Vergara witness says state laws governing teachers work
Mark Harris | March 6, 2014
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The battle of the experts continued today in Vergara vs. California as an expert in labor economics and public policy called by the defense provided rationales for keeping in place the state laws governing teachers that are under challenge in the case.
Jesse Rothstein, a professor at Cal-Berkeley and a former senior economist on the U.S. Council of Economic Advisors, testified that the two-year tenure statute was adequate to identify ineffective teachers and still help school districts attract new employees.
He also said a “last-in, first-out” process that favors seniority in times of staff reduction is more fair and objective than so-called “value-added” models that take into account student performance to measure teacher effectiveness.
And he said the dismissal statutes protect teachers against “arbitrary and capricious decisions of employers” who might want to get rid of certain teachers.
These three issues — tenure, dismissal and seniority — are central to the case, which began more than a month ago. The nine student-plaintiffs are trying to show that California’s laws governing the issues combine to deny public education students access to a quality education.
The state and its two big teachers unions — the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers — are trying to convince the court that the laws are fine as they are, posing none of the pernicious effects the plaintiffs claim.
Rothstein’s testimony, under direct questioning by Jim Finberg, representing the unions, was largely focused on opinions derived from his own studies and those of others that took general views on the subjects at issue in the case. Rothstein left the strong impression that he believed the laws, as they are, do not impede academic performance because of ineffective teachers.
But later, under cross examination by Marcellus McRae, the plaintiffs lead lawyer, he admitted that he knew little about how the laws play out in California and that none of his own work specifically reflected public education policies in the state.
He conceded that his familiarity with the California laws went largely so far as reading them after he was invited to be an expert witness for the defense.
As he began, Rothstein told the court that a longer tenure period would make it more difficult to attract and retain quality teachers. A two-year period, he said, helps to retain teachers because it provides a quicker path to job security.
“No one likes getting fired,” he said.
He further testified that extending the evaluation period beyond two years only has incremental benefits and that principals and school administrators have enough information to make tenure decisions by a teacher’s second year of employment.
He said the two-year evaluation period also allows school administrators to remove ineffective teachers from classrooms sooner and helps school districts avoid the higher costs associated with dismissing more senior teachers. He insisted that lengthening the tenure process distracts teachers from focusing on their job, forcing them to concentrate on their evaluation.
When Finberg asked if a longer period four-to-five years would serve as well as California’s two-year statute, Rothstein answered, “It wouldn’t.”
Later, under cross-examination, he acknowledged that in a paper he wrote last year, “Teacher Quality Policy When Supply Matters,” he said that the “optimal time” for assessing teacher performance is three years.
Finberg went on to question Rothstein about the contested dismissal statutes and their impact on attracting quality teachers. He replied that dismissal statutes enhance job security by minimizing the possibility of dismissal for arbitrary reasons.
When asked whether the dismissal statutes serve a legitimate and important governmental interest, helping school districts attract and retain quality educators — another central element to the case — Rothstein said they did.
On the California teachers’ seniority rules, Rothstein told the court that a reverse seniority system is more attractive to teachers because it provides greater job security for both senior and prospective teachers, establishing “clear and objective” criteria for layoffs.
Having such a rule in place, he said, makes it easier to retain good teachers.
On cross examination, McRae focused on what Rothstein conceded was limited first-hand knowledge about how the contested statutes actually work in the state and his opinions about how the laws might be changed.
After pointing to the apparent discrepancy in optimal time for tenure decisions — two years or three — McRae suggested that the witness had no opinion as to whether the California dismissal statutes should be changed. Rothstein agreed.
McRae later suggested that Rothstein had no opinion on whether the last-in, first out statutes should be changed. Again, he agreed.
The cross examination continues when he returns to the witness stand tomorrow.
Previous Posts: In Vergara, a defense witness defends districts’ teacher management; Vergara plaintiffs file a response, asking that the case continues; In Vergara trial, legals positions are a universe apart.