Vergara v. California: An Edu-Wars Red Herring
By Elizabeth Evans
In Vergara v. California the court once again reprimanded us for the still inexorable inequity in our public education system. But, like Brown v. Board of Education, if we don’t pay attention to the fix instead of the fight, we’re going to end up wasting the occasion the court is giving us to do something to alter the opportunity gap our children still face.
Here’s the thing: what’s a bad teacher? We can answer that question and we should. But that alone isn’t going to close the opportunity gap. I applaud Bill & Melinda Gates for asking the question: How do we know what effective teaching looks like and how do we support it? This question spawned the groundbreaking Measures of Effective Teachers, which changed the game on how to evaluate teaching.
Translating this research into practice is no small task. I’ve heard from thousands of teachers who have a lot to say about how this process goes. And, I’ve partnered with a number of visionary public administrators who are seeking input from those teachers. This kind of research-based, experience-informed dialogue is a better approach to turning policy into practice. We can avoid dictated edicts from the top and still have strong accountability for instructional excellence.
We need to ask those working with students to design a system that helps them be good teachers and does a better job at giving all public school students a good teacher. I am encouraged that the National Education Association (NEA) is taking the challenge of Vergara and turning it into an opportunity. NEA is launching VIVA Idea Exchange, at its annual meeting in Denver this week, to get teacher input in all the factors — financial, fairness (for teachers and students), reliability, and accuracy, among others — that affect professional standards and evaluations in public schools.
We have a real opportunity to shift our resources to support effective teaching and improve teacher practices. We also have the opportunity to screen out the chronic under performers and those who lack the skills or drive to succeed in the teaching profession. If we take the findings in Vergara to use professional evaluation mostly to screen out the worst teachers, we will miss the chance to give more students good teachers.
Of the thousands of teachers who have participated in a VIVA Idea Exchange, I cannot think of one who believes there’s any defense for the obviously poor performance of a colleague. I’m certain most teachers would gladly support principals who got rid of ineffective teachers. But, they also want their principals to spend equal time supporting them in becoming better teachers, in a profession that can take five to 10 years to fully master.
If more leaders, union and administration, actually stopped to engage teachers in creating these standards, the matter of tenure would become an important quality control, not the sparring tactic between untrusting actors that it currently is.
Elizabeth Evans is Founder and CEO of New Voice Strategies.