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Commentary: Vergara case is chance to break impasse in 3 steps

Guest contributor | February 6, 2014

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problems-solutions-blackboard-300x199By Mike Stryer and Arielle Zurzolo

While the judge’s ruling in the Vergara vs. California case about educational equity remains weeks away, one verdict is already in: California suffers from a toxic polarization on educational issues that harms both students and the teaching profession. Ironically, though, the case may provide a unique window for unprecedented collaboration around teacher quality issues.

While parents and community members seek real solutions to the challenge of ensuring an effective teacher in every classroom, all too many “reformers” and “teacher unions” have used the Vergara case to launch unproductive, divisive attacks.

Reformers often portray unions as essentially dedicated to protecting “bad” teachers through restrictive legislation and byzantine dismissal processes. In its extreme, reformers view teacher unions as serving only teachers, while ignoring students. At the same time, teacher unions often view reformers as union-busters, seeking to both eliminate hard-earned due process rights and silencing the voice of teachers through intimidation. In its extreme, teacher unions view reformers as focusing exclusively on students, while ignoring teachers.

This inflammatory rhetoric has prevented meaningful dialogue around issues of equity, teacher quality and elevation of the teaching profession. The good news is that the Vergara case may provide the perfect opportunity to identify convergent interests that would benefit both students and teachers.

As former teachers and union leaders, we see at least one deeply ingrained practice that makes collaboration around teacher quality issues virtually impossible. Specifically, teacher union and district leaders have allowed teacher quality issues to remain the exclusive domain of administrators. Why? Because firmly embedded in most teacher unions’ DNA is the taboo against involving teachers in evaluation of fellow teachers/union members- despite unions’ agreement that current classroom teachers are the “real experts.”

As a result, most teacher unions have ceded complete control on teacher quality issues and related personnel actions. At the same time, many district-level policy-makers remain wary about weakening administrators’ essential monopoly over teacher quality issues.

Given this monopoly, the varying quality of administrators, and the lack of joint ownership by teachers around performance issues, teachers are deeply distrustful of evaluations and, especially, personnel decisions based on evaluations. Not surprisingly, we see statutes such as tenure, seniority, and costly, complex and time-consuming dismissal processes- all of which reflect the failure of authentic joint ownership over teacher quality issues.

To break this impasse, we call on legislators and educational leaders to simultaneously take a leap of faith and show genuine openness to a key paradigm shift:

1. Teacher unions must abandon their de facto prohibition against “peer evaluation” and allow our strongest teachers to play an integral role on teacher quality issues (including on dismissal actions). Specifically, teachers should actively participate in development of a clear, common understanding of effective teaching and work with administrators in formal evaluation of peers in similar grades/content areas. Teachers should share ownership with administrators in Peer Assistance and Review programs that both support struggling teachers and make final, binding personnel decisions (including decisions on exit from the teaching profession). Similar programs have been executed successfully in the Poway and San Juan School districts here in California.

All of this can be accomplished without weakening collaboration amongst teachers or lessening union unity. Just as the medical and legal professions take ownership for the professionalism of their members, the teaching profession must do the same;

2. Teacher unions must show openness to modifying antiquated structures (e.g., use of seniority as the sole factor in personnel decisions), with the emergence of a more trusted, collaborative evaluation process;

3. Educational leaders must be willing to share significant power with proven master teachers on evaluation/teacher quality issues. Implicit in this is the recognition that administrators should not be the sole arbitrators of teacher quality and that both administrators and teachers need to take joint ownership of teacher performance issues in the best interests of students.

If the ruling in the Vergara vs. California case strikes down some or all of the challenged statutes, there will be a unprecedented opportunity for both sides to jointly craft legislative changes that ensure more equitable access to effective teaching. These changes absolutely can benefit both students and the teaching profession- but only if we are willing to take bold steps that move us away from destructive polarization and towards recognition that there must be path-breaking joint ownership over teacher quality issues.

Mike Stryer and Arielle Zurzolo both work for Teach Plus, a national not-for-profit focused on equitable access to quality teaching. Stryer taught at Fairfax High School and served as UTLA Chapter Chair. Zurzolo taught at Green Dot Public Schools and served as the President of AMU, Green Dot’s teacher union.

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