Home » Uncategorized » Vergara vs. California – A Letter to the SFER-USC Chapter

Vergara vs. California – A Letter to the SFER-USC Chapter

So recently, I unofficially announced that I will be writing an open letter to the members of Students for Education Reform, just like Katie Osgood, wrote an open letter to new Teach for America Recruits.

Strangely, I also recently got an email from a SFER California representative, inviting the members of SFER USC to a meet and greet with SFER’s co-founder Alexis Morin. She also sent this “fact sheet” on Vergara vs. California lawsuit for us to learn about before organizing to support it. In summary, the lawsuit was brought forth by 9 students in California and is funded by StudentsMatter, a corporate education reform organization. Basically, if the plaintiffs win, 5 education due process laws will be eliminated:

  1. One teacher tenure law
  2. Three laws regarding the dismissal process of teachers
  3. One law on seniority (Last In, First Out)

First of all, I was completely shocked by the one-sidedness of the fact sheet and how it failed to take into account so many factors at play. Second of all, I’m not currently in Southern California, so I can’t make the meeting unfortunately. I would have loved to discuss my views in person with SFER members and Ms. Morin.

So instead, I wrote a letter to the members of my university’s SFER chapter, detailing my views on the lawsuit. Good head start on the bigger letter I hope to write I guess. I’m posting it here because I think I sum up most of my main arguments and this could reach other SFER members from other CA chapter potentially. Awareness needs to be spread!

Hopefully, I was able to encourage members to find out more for themselves. Many of them joined when I joined, and were sucked in with the same rhetoric that I was.

I encourage you to read what StudentsMatter (the plaintiffs) have to say about the case, before reading my letter to SFER.

The letter:

Hello USC SFER members,

Sorry to interrupt your summers with this, but I seriously could not believe my eyes when I opened that document. Whoa. Seriously, whoa. 

Let me first say that I really admire the people in SFER. I joined SFER because I want to dedicate my life to inspiring and helping students, and I wanted to start now by being active on key issues within education. Education is an issue I have always been passionate about and I understand that all of you probably share that sentiment as well. We all are here with young, bright minds and empowered hearts, eager to make a positive difference for students everywhere. And as college students, we leverage a unique kind of power to make that change. That’s something very exciting.

Now with that said, as college students just starting to delve into the incredibly complex topic of education, I think that it’s so important to look at ALL sides of any issue and question the information presented to us. There’s so many moving parts, intertwining and working together or against each other. It’s dangerous to blindly accept information thrown at us without viewing it first with a critical lens, because that leads to oversimplification of the issue and an oversimplified, “blanket” solution. I hope you will all agree with me that there is no ONE solution to education. We must target education from all sides.

That’s why the fact sheet that was sent out really alarmed me. It was very one-sided and didn’t take into account the bigger picture. I am afraid some members will blindly support without looking into the case carefully and other alternatives.

So in the spirit of open discussion, I’d like to present my thoughts on the issue for anyone who wants to learn more. Of course, go out and research the exciting world of education yourself! There’s a lot out there 🙂 Also if you have questions, concerns, or rebuttals, feel free to contact me!

In a nutshell, I think this case is a waste of time and money that could be directed towards better solutions rather than setbacks. I came to this conclusion after a lot of research. Here’s what I found:

Vergara vs. California aims to make sure every student has the right to a great education, which the plaintiffs (funded by a corporate education reform organization called StudentsMatter) believe means getting rid of due process laws that affect and protect teachers. There are 5 laws targeted: one tenure law, three dismissal laws, and one seniority law. Getting rid of these laws would result in “ineffective” teachers being fired more quickly and no overall protection for teachers. They say that this will then make teaching become a more respected and prestigious profession.

This sounds all fine and dandy, but I’m ultimately arguing that the solution to “reforming” education does not involve eliminating “ineffective” teachers first. Rather, it begins with eliminating high-stakes testing and devoting additional attention to building better communities around schools. I’m going to take a long path to argue this, but I hope the path is clear.

Whenever looking at education, it’s important to look at both in-school factors and out-of-school factors on a student’s education. Let’s start with the out-of-school factors, which are virtually absent in any discussion about “education reform”. Education reformers (I’m talking about the adults who fund SFER, not SFER members) argue that targeting the in-school factor of teacher quality will make the biggest difference in reforming the education system. You can literally look at the websites of any “Education Reform” organization like StudentsMatter, StudentsFirst, or Teach for America (oh the irony) to find this information. They don’t hide it. Their main goal is to ensure that students are taught by a force of highly skilled and effective teachers.

That is a very noble goal. It is one that we should strive for. Teacher quality is important. As an aspiring teacher, and as someone who’s had amazing teachers who believed in me and helped me tremendously, I understand this. I think that good teachers (along with abundant and skilled school counselors) are the most important in-school factor on a child’s performance.

But it isn’t the most important factor overall. Research shows that no matter how effective a teacher is, they won’t be able to completely undo the effects of poverty and socioeconomic inequity on a child. Countless evidence proves this. You can find that evidence herehereherehereherehere, and most of all, HERE. For a shortcut, just take a look at this wonderful article by Pasi Sahlberg, a world leading expert on school reform.

Salhberg is also from England and if you haven’t already heard, Finland basically kicks every country’s ass when it comes to education, and they do it without standardized testing or without tearing apart unions. Instead, they focus their attention on professionalizing the teaching profession and helping teachers improve, along with building up communities, eradicating poverty, and providing students with comprehensive social services outside of school. To sum up the article, if Finland’s highly skilled and experienced teachers taught in the US, student test scores wouldn’t change. 

