Last May, during a state Assembly Education Committee meeting, Assemblywoman Shirley Weber implored her colleagues to approve a bill that would require evidence of student progress to be used in teacher evaluations.

“If we are not about the business of improving the lives of children, in multiple ways, then what the hell are we doing?” she asked. The question seemed fill the room.

By then, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge had overturned five state laws that governed how teachers are hired and fired. The case, Vergara v. California, is now on appeal. Months later, a poll conducted by USC and the Los Angeles Times showed that majority of those surveyed felt tenure was granted too early in California.

And here was Weber, a former educator and San Diego school board member who attributes her rise from a blighted Los Angeles neighborhood to education. She wasn’t just arguing for test scores to be folded into teacher evaluations – that would likely be a nonstarter, given the polarizations its inspired elsewhere.

Weber was asking to use multiple measures of student progress – portfolios, test scores, course completion – some way to know kids were making progress, and that teachers were delivering. In her plan, educators who couldn’t deliver wouldn’t just be axed and tossed away – they’d be given extra support. The state would provide additional funding to make possible extra supports for teachers.

But in the end, Weber’s colleagues applauded her boldness, then shot down the bill.

A year later, we are still grappling with these same questions. This is the main issue: How we can we build better teachers, attract more of them and get those people in front of more kids?

This is the reason we’ve asked Weber to join us next week, and the reason we’ve invited you and made it free. We’ll be at the Creative, Performing and Media Arts School in Clairemont on Tuesday at 6 p.m.

In advance, I thought I’d compile a few questions that readers have sent in, with a few additional ones of my own. Note: This is not an agenda for next week’s conversation, but hopefully provides some background.

Why and when did we ever come up with the tenure system?

Because tenure is such a hot topic in public education, you might think it’s a relatively recent creation. But it has been around for more than 100 years, and predates the collective bargaining power of teachers unions.

I’m going to pull quite a bit from Dana Goldstein, author of an outstanding book on the history of teaching. Here’s a section from an article she wrote last year:

“Tenure has existed in K-12 public education since 1909, when ‘good-government’ reformers borrowed the concept from Germany. The idea spread quickly from New Jersey to New York to Chicago and then across the country. During the Progressive Era, both teachers unions and school-accountability hawks embraced the policy, which prevented teaching jobs from being given out as favors by political bosses. If it was legally difficult to fire a good teacher, she couldn’t be replaced by the alderman’s unqualified sister-in-law.

Tenure remains common in schools around the world, but since 2009, two-thirds of American states have weakened their teacher-tenure laws in response to President Obama’s Race to the Top program. California, where Governor Jerry Brown is far more sympathetic to the teachers unions than most governors, was not among them.”

In short, tenure started as a way to give educators intellectual freedom. With a kind of permanent status, teachers were protected from being fired simply because they were a woman, or black, or gay or an administrator just didn’t like their political affiliations.

How does tenure work?

In California, new teachers are given a “probationary status” for their first two years. They’re observed and evaluated, and it’s relatively easy to dismiss them. If after this time they earn permanent status, they get extra union-won legal protections, and it becomes much more costly and legally difficult to fire them.

Why is tenure so controversial?

A couple reasons. The one that gets most news is when teachers are found guilty of something heinous – or are just really, really bad at their jobs. Even in these cases it can be incredibly expensive and legally challenging to get rid of them.

The other part is how quickly tenure is earned in California. Permanent status is earned after two years, but the decision to keep or toss a probationary teacher must be made earlier than that. That doesn’t give principals much time to evaluate the educator before they have to make high-stakes decisions. California has one of the shortest probationary periods in the country. In most states, it takes at least three years to earn tenure.

So is tenure what Vergara v. California is about?

Partly. It’s also about revamping dismissal policies so the process is less time-consuming, and it seeks to strike last-in-first-out policies. Those rules mean that the newest teachers are the first to go in a layoff environment.

Vergara plaintiffs argued that last-in-first-out has a disproportionately negative impact on low-income kids; because teachers in these schools are most likely to be newest, they’d be those to lose their teachers and suffer disruptions while the school searched for replacements. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu agreed with them.

So, if Treu ruled in the plaintiffs’ favor, does that mean things have changed?

No. And it’s not certain they will. Oral arguments in the appeal are expected by late this month, but it’s difficult to pinpoint when the case will wrap up.

But let’s say Treu’s decision is upheld. What sort of system will replace it?

This is the million-dollar question. We’re not sure, and this hasn’t been talked about much.

The Vergara plaintiffs made the case that ineffective teachers wound up disproportionately in low-income schools. But one difficulty they had was proving that these teachers were “ineffective.” We know that the newest teachers are placed in low-income schools, but proving that a teacher is bad or ineffective relies on teaching evaluations, which are highly subjective.

But revamping teacher evaluations is no easy task – as Weber’s experience shows. Last year, when Superintendent Cindy Marten began negotiations with the teachers union, there was tough talk of big changes to the evaluation process.

“There’s a new sheriff in town and her name is Cindy Marten,” quipped then-school board member Scott Barnett.

By the time the district and the union finally parked a contract, those changes were reduced to creating a group that would talk about possibly changing the evaluations in future years, teachers union president Lindsay Burningham told me.

The other roadblock to Vergara-inspired changes is the fact that teachers still get to pick which schools they want to work in, and that process goes by seniority. Because the stresses of poverty often make low-income schools challenging and less desirable places to teach, this effectively guarantees the students who need the best teachers will continue to get those with the least experience.

An agreement that exists specifically for schools in affluent La Jolla allows them more flexibility in hiring teachers.

So you’re saying we’re basically screwed?

Not at all. And I don’t appreciate you saying that, thank you very much.

At the end of “The Teacher Wars,” Goldstein’s book, she makes a series of recommendations that include ending outdated union protections (like last-in-first-out) and ideas on how to build up teachers (increase pay, and foster “communities of practice,” where teachers can learn from each other).

She also suggested we talk more about the role of principals and how we can cut out some of the minutiae from their work. This would let them focus on supporting good teachers.

This is just a starting place. Let’s keep it going next week with Weber. See you there.

Reserve Your Ticket Here

Ed Reads of the Week

• Grier Out as Houston ISD Superintendent (Houston Chronicle)

Terry Grier left San Diego Unified in 2009 to take over as Houston ISD’s superintendent. He went on to big things. In 2013, he led his district to the Broad Prize, a coveted honor for urban school districts that successfully close the achievement gap.

Now, after six years at his top spot in Houston, Grier has announced his plan to resign in March. In a short video posted by the Houston Chronicle, Grier thanks everyone for the good times, but doesn’t give any specifics about the reason for the sudden departure.

• Teachers Wanted: Passion a Must, Patience Required, Pay Negligible (Hechinger Report)

Those who’ve never been charged with leading a classroom might imagine the stressors of poverty make things harder. But if we haven’t been there, it’s hard to feel the frayed nerves, the ceaseless work, the worry for kids that teachers endure.

This story does a great job of capturing that. It also highlights an important point I didn’t get to in my primer above: In addition to the uncertainty about how teaching will look in California, the state is facing a massive teacher shortage.

Mario Koran

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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