Drawing the Right Lessons from Vergara

Sometimes conflict is the starting point on the path to progress.

That’s one of two possible ways events could play out in the wake of Vergara v. California, a court case that is driving enormous debate throughout the education world.

Brought on behalf of nine public school students, the Vergara case argued that California’s laws on teacher tenure and placement violate the right to an education in the state constitution. The lawsuit claimed that minority and low-income students are deprived of effective teachers by state laws that, in essence, award lifetime employment to teachers after as little as 18 months, and that require layoffs on the basis of seniority.

Last week, a judge agreed, saying these laws deprive students of their civil rights. The decision affirmed the fundamental duty to ensure that all students, regardless of zip code, family income or skin color, receive a quality education – starting with an effective teacher.

The question is, what happens now?

One possibility is a series of appeals, probably stretching across years, and similar suits in other states and districts. Both sides have the millions such a fight would require. Improvements for teachers and students would be slow in coming.

I hope it doesn’t turn out that way.

There’s a second path – which is for all involved to recognize, as the court did, that the status quo is broken, and get to work on alternatives that serve students well – and respect and value teachers and the profession of teaching.

The second path may be harder to achieve. This country has plenty of experience at lawyering up. It has less at finding consensus on tough public issues.

But I am convinced it can be done. There is a common-sense path forward – built on a recognition that the interests of teachers and of disadvantaged students are not opposed, but aligned. With commitment and collaboration, we can create systems that do these vital things:

  • Ensure that disadvantaged students have strong teachers
  • Establish a meaningful bar for teacher tenure
  • Retain the most effective teachers
  • Make it possible to remove teachers who are ineffective, even after a meaningful period of support

Too much of the reaction to Vergara has suggested that the needs of students and of teachers are at odds. On the contrary, both students and teachers will benefit in systems that use wise practices, including high-quality, thoughtful supports and incentives, to ensure that all students – and especially the most disadvantaged — have effective teachers. Students and teachers both benefit when school systems take concrete steps to elevate the teaching profession, to recognize, listen to and learn from the most effective educators, and establish practices and career paths for educators that enable them to hold on to the most effective educators.

Tenure itself is not the issue here. I absolutely support job security for effective teachers. I think it’s vital to protect teachers from arbitrary or ill-motivated job actions. But giving teachers tenure after only 18 months in the job — a practice that Vergara challenged — is not a meaningful bar. Awarding tenure to someone without a track record of improving student achievement doesn’t respect the craft of teaching, and it doesn’t serve children well. Likewise, in the unfortunate circumstances when teachers must be laid off, letting them go solely on the basis of seniority, without taking quality into account, doesn’t serve our students well. Such policies ignore teachers’ effectiveness and undercut the public’s confidence in public education.

Instead, let’s create rewards —and reduce barriers — to attract and keep talented teachers and to develop inspiring school principals, especially in neighborhoods where children need the most help. The challenges that students growing up in poverty bring to school can be enormous. Our school systems should act on that understanding by ensuring that such students have especially skilled teachers, principals, and support staff.

Let’s recognize that as a nation, we have a responsibility to better prepare and support our teachers throughout their careers. Let’s recognize and celebrate the strongest teachers and find opportunities for those who are willing to mentor their peers to do so. Let’s pay teachers in a way that recognizes their real value and importance to our society. Through such steps, we can do a better job of keeping strong teachers at every stage of their career – from promising early-career teachers to accomplished teachers who can mentor their colleagues.

Let’s have a conversation that is national in scope but local in its solutions. Let’s find a way forward that supports both students and educators.

And let’s learn from high-performing nations that translate their respect for the value of teachers into action. These countries pay all teachers well, recognize excellence, and offer pay and career rewards for working with the neediest kids.

Elevating teaching and school leadership is an imperative everywhere in this country, and something we have long worked to support at the federal level.

Our RESPECT blueprint pulled together the thinking of thousands of educators to lay out a vision for how we as a nation can transform the profession of teaching; a new initiative, Teach to Lead, responds to some of their recommendations with new ideas for putting teachers in leadership roles, and builds on the many effective examples of distributed leadership at work in our schools today.  We’ve also collaborated with national education organizations, including the two major teachers unions, to spotlight and learn from examples where labor and management are working effectively together to support students and educators.

We are also putting a strong focus on how we can support states and school districts in more equitably providing great teachers to all students – a focus intensified by the work of our Equity and Excellence Commission. Our new Race to the Top-Opportunity proposal would invest in states and districts willing to tackle persistent, systemic opportunity gaps in access to resources, coursework, and effective educators. And we are promoting policies and making investments that target the many other inequities that can unfairly harm a child’s home life, as well as their education, and reduce their chances of going to college, being successful in a career and contributing to society.

After a dramatic, emotional week, it can be hard to recognize that there’s common ground among people and organizations that tend to be opposite each other in courtrooms, on television and at bargaining tables. But we can align in the fight against academic failure.

It took enormous courage for 10th grader Beatriz Vergara and her eight co-plaintiffs to stand up and demand change to a broken status quo. It’ll take courage from all of us to come to consensus on new solutions.

