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Commentary: Don't Look For Simplistic Solutions In Teacher Tenure Debate

Fresno State / Jacques Benninga

A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge ruled in a case called Vergara vs. California that California education statues related to teacher tenure violate the equal protection laws of students, essentially depriving students of effective teachers by failing to remove ineffective teachers from classrooms.  In this week’s edition of The Moral Is, Fresno State education professor Dr. Jacques Benninga explores the teacher evaluation controversy and its reasonable implications.


The recent Vergara vs. California case sent shock waves nationally throughout the educational establishment.  In a case that pitted nine public school students against Governor Brown and our State Superintendent of Education, the court ruled that California’s laws governing hiring, firing, and seniority of teachers violate the California Constitution’s guarantee of an equal right to a quality education.  According to Associated Press accounts of the case, many students, particularly those in low-income schools and districts, are disproportionally affected by current tenure rules that make it difficult to fire ineffective teachers.

California teachers currently receive tenure after just two years, essentially giving them lifetime guarantees of employment.  If this seems an unwise policy, as it does to me, and if some set of accountability provisions ought to be in place to evaluate teacher competency, why hasn’t this already been done? 

The answer is that not enough attention has been devoted to address teacher evaluation, and now that there is an urgency to do so, the methods proposed are more reactionary than thoughtful.  Should the goal be to fire weak teachers or to improve their skills?

Teachers can, of course, be evaluated by student test scores.  This is the response of most who seek to thin the ranks through elimination.  It seems intuitive that high performing teachers promote high achieving students. 

But reality complicates this solution.  In California, we test students only in mathematics and reading/language arts, but in a typical Valley high school only about 25% of teachers teach those subjects.  The other 75% teach government, or foreign languages, or the performing arts, subjects that have no similar assessments.  Using available assessments for those 75% borders on the inane.  Several states, for example, tie the fate of the 75% directly to the fate of the 25%.  For that majority, their evaluation becomes a betting game, with music or foreign language teachers tying their fate to the achievement scores of the math teacher down the hall.

Other districts are currently studying ways to refine evaluation procedures that implement more nuanced approaches, using classroom observations by school administrators, lesson plan evaluations, and conferences that tie teaching practices more closely to student outcomes.  Such a process is reasonable, but time-consuming and expensive, and because of inconsistency between evaluators, open to questions of reliability.

The court decision that challenged California’s provisions for granting tenure to teachers provides a reasonable challenge to school administrators.  But neither status quo guarantees of lifetime employment, nor wholesale solutions that seek dramatically to fire beginning teachers are reasonable. The rub is in the actualization.  The goal of teacher evaluation should be to improve the educational process for our students, and that goal should drive the evaluation debate.  Vergara vs. California drew our attention to this issue.  The public should pay attention and hold their school administrators accountable.  A reasonable way forward will be found, but we should not now succumb to simplistic solutions to address this complicated issue.

The views expressed on The Moral Is are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Valley Public Radio.