By Bootsie Battle-Holt, Guest Blogger
As a teacher in Los Angeles Unified School District, I've followed the discussion around teacher tenure, dismissal, and layoffs—a conversation that gained national attention with the Vergara v. California decision in June—carefully. For most teachers I know, the debate is personal—not just because it's about our jobs, but because as teachers who are always striving to do our best work for our students, we want and need to be surrounded by colleagues who help each other by doing excellent work, too.
One of these excellent colleagues is Ms. Starling. Ms. Starling is a nearly 40-year veteran at my school who is proud of the certificate from last year's evaluation that rates her as highly effective. She teaches the most troubled students, those with emotional disabilities so severe that they are not able to learn in a general education classroom.
One might expect that such a tough job and so many years of experience might drive a teacher to just survive through the later years of a career, but not for Ms. Starling and teachers like her. I'm the math department chairperson, so Ms. Starling—despite the years of experience she has on me—visits me often to ask about new materials, methods, ideas and resources. She told me that her positive evaluation is evidence that she continues to learn and grow, and that she feels teacher growth and development is the key to student learning.
But like everyone else who has ever taught, I've also worked alongside teachers who are not Ms. Starlings—not even close. We all know teachers who keep their doors closed and shoo away visitors; who blame students and their families for the chaos that ensues in their classrooms; who refuse to collaborate with colleagues. This refusal to engage, to strive for better instruction and to hold students to high expectations is directly reflected in student learning.
So how do we build a system that strikes a better balance between protecting teachers and making sure that every classroom is led by an effective teacher? To do so, I think it's critical that we ask teachers to lead the conversation. As a Teach Plus Los Angeles Teaching Policy Fellow, I've worked with my cohort—all current public classroom teachers in district and charter schools—to speak frankly to both sides of the debate. In our recent brief, we share our thoughts on the issues surrounding the Vergara case. Here's where we stand on this polarizing issue:
Tenure shouldn't be awarded so quickly. In California, tenure is awarded after two years—which usually means the decision is made by the middle of a teacher's second year. That's too soon. Four years is a more reasonable timeframe for determining if a teacher should remain in the classroom long-term or not. At that point, tenure should be awarded on the basis of performance—not arbitrarily or automatically.
Put more money into teacher support and development, and save on dismissal proceedings. Most teachers value professional growth and are eager to stay current—and districts should put their money toward helping them do that. Removing teachers should be a last resort after targeted, measurable and documented district-provided supports have failed to help a teacher improve. But when it is necessary to dismiss a teacher, the process must be more efficient. TNTP's recent paper, Rebalancing Teacher Tenure, suggests some strategies for improving the process. Money saved through more efficient hearings can in turn be put toward helping teachers improve—where it should be.
When necessary, layoffs should take performance and seniority into account. Layoffs due to budget cuts are always unfortunate, but as we've seen in California, they're sometimes unavoidable. We propose a middle ground that bases layoffs on seniority and performance. Teachers rated a level 1 on a 5-point scale, for example, should be laid off first, but in order of seniority. We can honor experience and still ensure that the most effective teachers are given the opportunity to stay in the classroom.
Certainly, there are other issues at play here that cannot be ignored. School leaders need to be trained and supported to implement new evaluation tools with fidelity, so that teachers trust the process. We have to do a better job of fixing the other pieces of our education system that affect how well teachers can do their jobs, too—teacher preparation programs must be more selective, more rigorous and more pro-active in recommending only the best candidates for placement in classrooms. And districts and charter networks must do a better job of hiring and retaining the brightest and most able professionals. But none of that should stop us from striving for better tenure policies now.
The ultimate solution to the issues raised in Vergara is to eventually produce a teaching force so effective that the conversation shifts entirely from tenure to teacher retention. In the long term, districts should spend their energies looking for ways to compensate, professionally acknowledge and reward their most effective practitioners. It's time for every student to have a Ms. Starling, in every classroom, every year.
Bootsie Battle-Holt is a National Board Certified middle school math teacher in Los Angeles Unified School District, and a Teach Plus Los Angeles Teaching Policy Fellow.