Friday, April 15, 2016

Vergara Pt. II-- Now What?

So Vergara has now been successfully appealed and overturned by a unanimous decision of judges who actually have some of those critical thinking we're all fond of, recognizing the argument, "There is a bear attacking, so we should shoot the cook" is not a particularly compelling argument.

But what comes next? I don't mean what comes with the next with the case, which I'm sure will be appealed ad infinitum until some judge bonks it on the head with a sledgehammer.

I mean with teacher job protections.

There is no question that Vergara (and the New York case and the new Minnesota case) were breathed to life for one reason and one reason only-- to try to stick it to those damn unions. We know the people-- we've read their articles, talked with them on twitter, seen them in the comments section of a thousand different online conversations. They hate the union. Hate it. They think the roadblock to everything decent and good is the teachers' union, that the teachers' union is a giant scam to make teachers and union reps rich while thwarting the plans of brilliant visionaries who just want to be free to implement their grand design without having to answer to anybody, least of all the hired help. They think that public schools are a scam that the union came up with to suck the taxpayers dry while teachers sit and eat bon-bons and ignore the cries of downtrodden children. They hate the union, and like many people on many sides of many issues these days, they are looking for any argument, no matter how disingenuous and cynically constructed, that can be used to make the union shut up and go away.

These lawsuits are also backed by people who would like to slap teachers down in general, who would like to see the profession reduced to a group of hired hands who do what they're told, speak when spoken to, and are rarely kept around long enough to make trouble. Vergara is about empowering teachers like the attacks on voting rights laws are about empowering voters and attempts to shut down abortion clinics are about protecting women. It is about making sure that those little people, those women who don't do anything but work in classrooms with children all day, know their place and understand that they are Less Than and not as important as people with power and money.

And they are about plowing the field. The farmland that is public education is rich and inviting and there is a line of people who want to plant it with rich cash crops for their own purposes. Teachers are the rocks and trees in that field, making it pleasant and welcoming for a small farm, but presenting annoying obstacles for people who want to factory farm on gthe large scale, thousands upon thousands of acres at a time.

And they are people who simply don't believe that you should have to pay a teacher all that much, ever. If they get too expensive in a tight economy, you should be able to fire the expensive ones to get your costs down.

Vergara is all that.

But it would be a mistake to dismiss every single person who cropped up on the anti-tenure, anti-FILO, anti-job protection side of things.

There are people who see problems (and some of them are teachers) in places where job protections have run amok, either because some board negotiated a bad contract or some administrators don't do their jobs. Under the attack of Vergara, there have been places where conversations have popped up about how, perhaps, the system could be improved and strengthened for teachers and school districts, and there are some places where that conversation really needs to happen.

I believe that the benefits of a seniority-based system are huge. Huge. It incentivizes people to look at teaching as a career, a job to which they can devote their entire life, which in turn encourages them to be the very best they can be and to invest themselves in training and self-improvement. It gives stability and institutional memory to a school, creating ties that bind a community together and making a school a community institution that connects people to a history that matters. It helps draw good people to the work because you may not ever be paid real well, but at least you don't have to spend half your time worrying about losing your job over something stupid. And it protects teachers so that they can do their job like professionals with an educational mission instead of political appointees who are busy trying to suck up to whoever has the power to fire them this week.

At this point we could just say neener-neener to the Vergara fans and walk away. I don't think we should. Well, in some cases we should. Some of them are not interested in serious conversation because they are not interested in better schools, and they never have been.

But I'm a big believer that there's nothing that can be hurt by simply talking about it and considering it and wondering, "If we had a blank slate for this issue, what would we write on it/"

I'm not saying I have a better idea, a proposal I want to sell. Basing job security on student results on crappy tests is an exceptionally crappy idea. We can always play with the probationary period at the beginning of a career, but I haven't seen much to indicate that would really make any difference. We probably should spend more time strengthening what happens in the grey area between a solid teacher and one that needs to be fired. But no, I don't have any particular proposals. I suspect that a FILO system coupled with job protections that mean good teachers can't be fired for bad reasons-- I think that's about as good as it gets.

But by refusing to even talk about it, we fueled things like the Vergara baloney lawsuit. Yes, the people who instigate these things are not operating in good faith, and so no good faith responses will affect them. But I think they attracted many people to their side who are operating in good (if somewhat confused) faith, and there's no reason not to talk to them.

Every classroom should have a great teacher in it. Nobody believes that more than teachers. Nobody understands how complicated and challenging achieving that goal is than teachers, and it's in everyone's interest for us to keep tying to explain just how complicated and challenging that is.

It has been difficult. It is difficult to put forth any argument that feels even a little vulnerable when some folks are charging at you with torches and pitchforks. But for the moment, the courts have told the Vergara wackjobs to put their pitchforks down, and it might be a good time for us to try talking to the people they conned into joining their merry assault. I'm not saying to roll over, play dead, and give up the farm. I'm just saying let's not brush off our hands, say "Glad that's over" and go home. Because first of all, it's not over, and it will never be over as long as there are rich and powerful union-loathing teacher-dissing folks out there (and that will be forever), and because there will always be a need to talk about how to keep the teacher pipeline and school classrooms filled with good people, and that's a conversation we should not walk away from.


  1. It is not clear to me that a seniority based system with tenure encourages the people in the system "to be the very best they can be and to invest themselves in training and self-improvement", especially if salary is independent of observed self-improvement. I think you need to flesh out an argument in favor of that position.

    1. Do you know a lot of people who really want to spend their whole adult lives doing a job poorly?

  2. This is your best and most hopeful post in a long time, Peter.

    I've been feeling what you wrote here for so long. I've also seen the hateful rhetoric on the other side for years and it's so vile and so ignorant and so wrong, that it's tempting to just lump everyone who ever had a complaint about a teacher into the same group and despise them all.

    But there are some teachers that have a lot of growing to do, and we (colleagues, unions) need to be a bigger part of helping them do that. And of figuring out reasonable and effective ways to measure teacher growth and effectiveness, so people who don't know anything about teaching don't think they have to.

    And we also have to admit there is a tiny, tiny number of teachers who have a lot of growing to do, but no interest in growing. We (colleagues, unions) have to lead the charge in figuring out how to identify those teachers and move them out of teaching and into professions (like shilling for school privatization) where being willing to grow isn't so important.

    Because if we don't, we'll continue to have what we have now: People who don't have a clue what good teaching is making these decisions for us and making them badly.

  3. Yes, I agree there needs to be a way to move some teachers out of teaching. While I don't think I work with anyone who should be forcefully removed, I live in a town and pay taxes where the horror stories of what teachers do and say to children is unacceptable. I regret that they have the same protections I do and it makes the issue of what tenure is for, very muddy and confusing. Would I modify my own rights in order to get some teachers out of the classroom who don't belong there? That is a worthy question indeed.
    Any proposals for how to do that?

  4. I find it frustrating that, according to the rephormsters, teachers should police teachers and get rid of bad ones. I can't remember the last time that I've had a chance to observe a fellow teacher teach. Like everyone, I've heard stories about some of our teachers being bad and when I hear similar stories repeatedly from good students, I tend to believe them but I don't actually have first hand evidence since I'm too busy teaching my own classes and our district doesn't have the funds for subs to cover our classes while we are doing classroom observations. It would be great if all teachers had a chance to regularly observe other teachers. I'd love to get ideas from others that could improve my own skills and share my ideas with them. Once I had experience at it then yes, I would be willing to give feedback that could lead to the dismissal of incompetent teachers. Until a program like this can be implemented, observing and removing incompetent teachers falls to administration.