“The evidence is compelling. Indeed, it shocks the conscience.”
— Judge Rolf M. Treu, Vergara v. California, June 16, 2014
Are there ineffective teachers in California classrooms? Undoubtedly.
Do students living in poverty find themselves disproportionately faced with ineffective teaching? Absolutely.
Is this a good justification for weakening unions and limiting due process in the termination of teachers? Not at all.
Let me explain.
When we look at inequality from the comfort of privilege, it does indeed “shock the conscience” –– especially the first time you really look at just how unequal our educational system has become.
Like Judge Treu, I am outraged at what Richard Ingersoll first identified as the “maldistribution of teachers.” This refers to the way the most qualified teachers disproportionately work with the highest achieving and most affluent students –– even within the same school.
In fact, international comparisons reveal that the United States stands out in this maldistribution problem: our country’s disparity in students’ access to qualified teachers is among the largest in the world.
Shocks the conscience, doesn’t it?
The diagnosis of teacher tenure as the root of this problem will not produce a cure. It’s the educational equivalent of putting leeches on the patient to let out “bad blood.” It may make some intuitive sense based on our everyday educational discourse of “grit” and “innovation” –– but it also means you don’t actually understand the underlying causes of the problem.
What Ingersoll and other scholars have pointed to, time and again, are the organizational and working conditions that make it hard to staff high poverty schools –– so much so that there is a literature about “hard-to-staff schools.”
How hard-to-staff? As documented by Lora Bartlett in her book Migrant Teachers, between 2000-2010, US schools could not find enough teachers domestically to fill open positions, bringing in over 90,000 overseas trained teachers. They teach predominantly in urban schools with the highest poverty student populations in America.
With all the focus on Teach for America, Bartlett reports that “more overseas trained teachers have been sought to teach in America in the last ten years than there have been Teach for America teachers in the entire history of that program.”
The truth is that the problems facing our schools in the highest poverty communities exist so far off the experiential map of middle-class Americans that just seeing some of their challenges would provide a “shock of conscience.” Given that shock, the way is paved to point fingers at whatever bogeyman can be conjured.
In the Vergara case, the billionaire backers pointed to teachers unions and their role in giving teachers due process before termination.
Ironically, if research shows that poor working conditions are really the root cause of the maldistribution problem, reducing the negotiating power of unions is exactly the wrong solution.