Lawsuits on the western front

It seems like it’s a tougher time today than in days past to be a teachers’ union.   They are on the defensive all over the country.  From the public union battle royale in Wisconsin, to New York’s release of value-added data over union howls of rage (with the accompanying spectre of an implemented evaluation process), to the revolt of the urban mayors… teachers’ unions are under various sorts of legal, political, and institutional attack all over the country.

Out here in California, Students Matter has launched a lawsuit to strip away many of the institutional protections that teachers possess.  Howard Blume tells us all about it:

A Bay Area nonprofit backed partly by groups known for battling teachers unions has filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn five California laws that, they say, make it too difficult to dismiss ineffective teachers.

The suit, filed on behalf of eight students, takes aim at California laws that govern teacher tenure rules, seniority protections and the teacher dismissal process.

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The group behind the legal action is the newly formed Students Matter. The founder is Silicon Valley entrepreneur David F. Welch and the group’s funders include the foundation of L.A. philanthropist Eli Broad.

The suit contends that teachers can earn tenure protections too quickly — in two years — well before their fitness for long-term employment can be determined. The suit also seeks to invalidate the practice of first laying off less experienced teachers during a budget crisis, rather than keeping the best teachers. And it takes aim at a dismissal process that, it alleges, is too costly, too lengthy and typically results in ineffective teachers holding on to jobs.

I’m uneasy about litigating what are essentially public policy questions in courts.  It’s not really what they’re designed to do, and they generally don’t do a good job of it.  (See, e.g., the consent decree for San Francisco public schools.)  But at the same time, sometimes it’s the only option left to people.  It’s difficult, if not impossible, to push too heavily against public employee union interests here in California.

Blume does an able job in his article tying this lawsuit to the overarching issue of teacher quality, and implying (correctly, I think) that this is part of a larger pushback against unions in general.

It’s not clear to me that these sorts of protections are going to help with teacher quality, though.  Procedural changes will only get you marginal improvements here and there.  If teacher quality is a serious concern (and I’m not 100% sure it’s a problem, though it seems plausible) then what you should really do is address the substantive issue: get a different sort of teacher ex ante.  To use an analogy: if the cars you build are not loved by the consumer, you have two options: increase your quality control, or design a better product.  And the unions wouldn’t have as much political leverage if you tried to tighten up teacher qualifications — indeed, they might support it so long as you grandfathered in all the existing teachers.  I’ve never met a union that didn’t like barriers to entry.

Comments

  1. The suit contends that teachers can earn tenure protections too quickly — in two years — well before their fitness for long-term employment can be determined. The suit also seeks to invalidate the practice of first laying off less experienced teachers during a budget crisis, rather than keeping the best teachers.

    But the very teachers they want to keep are the teachers who, in the previous sentence, were not deemed ready to assess for long-term employment.

    • Michael E. Lopez says:

      That’s a great point, and a good catch!

    • Mark Roulo says:

      “But the very teachers they want to keep are the teachers who, in the previous sentence, were not deemed ready to assess for long-term employment.”

      I see no inherent contradiction. I can have an employee who, ten years ago, was rated as “very good, worth keeping”, but who I might now rate as in the bottom 1/3 or 1/4 or worse. I can have another employee who is quite new, but who I would rate in the top 10%. I might not want to offer the quite new employee long-term employment yet (too new …), but can be fairly certain that I’d rate this employee higher than some other employees who have been with the company longer.

      The belief that people in any occupation don’t get better or worse over time is quite puzzling.

      • Michael E. Lopez says:

        You’re missing Cal’s point, I think. The “quite new” employee is in that period “well before their fitness for long-term employment can be determined.”

  2. And the unions wouldn’t have as much political leverage if you tried to tighten up teacher qualifications — indeed, they might support it so long as you grandfathered in all the existing teachers. I’ve never met a union that didn’t like barriers to entry.

    If school administrators are hiring only the teachers they need, and are choosing the most qualified teachers who are willing to work for the compensation packages they offer, raising qualification standards would either have no effect or would create a teacher shortage. If you raise the standards to narrow the candidate pool, you will still end up hiring the same teachers you would presently determine to be the most qualified. If you raise standards to the point at which you have fewer qualified applicants than you have openings, you’ll have openings you cannot fill.

    I’m not sure why you believe that raising qualifications for new teachers would create a barrier to entry that existing teachers would care about, save for if the administrator foolishly created a teacher shortage.

  3. Richard Aubrey says:

    It goes without saying, although people seem to say it quite frequently, that judging a teacher’s effectiveness is difficult. As one commenter said on JJ some time ago, if you have one disruptive student more this year than last, or one more than your colleague teaching the same thing, you will have different outcomes without being able to judge the teachers’ relative effectiveness or change in effectiveness over time.
    It’s not at all surprising that this brings up heated disputation.
    It is also not the point.
    Few people, including the admin, not to mention the voters, are in a position to make fine distinctions about effectiveness.
    What is the problem is something else; the worst, say, five percent of the teachers. Everybody knows who they are, from students to principals. They suck up the same comp package as the best teachers, they have the same class load and the same amount of a student’s time.
    Yet they are a catastrophe–speaking educationally.
    I suspect, I know from my own experience as a parent of students and husband and relative of teachers, that the worst five percent is not the worst five percent because somebody has to be on the bottom. They’re bad because they’re awful. Incompetent, drunk, abusive, lazy.
    If we could, in such discussions, make a distinction between the bottom 5% and the rest of the teachers, agreement might be reached. Because then we’d have something useful to say and the unions would have to ‘fess up to just what they’re doing. Ditto the admin, of course.
    Perhaps the agreement would only be on the terms of future disagreement, but it’s a step.
    Hint. Parents aren’t interested in the difference between two relatively competent teachers. They’re incensed about the invulnerability of the bottom 5%. That’s where the energy comes from in this discussion.