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The Data Wars Continue

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.

Article by Ruben Navarrette May 9, 2016 //   5 minute read

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.