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The Adverse Incentives Created by Teacher Tenure

April 24, 2014
By May of 2014, the Superior Court of Los Angeles County will issue a ruling in the lawsuit Vegara v. California challenging public school teacher tenure.  Students Matter, a group dedicated to ensuring educational equity, is representing nine California students who claim the state has failed to protect their right to an equal education– a right guaranteed by the California Constitution.

By Peter S. Jeffrey, W’16

By May of 2014, the Superior Court of Los Angeles County will issue a ruling in the lawsuit Vegara v. California challenging public school teacher tenure.  Students Matter, a group dedicated to ensuring educational equity, is representing nine California students who claim the state has failed to protect their right to an equal education– a right guaranteed by the California Constitution.

The plaintiffs are rallying against three specific laws: (1) the permanent employee statute, which forces schools to give tenure to teachers after 18 months on the job; (2) the dismissal statute, which makes it almost impossible for schools to terminate the contracts of poor performing teachers; and (3) the “Last-In, First-Out” statute, which forces schools to “pink-slip” newer teachers before older ones, simply on the grounds that the new teachers lack seniority.

Each statute poses harmful effects to California students because they have the potential to inhibit school districts’ ability to ensure a high quality education for their students.  The statutes also harm California’s workforce because ensuring a high quality education is imperative for molding and training the next generation of skilled laborers.

The permanent employee statute, the focus of the student’s first set of contentions, makes it difficult for administrators to make tenure determinations.  According to the law, administrators must either offer tenure or fire teachers after just 18 months of employment.  This tight time constraint forces administrators to make decisions based on general classifications such as education and licensure instead of real classroom performance.  However, research shows that making a decision based on classifications, like education level or licensure status, often does not predict a teacher’s actual performance.  This frequently leads to many poor decisions that can sometimes keep good teachers out of the classroom and bad teachers in the classroom (Goldhaber).

The Dismissal Statute makes it essentially impossible to fire underperforming teachers once they receive tenure.  Ultimately, this creates adverse incentives for teachers.  For example, once a teacher receives tenure, principals have little ability to punish or reward teachers for their contributions to the academic environment.  The lack of incentives and reprimands makes it easier for some tenured teachers to exert as little energy as possible in the classroom.  Since exerting effort is a cost to the teacher, he is actually incentivized to exert minimal effort, which is generally bad for students

Earlier this year, Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Superintendent, John Deasy, announced that firing a teacher in LAUSD usually takes over two years, and costs upwards of $450,000 (Saltzman, 2014).  This may explain why LAUSD paid former Miramonte Elementary School teacher Mark Berndt $40,000 to voluntarily retire after authorities found photographic evidence of him participating in lewd acts with his students.  Paying Berndt was likely the quickest way to get him out of the classroom.  While many may like to believe this is an extreme example, LAUSD spends $10M annually to remove teachers from the classroom who have committed inappropriate and sometimes sexual acts.

The “Last-In, First Out” statute creates substantial problems for teachers.  This rule inhibits a principal and school administrator’s ability to retain good teachers while managing the needs of their schools— especially amidst growing budget constraint.  According to the statute, schools must cut recently hired teachers, regardless of the teacher’s quality, whenever they have to make staff cuts.  This forces many schools to fire great teachers, while retaining bad teachers.  As it stands, this system does not take into account the added value of teachers who are bilingual or serve as afterschool sport coaches.  While core performance is important, auxiliary contributions are equally important.  Ultimately, this statute makes it difficult for principals to prioritize teachers who are meeting the non-core-academic needs of students.

 

Of course, teachers play a vital role in our economy and ought to be valued for their selfless efforts.  It is highly uncontested that a high-quality teacher can add incredible value to society.  A recent study published by professors from Harvard and Columbia found that replacing a less effective teacher with a high quality teacher, who has higher value-added test scores could increase a student’s lifetime earnings by over $250,000 (Lowrey, 2012).

Proponents of tenure claim that tenure is necessary to protect teachers from awful, vindictive principals and administrators who fire teachers for unfair reasons.  However, tenure proponents must understand that teachers without tenure would still have access to the court system to settle unjust firings or unjust actions— just like the millions of other untenured employees.

Regardless of the outcome in Vegara v. California, the state of California, and other states facing similar problems in the U.S., must make an effort to address the flawed tenure process in public schools because our children’s posterity, and nation’s labor force, depend on it.

 

Citations

Barrett, B. (2012). Mark Berndt’s $40,000 Payoff. LA Weekly News. Retrieved from http://www.laweekly.com/2012-02-16/news/mark-berndt-miramonte-40000-payoff/.

Goldhaber, D., & Hansen, M. (2008). Assessing the Potential of Using Value-Added Estimates of Teacher Job Performance for Making Tenure Decisions. Brief 3. National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research.

Hubsch, A. W. (2013). Do California’s Teacher Tenure Laws Violate California’s Constitutional Right to Education. Retrieved from http://works.bepress.com/allen_hubsch/2/.

Kearney, L. (2014). California students challenge teacher tenure rules in lawsuit.Reuters. Retrieved from http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/01/28/us-usa-california-education-idUSBREA0R05D20140128.

Lowrey, A. (2012). Big Study Links Good Teachers to Lasting Gain. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/06/education/big-study-links-good-teachers-to-lasting-gain.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0.

Satzman, D. (2014). Deasy: Firing bad teachers costs up $450,000. KCRW Economy Blog. Retrieved from http://blogs.kcrw.com/whichwayla/2014/01/deasy-firing-bad-teachers-costs-up-450000.

Tillotson, M. (2014). California’s defense begins in Vergara trial. California Watchdog.org. Retrieved from http://watchdog.org/131228/california-vergara-trial/.

 

 

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