Tuesday, June 17, 2014


Turning to the preliminary decision in the Vergara case, first of all, HUGE kudos to Dave Welch, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur who funded this landmark lawsuit. I had the pleasure of meeting him a couple of months ago and it's clear that this isn't about him or his ego – it's just about common sense, fairness, and outrage at the status quo.
As I predicted, the initial response to Judge Treu's ruling has been overwhelmingly favorable. You know when the NYT and WSJ (see below) are in lockstep agreement on something that it must be right and powerful. The importance of this decision and the likely long-term implication cannot be overstated – it's a total game-changer. And not just for the policies at issue in this case. For example, I'd argue that it's impossible to run any large organization effectively if there's no system to evaluate the performance of the employees within the system – and the vast majority of teachers never receive any evaluation whatsoever. What does the Vergara case have to do with this? A lot, because if layoffs can't be done 100% by seniority, then the only alternative is a system based on merit, which in turn means that a fair and robust evaluation system must be put in place.
More broadly, the most important impact of Vergara will be things you won't see, like an iceberg, where you can't see the 90% that's underwater. Sure, there will be similar cases filed and won in other states, which will receive a lot of attention, but the biggest impact will be in the negotiations that occur every day between state and city superintendents and elected officials and the unions. The Vergara ruling will be an incredibly valuable tool for reform-minded educators and politicians to use in these negotiations. For example, in Newark, as more and more parents choose to send their children to high-quality charters, which now account for roughly 25% of all students (and going much higher in the next few years), fewer students are in regular schools and thus fewer teachers are needed. Cami Anderson wants to use merit in layoff decisions (because, unlike the unions, she cares first and foremost about kids) and has thus appealed to the state ed commissioner, David Hespe, for relief from a state law that (as in many states) mandates that seniority be the only criteria. Hespe I'm sure wants to do the right thing for kids, but his hands appear to be tied – but now, with the Vergara decision, he has more of an argument that the state law violates the NJ state constitution.
By the way, every day I'm thankful that our opponents are so foolish. If the unions had an ounce of sense, they'd not appeal the Vergara ruling and make this problem go away (for a while anyway) by quietly getting their lackeys in Sacramento to pass some token reforms (three years to get tenure, not two; 50 steps to remove a terrible teacher, not 70; seniority counting for 80% of layoff decisions, not 100%). Instead, higher and higher courts will uphold Judge Treu's decision, giving it more and more power as a precedent, while the union leaders are left to sputter inanities like this:
"We have to stop wasting time on these issues that don't help teachers do their job of educating students," said Dennis Van Roekel, the president of the National Education Association, the largest teachers union in the country. "It doesn't change the fundamental problem, which is who in the world is hiring these people who are not qualified? You have to change the system that allows them there in the first place. If you don't, then the elimination of those laws won't make sense."
And the AFT's statement:
"…this case now stoops to pitting students against their teachers. The other side wanted a headline that reads: "Students win, teachers lose." This is a sad day for public education."
That said, we mustn't screw it up. Most importantly, it can't been seen or used as an attack on teachers – because it's not. In fact, the Vergara ruling is incredibly positive for the vast majority of teachers – just not for the worst teachers and the union bosses who, bizarrely, think it's their job to protect them. After all, what true educator thinks it's a good idea to give a teacher lifetime tenure after only 16 months of evaluation? What true educator thinks it makes any sense to lay off teachers based solely on seniority? What true educator thinks it should be virtually impossible to remove even the very worst teacher?
I've had the privilege of meeting some of the greatest teachers in the world and, to a person, they say one of the worst parts of their jobs is coping with the fallout from colleagues who don't show up for work a high percentage of the time and, when they do, fail to educate the children in their care. These few bad apples, in addition to harming the students, poison the professional environment and create an enormous and unfair burden on the many dedicated teachers, which leads to burnout, disillusionment and quitting the profession altogether.
In addition, the insane policies that the judge just ruled are unconstitutional act as a barrier to talented people even considering the profession. If there's one thing that high-performing countries (and school districts, charter school networks, and individual schools) do, it's build a corps of top-caliber teachers, drawing from the best and brightest. But talented people, in general, don't want to go into a profession that looks like the longshoreman's union, in which everything is driven by seniority, in which you might be laid off even if you're the best teacher in a school, in which your pay is in no way connected with your performance.

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