It’s often said that once we solve the issue of education, most other societal problems will be solved. That’s probably because if we ever want to give students a better education, we need to also simultaneously tackle other societal problems that put pressure on our students.

I’m not saying that poor kids are incapable of learning as much as their wealthier peers. Quite the opposite actually. Poverty is not personal; it’s structural. If we really cared about our students and if we really believed in their abilities, we would invest in them fully. That means building strong communities and healthy environments along with building great schools. Both are required. If you still don’t believe me, at least listen to a fellow reformer that you might all know. Comprehensive social services and community building programs are the secret ingredient to what makes Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem’s Children Zone so successful. And if you check back at some of the links I listed above regarding studies about poverty’s effect on schools, you’ll see that countries with strong education systems focus on economic equality MOST. They understand that building strong schools starts with building stronger communities.

Ignoring poverty as a large factor in education unfairly shifts blame to teachers, and creates a gross oversimplication of the bigger issue. Now is tackling poverty the only solution needed? Of course not. My argument is that we need to properly and effectively tackle both out-of-school and in-school factors simultaneously.

Now let’s look at the in-school factors. The plaintiffs of the Vergara vs. California case argue that teacher quality needs to be looked at carefully. But I’m going to state this plain and simple, how the hell can we look at it carefully without evaluating it accurately?

Laws currently mandate that teacher effectiveness be measured with student test scores. That is a load of bullshit and any student and educator can tell you that. All that has led to is teachers being fired, teachers being forced to teach to the test, and teachers resigning because it is a completely disrespectful demeaning of their profession. If most of us can agree that a test score does not holistically and accurately capture student performance, and if we know that out-of-school factors affect student performance, why the hell would we attach such high stakes to test scores and put very skilled teachers’ jobs at risk? Learning cannot be quantified, standardized. Neither can teaching. Assessment is not a spreadsheet, it’s a conversation.

The first step is to invest in building a more equitable method of teacher evaluation. Something that is much more holistic, well-rounded. Something that encourages growth, gives constructive advice for improvement, and involves both student voice (project portfolios, class evals) and teacher collaboration (peer evals, third-party educator observations). (This email is getting long so you can look at my ideas more in-depth here and here.

Until that happens, I don’t think we can get rid of laws that protect all of our teachers. With the way teachers are being evaluated now, our schools districts will lose some very good teachers because of factors beyond their control. This is harmful to students as well and if we really want to put students first then we NEED to change the structures in which they learn and in which teachers teach. That means ending high stakes testing AND devoting more attention to bravely confronting structural issues of poverty and economic inequity.

Now, you’re probably thinking, “But this court case came about because students were abused their teachers!” I understand that. I am very glad students spoke up and that these “teachers” are being brought to light. Student voice is very important to consider and it’s something I value A LOT. I think it is a very important aspect of holistic teacher evaluation. We should trust our students to make fair judgments about their teachers.

But instead of using these incidents to shed light on the effectiveness of student voice in teacher evaluation, the court case takes it to the extreme in the wrong direction and aims to destroy due process laws for teachers that protect them against things like… oh I don’t know, terribly inaccurate methods of evaluation and attacks from people who’ve never step foot in a classroom.

Yes, I understand that while teachers’ unions do protect good teachers, we all know they protect bad ones too. I’ve had not-so-great teachers before. I get it. But this is why we need fair methods of evaluations first.

Now I’m just going to quote myself because this is a topic that I’ve written extensively on before, and I think these two paragraphs sum up the point well:

There are a few (and only a few) teachers out there who actually ineffective. Teachers who enter the field reluctantly (or with ulterior motives… cough cough Teach for America recruits) and don’t actually want to be teachers, teachers who abuse and commit unmentionable offenses against students, and teachers who engage in illegal activity with students. These teachers are a disgrace to the teaching profession and I don’t think the other dedicated and passionate teachers in a teachers’ union want to associate themselves with such “teachers”.

I think unions right now are more adamant about protecting their teachers because their profession is being completely disrespected by corporate reformers and their jobs are being threatened by very unfair and incomplete methods (if you can even call it a method) of evaluation. Once we revolutionize the system in which these teachers teach, and we actually let them teach and then evaluate them holistically (once again incorporating student voice and teacher collaboration/peer evaluation… I really cannot stress this enough), then unions can work on refusing job protection to teachers who simply are not teachers and are not willing to improve themselves. Together we can foster a force of revitalized, passionate, and committed educators.

One last word: Getting rid of laws that protect all teachers de-professionalizes the teaching profession. Quantifying teaching, which is an art as much as it is a science, disrespectfully demeans the profession. Implementing robust and fair evaluation systems that foster a strong force of highly skilled, professionally trained teachers brings prestige to the profession.

Thank you for reading 🙂 I hope I’ve offered an enlightening alternative to lobbying for this lawsuit and that some of you will consider looking at the other side of education reform. I encourage you to continue your learning journeys through the field of education. Your passion and commitment to American education is something very beautiful and powerful; please do not allow anyone to use your passion and drive for their corporate agenda. Please continue to learn more and become informed activists!

Miledy, as you know I cannot make it to the meeting. I hope my words reach the discussion somehow, or that some members will consider these points of view in their educational policy learning journeys.

Love and solidarity,

Hannah Nguyen

Questions, comments, and concerns are always welcome!

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1 Comment

  1. David B. Cohen says:

    Sorry for the semi-duplicated comment here. I just left one on another post and then realized that I meant to share this link on this page, offering some additional information and perspective on the Vergara case.
    http://accomplishedcaliforniateachers.wordpress.com/2013/06/03/education-policy-litigation/

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