Thursday, April 14, 2016

New Lawsuit Challenging Teacher Tenure Ignores Basic Facts about Teaching Quality and Segregation

Minnesota is now the third state to entertain the theory that teacher tenure and seniority protections violate students' state constitutional right to education.  Unable to locate the actual complaint, I have had to rely on the initial news reports of the claims, but three points seem pretty clear.  First, the case is modeled on the lawsuits from California and New York and is being funded/coordinated by the same policy and media advocates.  Second, according to the Star Tribune, it claims that "Minnesota laws protect teachers who should no longer be in classrooms, thus preventing thousands of students from getting a high-quality education." Or as one of the plaintiffs' attorneys in the case states, “This is a conversation about students’ fundamental right to an education and the laws that get in the way of that right.” Third, the lawsuit attributes achievement gaps between students to tenure.  “When we look throughout the country at places where there are harmful teacher employment statutes and significant achievement gaps, Minnesota was one of the first states that popped up as a place that could use this kind of help,” said Ralia Polechronis, executive director of Partnership for Educational Justice.

From what I can tell, it also falls victim to all the same simplistic assumptions about teacher quality and equal educational opportunities.  Unless plaintiffs unearthed new data and trends in Minnesota, the plaintiffs have no basis to believe that teacher tenure actually has a negative causal effect on educational opportunity.  As detailed in The Constitutional Challenge to Teacher Tenure, 104 California Law Review 79 (2016), numerous different factors affect teacher quality and educational opportunity.  Prior plaintiffs may marshaled almost no evidence that tenure has any causal effect on the quality of teachers who choose to teach and stay in a particular school, much less evidence that tenure is a significant factor in the quality of education a school offers.  If tenure does not have a significant causal effect, it cannot support a constitutional claim.  It is not enough to argue that tenure is bad policy.  Good or bad, policies of this sort fall within the discretion of the legislature.  

To be very clear, however, none of this is to say that quality teaching does not matter.  Of course, it does.  It matters immensely.  Plaintiffs, however, are either taking advantage of the public's sense of what that basic fact means or they are themselves confusing the notion that quality teachers produce better educational outcomes with the notion that tenure produces poor quality teachers.  First, our schools have been experiencing a national catastrophe in education over the past few years: there are simply not enough teachers to fill open vacancies.  As a result, large numbers of substitutes, uncertified teachers, and individuals simply interested in a new career have been thrown into the classroom.  And states and districts have fought vigorous for those few qualified individuals still on the market.  Getting rid of the so-called bad teachers in classrooms will do nothing to address the fact that there are not any certified teachers waiting in the wings to fill those positions.  In other words, get rid of tenure and fire all the teachers you want.  The quality of teaching in classrooms will not increase.
 
Second and more fundamentally, race and segregation drive unequal access to quality teachers and educational opportunity, not tenure.  For decades, predominantly poor and minority schools have struggled to build quality teaching staffs.  Their problem is not firing teachers.  It is hiring them in the first place.  Even when they succeed in hiring good teachers, they struggle to keep them for more than just a few years, as higher salaries and "more desirable" teaching environments drive them to other schools.  In short, turnover is extremely high in the neediest schools.  The notion that they have stable long-term, low-quality teaching staffs as a result of teacher is fanciful narrative.  They certainly have lower quality teaching staffs, but it has almost nothing to do with tenure. 
 
This focus on tenure is particularly troublesome in Minnesota.  Half a year ago, plaintiffs brought a lawsuit based on the same constitutional clauses that the tenure plaintiffs rely on.  That earlier lawsuit, however, focuses on the right issues.  Segregation and inequality in Minneapolis.  It details a pattern of rapidly expanding charter schools in the metropolitan area that are exacerbating segregation.  In other words, it attacks the real factor driving structural inequalities in teacher quality and various other educational resources. If the tenure advocates really want to help Minnesota's students, they should support that lawsuit and the pressing constitutional issues it raises.

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/education_law/2016/04/new-lawsuit-challenging-teacher-tenure-ignores-basic-facts-about-teaching-quality-and-segregation.html

Racial Integration and Diversity, Teachers | Permalink

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