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The Data Wars Continue

May 9, 2016 5 minute Read by Ruben Navarrette
At its roots, Vergara v. California is about accountability and whether teacher compensation can be linked to student test scores. That is what makes it the latest in a series of ongoing battles over whether and how data should be used to evaluate teachers and improve the educational system.

Photo: Julia Macias, Beatriz Vergara, Elizabeth Vergara and Kate Elliot watch with two of their mothers as Ted Boutrous addresses the media. (Charlie Magovern/Neon Tommy)

San Diego -- The latest in what we might call the data wars comes from California. It was here that parents sued the state after they got so mad about their children being saddled with teachers who did not do enough to drive achievement in their schools.

Filed in May 2012, Vergara v. California alleges that California statutes concerning teacher tenure, layoffs and dismissal of bad teachers deny equal protection to students who are assigned to classrooms being taught by sub-par teachers and have a disparate impact on poor and minority students. This violates the California Constitution, the plaintiffs allege. 

In June 2014, California Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu found for the plaintiffs and ruled that all the statutes were unconstitutional. The decision was appealed by Gov. Jerry Brown, himself a longtime supporter of teachers unions who opposed this suit.

Last month, a three judge panel on the state Court of Appeal reversed the trial court's decision. The panel held that the challenged statutes did not violate the state Constitution.

The plaintiffs have said that they will appeal that ruling to the California Supreme Court.

At its roots, this case is also about accountability and whether teacher compensation can be linked to student test scores. That is what makes Vergara v. California the latest in a series of ongoing battles over whether and how data should be used to evaluate teachers and improve the educational system.

Long before this case surfaced, we witnessed plenty of skirmishes over whether schools should be held accountable for the test scores of their students. The issue remains unsettled. The new question is whether the collection and application of data is now being overridden by laws meant to give teachers job security.

I'm sure that many teachers across California and the rest of the nation care deeply about the progress of their students. And they are free to use data to inform their classroom decisions, including adjusting teaching strategies to accommodate both low-performing and high-performing students.

Also, teacher tenure laws were supposed to be about preserving academic freedom, which is a worthwhile goal. Teachers have to know they could teach what they needed to teach, without fear of losing their job if they said the wrong thing.

But, in practice, some of the more generous laws protecting teacher employment are now really about nothing more than job security. In the Golden State, where a teacher earns tenure after just two years, the process for dismissing a bad teacher is longer and more difficult than for other state employees. And layoffs are based on seniority rather than how a teacher performs.

The teachers unions and other defenders of tenure laws claim that eliminating these statutes would result in lower-quality teachers and make it harder for the profession to attract and retain talented job candidates.

There is only one problem with that argument. Now that those same unions have tossed out student test scores and other measures of performance and done their best to insulate educators within a protective tenure bubble where they can’t be removed for poor performance, how will we ever determine what a higher-quality teacher looks like?

This is the latest case in what is an ongoing struggle to use data to improve education. On and on it goes.

But the case for good, sound data is one worth making.  Without reliable information -- the kind that flows from independent, objective assessments of student progress -- parents won’t know whether their child’s school is producing passionate learners, educators won’t know whether their classrooms are on course, and students won’t know whether they will be ready for the real world.

Americans will be in the dark about all that. And if that is one concept that should be totally incompatible with education, it's darkness.


Author

Ruben Navarrette
Ruben Navarrette

Ruben Navarrette is the most widely read Latino columnist in the country, and the 16th most popular columnist in America according to Media Matters. He is a nationally syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group whose twice-a-week column appears in nearly 150 newspapers, a contributor to USA Today and FOXNEWS.COM, and a columnist for the Daily Beast. On television, Navarrette has appeared on dozens of shows. He also served as a panelist on the PBS’ All-American Presidential Forum in 2007, where he posed questions to Democratic candidates. On radio, he has been interviewed on dozens of local and national shows. He has been a commentator on National Public Radio. He has hosted radio shows in Phoenix, Dallas, San Diego, Fresno, and Los Angeles, and served as guest host for the nationally syndicated “The Michael Medved Show.” He has contributed to The Wall Street Journal, The Denver Post, The Chicago Tribune, Texas Monthly, Hispanic Magazine, Latino Magazine, PODER Magazine, VOXXI.COMTIME.COM, Encyclopedia Britannica, & other publications. A graduate of Harvard College and the John F. Kennedy School of Government, he is the author of "A Darker Shade of Crimson: Odyssey of a Harvard Chicano" (Bantam, 1993). He’s also a contributor to “Chicken Soup for the Writer’s Soul” and “Chicken Soup for the Latino Soul.” He spent 12 years working for US newspapers – The Arizona Republic (reporter/metro columnist), The Dallas Morning News (editorial board), and The San Diego Union-Tribune (editorial board). He’s also a popular speaker on the lecture circuit, having addressed, since 1993, dozens of audiences at universities, conferences, and town halls. He judged the contest for the Pulitzer Prizes in 2013 and 2014, and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in commentary by the Washington Post Writers Group in 2012. Navarrette lives in the San Diego area with his wife, and three children. 

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