Tuesday, June 17, 2014

TNTP & The Unreal Lessons of Vergara

TNTP is the less famous faux-reform sibling of StudentsFirst, but like that other batch of corporate reformsters, they can be counted on to articulate their agenda in a more-transparent-than-they-probably-meant-to-be manner. Last week they brought their reformy skills to "The Real Lessons of Vergara," in which Tim Daly and Dan Weisberg reveal some of the huge holes in the reformster agenda.

Their thesis is not all that unreasonable.

Despite all the prophecies of doom during the trial, teachers need not fear this verdict. Everyone agrees that California’s children deserve an education that prepares them for success in college and life, and the state’s constitution guarantees it. Likewise, there is broad consensus that teachers should have reasonable and professional job protections. This case has always been about finding the right balance between the two.

That's what the case has always been about? Because if that's what the case was about, it was remarkably well-hidden by the plaintiffs, who seemed to be pretty intent on just plain wiping out tenure and FILO (as is StudentsFirst). But maybe we can read that piece of revisionist history as a signal that reformsters are willing to back off a bit.

But there are curious versions of alternate reality that run throughout the TNTP piece.

Throughout the trial, the plaintiffs exposed how California’s laws make it nearly impossible for schools to hire and keep outstanding teachers or dismiss teachers who simply aren’t up to the job.

I understand the argument about not being able to fire bad teachers-- but what exactly about California's laws made it hard to hire good teachers in the first place? Or are we suggesting that because young teachers have less job security, they are less likely to apply in California? In which case, the solution is even less job security? I feel as if I'm missing some crucial point here.

Daly and Weisberg suggest there are four key changes needed to properly balance the need for job protection with the need to provide the best teachers. Each one is problematic.

Give Teachers a Longer Tryout

Because the problem with FILO is that we have to fire too many of our best teachers, who are the young ones. So, we need more job protection for young teachers, except that we shouldn't give them any kind of tenure for at least four years. So, we need to not fire young teachers, but we need to make it easier to fire young teachers. Got it?

Keep Due Process, But Eliminate "Uber" Due Process

Oh, the devil is in the details, isn't it, boys. Daly and Weisberg accept that teachers should have protections for, say, outside political activities. The teacher evaluation should be given the benefit of the doubt, but teachers should be able to appeal if they think the process wasn't followed correctly, but teachers should not be able to appeal because they believe the finding of the evaluation is wrong, and the process should be allowed to go on for a while, but not too much of a while.

I actually agree that the process should not be hugely time and money-consuming, but I can only hope that trying to write this one paragraph gave these guys a sense of just how hard it is to write the rulebook that will keep the whole process under control. You can go ahead and say "The hearing process should only take one day" and isn't it pretty to think so, but how exactly do you force that to happen and keep things fair to all parties? Actual justice is messy.

Lower the Stakes of Dismissal

Daly and Weisberg say that a dismissal should not be a career-ender because "a teacher who’s a bad fit for one school might be a great fit for another school" and --gaaahhh-- do you see what you just said there, boys? Because one freaking premise of Vergara was that "bad teacher" and "good teacher" are absolute, solid state conditions and that the school in which a teachers is working is in no way related to the quality of that teacher's work.

The Vergara plaintiffs (and the StudentsFirst anti-tenure agitprop) aren't saying, "The state is failing to match teachers up with the assignments in which they will shine." The message is that there are a bunch of Good Teachers out there and a bunch of Bad Teachers, and the Good Teachers will be great wherever we put them and the Bad Teachers will be bad wherever they work, so we need to fire the Bad Teachers and put the Good Teachers in the classrooms that need them (where they will continue to be Good Teachers). You just blithely threw out the whole thing. Sloppy work, boys.

Let Schools Protect Their Best Teachers During Layoffs

Daly and Weisberg split a new set of hairs here, indicating that a great new teacher might be fired so that the district can keep a teacher who just has just a year or two more seniority. So, not the usual picture of the freshfaced twenty-five year old being thrown into the street by some washed-up fifty-something old fart.

Unfortunately, this new version brings into sharp relief just how corrosive this approach would be to the atmosphere of a school.

Principal: Hey, Chris. This is Pat, the new hire. Pat's almost your age, so I thought you could help Pat get acclimated. Also, Pat's pretty bright, so we think Pat might take your job at the next round of layoffs. Make Pat feel welcome.
Chris: Sure thing. So, Pat, here are some tips. The office really likes it when you show movies all the time. And don't turn your grades in till the last minute; they love that. Just remember-- don't ever ask me for any help or materials, and if you ever get in any trouble, I'll be in my room contemplating my mortgage payment and ignoring you.

Because you can pretend all day that these battles over teacher effectiveness will be washed-up old guy versus fresh-faced newby, but we have studies out the wazoo to confirm what we already know-- when it comes to teacher quality, it's years of experience that make the most difference. So in an effectiveness showdown, it will be young teachers versus young teachers. Unless, of course, management decides to weigh some other factor, like, say, how much the teacher costs the district. Oh, but this is all about getting great quality, not about making schools run cheaply by churning and burning teaching staff. Right?

TNTP always seems a bit more mellow than StudentsFirst, and this piece follows that pattern. There are some softer edges on the anti-tenure argument here, but the center of the argument is still shot full of holes, contradictions, and weaknesses. And that's only if I give them the very huge benefit of a very small doubt that this isn't really all about cutting personnel costs in school by turning into non-career status temp work. I'm not sure any of us know for certain what the lessons of Vergara will turn out to be, but I don't think TNTP is in the ballpark.


  1. Our super in my home town gave the TNTP 600k to asses our teachers and not surprising their assessment was we suck,