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The debate between educator-led school reform and corporate reform theory is at the heart of the Vergara v. California trial going on in Los Angeles.

In this case, a wealthy Silicon Valley executive is financing a legal challenge to seniority-based protections in contracts between school districts and teachers unions in California. The Vergara plaintiffs want the seniority-based system to be replaced so that teachers with the highest “value-added” impact on student test scores would be the last to be laid off during a budget crisis.

I testified at the trial in support of the teachers’ position that seniority-based layoffs are preferable to the “value-added” strategy. My testimony was grounded in my experience as a San Diego Unified School District board member over the last several years. We’ve faced the threat of mass teacher layoffs every spring because of inadequate state funding for public schools.

READ MORE: San Diego Unified Doesn’t Want to Graduate From Senior-Based System

I’ve fought hard against layoffs, not only because of their obvious impact on teachers, but because they destabilize school communities, particularly in high-poverty neighborhoods. I have never “changed my tune” on this issue.

For well over a decade, parents, educators, policymakers and community members have had to sift through education reform developed and funded largely by corporations and the wealthy.

Corporate reformers generally call for top-down, one-size-fits-all strategies based on their management theories. The basic notion is that if you can reduce a child’s education to easily quantifiable goals – achievement on standardized tests – you can collect data and manage everything with a rewards-and-punishment approach.

The rewards include financial bonuses for teachers whose students score well on standardized tests, and federal grants for school districts willing to subscribe to corporate management theory.

Punishments include firing individual principals and teachers whose students don’t score well on standardized tests, and mass school closures, particularly in high-poverty neighborhoods.

We need to ask one basic question: Where is the evidence that any of these ideas actually produce improvements in our kids?

Evaluating teachers and principals based on testing data hasn’t improved test scores. Merit pay experiments haven’t improved test scores. Closing “low performing” schools hasn’t improved test scores.

By contrast, let’s look at what’s happened in the San Diego Unified over the last several years. The district has consistently rejected corporate reform strategies, and despite enduring its largest and longest budget crisis since 2008, we’ve seen steady gains in student achievement.

Reading scores have improved by 30 percent, math scores by 25 percent, science and social science scores by over 50 percent and we now rank at or near the top in these categories compared with California’s other large urban districts. San Diego Unified now has the lowest dropout rate of any of them.

When we ask teachers, principals, parents, students and other community stakeholders to explain these gains, they describe strategies much different than those offered by corporate reform theory. The people closest to kids talk about the importance of trust among adults in schools, not the need for more competition. Educators stress the importance of a challenging curriculum including music, arts, science and career technical education, not “drill and kill” test preparation. Teachers emphasize reduced class sizes, more counseling and nursing support for kids, time to collaborate with their colleagues, less top-down administration and the need for stability rather than the seemingly annual ritual of pink slips and layoffs.

Replacing San Diego Unified’s seniority-based layoff system with a value-added layoff strategy would have made our situation much worse for two reasons.

First, the corporate rewards-and-punishment approach would have undermined the trust between adults that has been key to success in our schools. Teachers would have been incentivized to compete with one another for classrooms with the students most likely to raise test scores. They would have been reluctant to share data and effective practices, because the only way to get through a round of layoffs would have been to take credit and deflect blame for student performance.

Second, the system would have disrupted the cooperation between the district and the teachers union, which were able to negotiate four major agreements that significantly reduced the need for layoffs.

In addition to early retirement programs, the district and the union negotiated agreements in 2010 and 2012 that required all teachers to make financial sacrifices so that less senior teachers wouldn’t be laid off.  I don’t believe these agreements would have been possible if we replaced a seniority system that teachers see as fair with a value-added system that teachers see as both arbitrary and prone to favoritism. These agreements allowed our district to maintain some of the lowest class sizes in the county, provided stability to our school communities, and yielded positive outcomes in our kids.

Everyone in the education community has made sacrifices over the last several years to prevent layoffs and protect students from budget cuts.

But the corporate reform crowd has exploited the budget crisis to advance their overarching theory: Funding levels don’t matter and they shouldn’t be required to pay their fair share in taxes. They think if we simply run our schools the way they run their corporations, our kids would be fine. We should look for our answers from the people who have devoted their lives to kids before we turn over our schools to folks with big money and failed theories.

Richard Barrera is a trustee on the San Diego Unified school board. Barrera’s note has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.

Catherine Green

Catherine Green was formerly the deputy editor at Voice of San Diego. She handled daily operations while helping to plan new long-term projects.

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