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Experts in Vergara trial endure bumpy rides on the witness stand

Mark Harris | February 13, 2014

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Dan Goldhaber

Dan Goldhaber

As plaintiffs come down the home stretch in the landmark trial Vergara vs. California, attorneys for the nine-student litigants are attempting to underscore key points in their case by calling more expert witnesses.

For two of them, at least, defense lawyers made it as challenging for them as they could today, peppering testimony with objections that called into question the validity of evidence and even the credibility of the witness.

The lawsuit centers on five statutes written into the California education code that the students claim protect ineffective teachers, thereby violating their constitutional right to a quality education. The defendants in the case — the California Teachers Association, the California Federation of Teachers and the state — are trying to show that school districts have other means to get rid of ineffective teachers.

The day started with the return of Dan Goldhaber, a labor-economist at the University of Washington. He had testified on Tuesday that seniority based layoffs that do not take classroom effectiveness into account have harmful effects on student achievement and that value added method is preferable.

But on cross examination today, the defense team scored some points, as Jim Finberg, a lawyer for the unions, asked whether a method that just relies upon student test scores tells the whole story. He asked Goldhaber to confirm an observation he made, writing in a 2002 paper, “The Mystery Of Good Teaching,” that out-of-school factors impact student learning.

Goldhaber conceded that 60 percent of differences in student test scores may be explained by individual and family background characteristics. When asked by Finberg whether teachers become more effective after six-years on the job, Goldhaber said “yes, if value-added” method is used.

Deputy State Attorney Susan Carson followed up, asking about his opinion that seniority based layoffs have even more harmful effects on minority students because younger teachers who may be more effective are often employed in low-income schools. Carson tried to drive her point with statistics showing that in several of 15 California school districts for which they had data, the largest number of teachers with two years of experience or less were not employed in the highest poverty schools.

Goldhaber conceded the point. But what he and Carson both failed to note was that in eight of the 15 districts — including Oakland, San Francisco and San Diego — the largest percentage of such teachers were working in the highest-poverty schools

The defense made plaintiffs’ lawyer Marcellus McRae work even harder with the next witness, Arun Ramanathan, Executive Director of The Education Trust–West, an advocacy group that works to help close the opportunity and achievement gaps for minority and lower income students. Previously, he held teaching and administrative positions in Vermont, New Hampshire and California — including San Francisco, Oakland and Los Angeles.

Ramanathan’s time on the stand became a protracted procedural battle, as defense lawyers challenged his credentials, with arguments that they do not qualify him as an expert for the issues in the case. But when Judge Rolf Treu let him answer — which was most of the time — Ramanathan offered opinions that appeared to help the plaintiffs establish their case.

The thrust of Ramanathan’s testimony was that by a series of measures, African American and Latino students perform worse in the classroom than their white and Asian counterparts, a reality that he insisted was ‘“exacerbated” in high-poverty schools.

Layoffs based on seniority rather than teacher effectiveness erode academic performance even further in those schools, he said.

But on another point, Ramanathan gave the defense some help, acknowledging that school districts have used existing state law to deviate from seniority-based layoffs. As one example, he said the Pasadena Unified School District avoided laying off more senior teachers to retain younger ones involved in a partnership program with California State University.

Cross examination of Ramanathan resumes tomorrow.


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