Taking on Teacher Tenure Backfires
California Ruling on Teacher Tenure Is Not Whole Picture
BERKELEY, Calif. — IN his decision on Tuesday to strike down California’s teacher-tenure system, Judge Rolf M. Treu of Los Angeles Superior Court ruled that laws protecting teachers from dismissal violated the state’s constitutional commitment to provide “a basically equal opportunity to achieve a quality education” and drew parallels with prior cases concerning school desegregation and funding levels.
But there is a difference between recognizing students’ rights to integrated, adequately funded schools and Judge Treu’s conclusion that teacher employment protections are unconstitutional.
The issue is balance. Few would suggest that too much integration or too much funding hurts disadvantaged students. By contrast, decisions about firing teachers are inherently about trade-offs: It is important to dismiss ineffective teachers, but also to attract and retain effective teachers.
Judge Treu’s opinion in the case, Vergara v. California (in which I provided expert testimony for the defense), ignores these trade-offs. In fact, eliminating tenure will do little to address the real barriers to effective teaching in impoverished schools, and may even make them worse.
The reason has to do with the many ways that the role of teachers in the labor market has changed in recent decades. When few professions were open to highly skilled women, schools could hire them for low salaries. Now, teaching must compete with other professions. That has made it hard to recruit the best candidates. One study found that the share of the highest-achieving women who were teachers fell by half between 1964 and 2000; another found an 80 percent drop.
Thomas J. Kane, a professor of education at Harvard and an expert witness for the Vergara plaintiffs, co-wrote a paper in 2006 on the “coming teacher shortage” and a looming need to “dig further down in the pool of those willing to consider” teaching. Significant layoffs during the last recession, which refilled the pool of job seekers, temporarily alleviated the problem. But those will be absorbed quickly as education budgets recover.
The challenge, then, is to increase the number of high-quality applicants. One of the few things that helps to recruit good people into teaching is job security. That is not to say teachers should never be dismissed — but when and how to do that requires careful balancing.
In a recent study, I examined the effects of changing job protections not just on the quality of teachers given tenure, but also on a district’s ability to California Ruling on Teacher Tenure Is Not Whole Picture - NYTimes.com: