As a distinguished professor of law, Erwin Chemerinsky offered a thoughtful case of how to improve public education (“Teacher Tenure: Wrong target,” Oct. 23). Yet given that his column focused on the legal action by the parents whom our organization supports, and because his argument all flowed from a factually inaccurate description of our effort, a response to set the record right is in order.
The goal of the lawsuit by nine families against the State of New York is to ensure that all of our public school students have access to good teachers. The litigation targets three sets of laws that combine, in a quiet and devastating way, to undermine the state constitution’s promise of a sound, basic education.
The problem breaks down this way:
· Tenure laws that allow extensive job protections to be granted to teachers long before school leaders have a reasonable chance to determine the effectiveness of those teachers.
· Dismissal laws that make it nearly impossible for schools to fire grossly ineffective teachers.
· Seniority laws that solely consider how long teachers have been in class – without regard to quality, effectiveness or dedication – when educators are laid off during times of budget cuts.
The view of the parents, and our view at the Partnership for Educational Justice, is that New York deserves a system that supports, protects, trains, appreciates and properly pays good teachers. At the same time, teachers are not interchangeable parts; we must have a way to remove in a responsible and fair way those teachers judged to be incompetent. Otherwise, students will pay the price for years.
And this is where Chemerinsky’s column falls short.
He wrongly says that our lawsuit asserts that teachers’ rights are causing disadvantaged or minority students to have substandard educations. That is untrue. The suit never claims that tenure causes a bad education.
Rather, it says that tenure (which can assure a lifetime of employment) should not be granted until a teacher’s effectiveness can reasonably be determined. Even common sense supports that conclusion, to borrow a phrase from Chemerinsky’s column.
What’s more, he asserted that the lawsuit would eliminate due-process for teachers. That, too, is false. The lawsuit does not seek to, and would not, destroy basic due process for teachers. The problem in New York is that tenure and dismissal laws in our state provide such impenetrable protections that students come last – essentially, an “uber due process,” as a judge in the California Vergara case put it.
Yes, protections against arbitrary or political firings are vital. But our policies must protect our teachers and provide benefit to our students.
And it does not automatically stand to reason, as Chemerinsky says, that teacher effectiveness always improves with experience. Seniority is a factor in who keeps a teaching job, but as the only factor? When a California teacher of the year was fired based solely on inadequate seniority, did that help kids?
Finally, Chemerinsky cited other important problems that affect student performance and need to be addressed, including inferior salaries for teachers, community conditions and disadvantaged students. We agree. For example, teachers in hard-to-staff schools or high-demand fields should be paid more.
Our position is that all those challenges are not in competition with the ones of our lawsuit. We must work on all of them; they are all legitimate concerns and they all demand real action.
The families who are suing the State of New York have chosen to start with teacher quality because it is the single-most important school-based factor to student success. Research has supported this point. One exhaustive Harvard-led study found that replacing a low-performing teacher with even an average one increased the lifetime earnings of a single student by $50,000—or that of a classroom by $1.4 million.
We believe the parents of the case deserve to have a day in court, just as all students deserve to know that getting a quality teacher should not be a matter of which school or class they attend. The constitution promises a sound education for all. And that is why, in fact, we have chosen the right target.
Reshma Singh is the Executive Director of Partnership for Educational Justice. Follow her on Twitter: @reshma_a_singh.