and have input into what is best for your students sticking your neck out is sometimes necessary.

I remember a time when children in our science department who had failed the year before were scheduled into the next year's course for makeup of that credit on the computer and into the year they had failed for actual class time. The two tenured teachers in the department went to the principal to try to change the schedule because these kids would miss the hands on portion of a whole year of classes and therefore miss much of the learning, especially for the type of kid who struggles with the academic part of the course but learns from the hands on portions. We knew these kids and they were mostly that type of student. we managed to avert what would have been a disaster but only after arguing with our administrators until they gave up and let us reschedule the students ourselves. The two non-tenured new teachers in the department never said a word nor did we expect them to. Without tenure those students would have been short changed.

Paul, aren't you supposed to be the token pro-"reform" teacher voice? Do you have tenure in this blogging job?

I'm just kidding. Semi.

@Mary - I certainly hope that the defense is able to mount an adequately rigorous and clear defense of tenure and seniority provisions. I haven't exactly been blown away yet, but I'm hopeful.

@Mary - I certainly hope that the defense is able to mount an adequately rigorous and clear defense of tenure and seniority provisions. I haven't exactly been blown away yet, but I'm hopeful.

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