Tenure reform must focus on students, not teachers

This was originally published in the Daily Trojan on Feb. 12, 2014.

Vergara vs. California, a case currently being argued in an L.A. courthouse, could reshape the relationship between students, teachers and schools. The lawsuit, which was filed on behalf of nine students in the Los Angeles Unified School District, seeks to revamp the teacher dismissal and tenure process in the district, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The nation’s second largest school district presently has several policies in place that make the process of becoming a tenured teacher much easier than firing one. Tenure, the process of giving a teacher a permanent post in a school, was originally intended for professors in schools of higher education but expanded to include teachers in public schools. In addition, the lawsuit seeks to eliminate the “last hired, first fired” policy which states that in cases when the school district seeks to lay off teachers, the most recently hired teachers will go first.

Today, approximately 2.3 million public school teachers in the United States have tenure, according to Time. Though tenure does not guarantee a lifetime of employment, it makes it more difficult for the school district to fire an incompetent teacher. The plaintiff’s argument largely focuses on the disadvantage tenure creates for students in low-income and failing schools. They argue that those students already have a small teaching pool and any ineffective faculty further disrupts the already difficult learning process many students face.

L.A. schools Superintendent John Deasy is a proponent for the reformation of tenure laws. He testified that the time frame for granting tenure is not long enough to see how effective and fit a teacher is in the classroom. The California Teachers’ Association has pushed back by saying that eliminating tenure laws will not address the root of the problem, which lies with the school districts.

The public debate surrounding tenure and job security has been taking place for years. The media and protests, such as the 2010 Waiting for Superman documentary that focuses on the U.S. education system and the 2012 teachers’ strike in Chicago that drew nationwide attention and affected more than 350,000 kids, helped progress the conversation. Eventually, however, the excitement of it faded away.

This court case, which is in its third week of trial, has the power to really change the tide in the conversation and create a definitive — and divisive — ruling on tenure, at least here in Los Angeles. According to the LAUSD official website, the school district boasts approximately 640,000 students enrolled in K-12 at 115 campuses across the city.

Though teachers have limited power and should be compensated for their hard work, the status quo should be improved. More efficient incentives can be made.

Tenure should not be handed out so easily. There is no doubt that being a teacher is an incredibly rewarding position, but also one of the most draining career paths a person could choose. Yet this does not equate to immunity.

In several other public service positions, such as the police department and fire department, accountability to constituents is a necessity to keep the system functional. In the same way, teachers must constantly be evaluated and kept on their toes because their jobs will inevitably shape the minds of the country’s future leaders.

Within U.S. schools, like with many other institutions, there is inequality. Teachers, just like any other profession, like to have job security. Students, as with any other step in their young lives, need the knowledge that comes through teachers and a solid education. By extending the average amount of time it takes for a teacher to gain tenure, the nation can fulfill its promise to students that the best experience in school can be afforded to them — regardless of economic background.

The most important decision that can come from this case is the decision to move forward and seek reform. The judge’s ruling either in favor or opposition to California teacher tenure should not discourage teachers, parents and school districts from trying to find a way to improve their students’ learning experience by providing them with the most qualified instructors possible.

Jordyn Holman is a sophomore majoring in print and digital journalism. Her column, “Making the Grade,” runs Wednesdays.

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