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More than just teachers affect learning, Vergara expert says

Mark Harris | March 19, 2014

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Ken Futernick Vergara Trial Day 29 3.19.2014

Ken Futernick

An expert on the the role that teachers play in academic performance today became the latest defense witness in Vergara v California to testify that students in high-poverty area schools face higher challenges to learning.

Ken Futernick, Director of the WestEd School Turnaround Center, a research organization, and a former professor of education at California State University, Sacramento, told the court that such factors as ill-prepared teachers, poor working conditions in the school and high turnover among teachers and administrators make it difficult to attract and retain effective teachers, thus adversely affecting academic achievement.

The testimony supports a major contention of the defendants, that it’s not exclusively the caliber of teachers that affects learning; it is also external conditions that bear on a student’s ability to learn.

Defendants in the case, the state and teacher unions, are trying to prove that these other factors make it difficult for the nine-student plaintiffs to show that state laws governing teacher dismissal, seniority and tenure should be struck down as impediments to a quality education.

Futernick provided several statistics to support his opinions. He testified that 22 percent of new teachers in California leave the profession after four years and that the percentage of teachers who transfer out of high-poverty schools is twice that from low-poverty schools, He said 20 percent of new principals in urban school districts leave after just two years and pointed to the Oakland Unified School District as an extreme: There, he said, 44 percent of new principals leave the field after just two-years.

The effects of this high turnaround, he said, impact both student learning and teacher development and damages a school’s ability to provide a stable learning environment.

Futernick further testified that high-poverty schools have a harder time filling vacant positions, leading to a greater number of teacher mis-assignments — a math teacher assigned to an English class, for example — and these mis-assignments, he told the court, have a negative impact on student learning.

The assistance Futernick provided the defense might have been undercut to a degree during cross examination by Kyle Withers, who solicited an acknowledgement from him that none of his research or opinions related directly to the statutes at issue in the case.

Earlier, the plaintiffs’ wrapped up their cross examination of Lynda Nichols, program consultant with the California Department of Education.

Plaintiffs’ attorney Marcellus McRae attempted to show that a teacher considered by the state as “highly qualified” for having a teaching credential does not always equate with being effective.

Judge Rolf Treu intervened and asked Nichols, “Are all teachers who are credentialed effective?”

“Unlikely,” she said.

Another witness today was James Webb, an English teacher from the William S. Hart Union High School District in Santa Clarita and a consulting teacher for the district’s performance review program for first-year teachers.

He told the court he could decide within three months whether a new teacher would meet program standards — testimony the defense used in support of its claim there is sufficient time to make decision on tenure within the two-year statutory framework.

On cross examination, plaintiffs’ attorney Josh Lipshutz, tried to minimize Webb’s testimony by pointing out his experience is limited to one school district among hundreds in California.

The day ended with the start of testimony by Vivian Ekchian, who was recently named Chief Human Resources Officer for LA Unified.

While the district withdrew as a defendant in the case before the trial started, she was called by the defense in an effort to impeach the testimony of a plaintiffs’ witness, Nicholas Melvoin, a former LA Unified teacher at Markham Middle School in Watts, who had testified last month that teacher layoffs in 2009 resulted in effective teachers being dismissed and morale at the school eroded.

“It was a toxic environment,” he said.

During a rather contentious examination, defense lawyer Jonathan Weissglass tried to show that problems at Markham were created by ineffective school administrators, not the challenged statutes.

Ekchian is scheduled to return to the stand on Friday, so the defense’s final witness, Linda Darling-Hammond, a Stanford professor and expert on education policy, can start and complete her testimony tomorrow.

Previous Posts: Vergara witness says streets more than teachers shape academicsA witness in Vergara v California urges seniority over ‘effectiveness’Ex-district chief tells Vergara court teacher laws don’t interfere.

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