Last week’s Vergara decision, where a California judge ruled the state’s teacher tenure law was unconstitutional sent shock waves across the education world. Debates simmered over what the decision would mean for teacher tenure in other states. The big question being asked: Is this the beginning of the end of tenure for teacher’s nationwide?
Time will only tell but it is unlikely teacher tenure will be going away on a mass scale anytime soon. That’s because California has long had some of the most lenient tenure requirements in the country. It was this low bar for obtaining tenure that the judge cited in his decision, which found the state’s teacher tenure laws deprived students of their right to an education under the state constitution and violated their civil rights. Even so, this low bar for tenure may still have passed constitutional muster if they weren’t so closely tied to key personnel decisions such as determining which teachers could be laid off and the ability to dismiss ineffective teachers, which the plaintiffs claimed disproportionately impacted disadvantaged students.
If this decision had happened five years ago I would have predicted a larger ripple effect. However, as our Trends in Teacher Evaluations report found, a number of states have already made the changes to their laws that the Vergara decision found unconstitutional. For instance, 15 states now recommend or require that the results of a teacher’s evaluation—which include measures of student achievement– be included in determining whether a teacher is granted tenure. Moreover, 32 states allow districts to use teacher evaluation results to dismiss low-performing teachers as well. Making such personnel decisions, at least in part, on the basis of teacher evaluation results was almost unheard of just five years ago but now it is almost the norm. This wasn’t the case in California where the state has lagged behind nearly every other state in implementing a comprehensive teacher evaluation system that incorporates measures of student achievement and then enables districts to use those results to make more informed personnel decisions.
With most states in the process of updating their tenure laws it is unlikely the Vergara verdict will elicit a wave of similar court cases. These new teacher evaluation systems are still in the infancy stage in most states and more time is needed to determine how accurate these systems are and how they can best be used to make personnel decisions like granting tenure. As the Trends in Teacher Evaluations report found no two states evaluate teachers the same way, so there is no example yet on how to best evaluate teachers. So while it appears that teacher tenure took a couple steps back in California, it may actually be the case that it will push California forward to catch up to nearly every other state that now uses teacher evaluation results to make personnel decisions like granting tenure. – Jim Hull
Correction July 9, 2014: This entry previously referred to “passing constitutional mustard.” We meant “constitutional muster.” The EDifier was obviously thinking ahead to our 4th of July hot dog instead of reflecting on our youth in Henry VIII’s army.