Drawing the Right Lessons from Vergara

Cross-posted from the U.S. Department of Education blog, Homeroom

Sometimes conflict is the starting point on the path to progress.

That’s one of two possible ways events could play out in the wake of Vergara v. California,a court case that is driving enormous debate throughout the education world.

Brought on behalf of nine public school students, the Vergara case argued that California’s laws on teacher tenure and placement violate the right to an education in the state constitution. The lawsuit claimed that minority and low-income students are deprived of effective teachers by state laws that, in essence, award lifetime employment to teachers after as little as 18 months, and that require layoffs on the basis of seniority.

Last week, a judge agreed, saying these laws deprive students of their civil rights. The decision affirmed the fundamental duty to ensure that all students, regardless of zip code, family income or skin color, receive a quality education – starting with an effective teacher.

The question is, what happens now?

One possibility is a series of appeals, probably stretching across years, and similar suits in other states and districts. Both sides have the millions such a fight would require. Improvements for teachers and students would be slow in coming.

I hope it doesn’t turn out that way.

There’s a second path – which is for all involved to recognize, as the court did, that the status quo is broken, and get to work on alternatives that serve students well – andrespect and value teachers and the profession of teaching.

The second path may be harder to achieve. This country has plenty of experience at lawyering up. It has less at finding consensus on tough public issues.

But I am convinced it can be done. There is a common-sense path forward – built on a recognition that the interests of teachers and of disadvantaged students are not opposed, but aligned. With commitment and collaboration, we can create systems that do these vital things:

  • Ensure that disadvantaged students have strong teachers
  • Establish a meaningful bar for teacher tenure
  • Retain the most effective teachers
  • Make it possible to remove teachers who are ineffective, even after a meaningful period of support

Too much of the reaction to Vergara has suggested that the needs of students and of teachers are at odds. On the contrary, both students and teachers will benefit in systems that use wise practices, including high-quality, thoughtful supports and incentives, to ensure that all students – and especially the most disadvantaged — have effective teachers. Students and teachers both benefit when school systems take concrete steps to elevate the teaching profession, to recognize, listen to and learn from the most effective educators, and establish practices and career paths for educators that enable them to hold on to the most effective educators.

Tenure itself is not the issue here. I absolutely support job security for effective teachers. I think it’s vital to protect teachers from arbitrary or ill-motivated job actions. But giving teachers tenure after only 18 months in the job — a practice that Vergara challenged — is not a meaningful bar. Awarding tenure to someone without a track record of improving student achievement doesn’t respect the craft of teaching, and it doesn’t serve children well. Likewise, in the unfortunate circumstances when teachers must be laid off, letting them go solely on the basis of seniority, without taking quality into account, doesn’t serve our students well. Such policies ignore teachers’ effectiveness and undercut the public’s confidence in public education.

Instead, let’s create rewards —and reduce barriers — to attract and keep talented teachers and to develop inspiring school principals, especially in neighborhoods where children need the most help. The challenges that students growing up in poverty bring to school can be enormous. Our school systems should act on that understanding by ensuring that such students have especially skilled teachers, principals, and support staff.

Let’s recognize that as a nation, we have a responsibility to better prepare and support our teachers throughout their careers. Let’s recognize and celebrate the strongest teachers and find opportunities for those who are willing to mentor their peers to do so. Let’s pay teachers in a way that recognizes their real value and importance to our society. Through such steps, we can do a better job of keeping strong teachers at every stage of their career – from promising early-career teachers to accomplished teachers who can mentor their colleagues.

Let’s have a conversation that is national in scope but local in its solutions. Let’s find a way forward that supports both students and educators.

And let’s learn from high-performing nations that translate their respect for the value of teachers into action. These countries pay all teachers well, recognize excellence, and offer pay and career rewards for working with the neediest kids.

Elevating teaching and school leadership is an imperative everywhere in this country, and something we have long worked to support at the federal level.

Our RESPECT blueprint pulled together the thinking of thousands of educators to lay out a vision for how we as a nation can transform the profession of teaching; a new initiative, Teach to Lead, responds to some of their recommendations with new ideas for putting teachers in leadership rolesand builds on the many effective examples of distributed leadership at work in our schools today.  We’ve also collaborated with national education organizations, including the two major teachers unions, to spotlight and learn from examples where labor and management are working effectively together to support students and educators.

We are also putting a strong focus on how we can support states and school districts in more equitably providing great teachers to all students – a focus intensified by the work of our Equity and Excellence Commission. Our new Race to the Top-Opportunity proposal would invest in states and districts willing to tackle persistent, systemic opportunity gaps in access to resources, coursework, and effective educators. And we are promoting policies and making investments that target the many other inequities that can unfairly harm a child’s home life, as well as their education, and reduce their chances of going to college, being successful in a career and contributing to society.

After a dramatic, emotional week, it can be hard to recognize that there’s common ground among people and organizations that tend to be opposite each other in courtrooms, on television and at bargaining tables. But we can align in the fight against academic failure.

It took enormous courage for 10th grader Beatriz Vergara and her eight co-plaintiffs to stand up and demand change to a broken status quo. It’ll take courage from all of us to come to consensus on new solutions.

Arne Duncan is U.S. Secretary of Education and the former CEO of Chicago’s public schools.