Arne Duncan is U.S. Secretary of Education and the former CEO of Chicago’s public schools.


  1. One of the problems that I see with the System that you recommend to ensure that disadvantaged students are served properly is that there is no wat to evaluate that the system is fair to teachers and remains objective. Many teachers do not receive standard or differentiated support. Schools do not have the money to provide adequate trainings and the trainings provided by district are too vague and hard to apply in the classrooms. Your term “strong teachers” is impossible to measure because it means different things to different people. The effectiveness of teachers is another controversial issue. The rating of teacher based on observations using recently introduced Danielson framework without appropriate training for principals and teachers cannot be a fair method to evaluate teachers. And using students’ PSSA scores to rate teachers is completely wrong. There are so many factors that affect disadvantage students’ performance on such standardized tests. Every teacher knows that. That’s why we provide differentiated instruction, modifications and accommodations when we teach and test. And don’t even get me started with the unfairness and invalid way to test Special Ed. students and English Language Learners. Haven’t anybody realize that such rating you will penalize Special Ed. Teachers for teaching a historically underachieving group? Regarding your “meaningful” period of support”‘, that’s another term difficult to determine. Teachers are as different as students. Some may need a year and others three years. Who is to decide what period of time is “meaningful”? Just to prove my point. New teachers in Philadelphia get a coach. Because of privacy issues, the coach cannot communicate her observations with the principal. But at the end of the year, the principal recommends if the teachers are ready or if they need more coaching. Does that makes sense to you?

  2. Mr. Secretary, I am puzzled by your attempt to broker discussions about teacher tenure, when there was another California court decision, Renee v. Duncan, where your administration actually reversed a state court decision that said that the Department exceeded its authority in circumventing the “highly qualified teacher” provision in NCLB. So what you did, was adopt a federal law, through the appropriations process, and without any debate that: 1) allows ANY person to be cited as highly qualified before they teach day one, before they are granted tenure, and before the person is evaluated; 2) allows them to be a teacher of record, even with as little as 5 weeks of training; 3) renders the Parent Right to Know provision, where parents have previously had the right to be notified if a teacher did not meet the highly qualified standard, mute because now, every person is of Lake Wobegon status; and 4) affects the most difficult schools disproportionately serving children from poor families. No wonder that your own Office of Civil Rights just recently reported an increase in the number of inexperienced teachers. But there a coalition of over 100 organizations, the Coalition for Teaching Quality, that is having difficulty in reconciling your aspiration to get the best teachers in the most difficult schools with your support of placing the LEAST experienced teachers in these classrooms. Before you tackle tenure after teachers are in the classroom; why not tackle this issue BEFORE they are deemed “highly qualified.” By eliminating this policy in the next appropriations bill, you might build huge credibility as the national tenure broker. It was not the unions or tenure that created barriers to my role as leader when I was a principal; it was policies such as this that came to me top down without my involvement, which created inordinate obstacles.

  3. When students continue to be socially promoted without mastery of prior grade-level standards, so they are objectively unprepared to be taught from secondary onward by single-subject credentialed teachers with a substantive course to teach and no time or skill set for the timely remediation they continue to need, it is downright dishonest to blame the teachers who are in no way responsible for the students being unprepared. If I have a Government course in 12th grade and a student with a 3rd grade reading ability, how is their predictable failure my fault? One could always do what LAUSD and other corrupt districts like it have done around the country and graduate these students and give them a disingenuous diploma- shame on you, you clearly know better and will undoubtedly censor this comment to maintain “the dominant narrative” of great charters and overpaid pervert teachers.

    If you are physically damaged by smoking cigarettes, is that your doctor’s fault? Welcome to Running Man reality where a completely fabricated and dishonest narrative as to what and who is responsible for the continued failure of predominantly minority students is allowed 60 years after Brown vs. Board of Education said, “Separate but equal is inherently unequal”- LAUSD is close to 90% Latino and Black and our jails now have 2.4 million- up from 380,000 in 1978- but this isn’t related to your bogus Race to the Top-No Child Left Behind empty rhetoric?



    Contrary to what was asserted in 2010 with the Reed vs. State of California case, and now with the Vergara vs. State of California case, cutting the budget by attacking tenured teachers at the top of the salary scale is the real motive of both the plaintiffs and the defendants in these put up cases that are anything but adversarial as actually required by law. The well-being of students and their constitutional right to an education has nothing to do with why teacher tenure and seniority are under attack. Corporate interests have gotten behind these two cases with collusive lawsuits against the State of California and the Los Angeles Unified School District as defendants, when these defendants actually share the plaintiffs desire to destroy a professional and fairly compensated teaching force solely for the motive of profit to more and more hedge fund run charters and the further dumbing down of our future electorate, so the average citizen will not have enough of an education to meaningfully comprehend just how badly they are being screwed.

    If “teacher quality and effectiveness” as well as having the best education for students in “high-poverty and high-minority” areas that have not done well in the past was really the issue, insuring an environment of reasonable discipline, while finally eliminating destabilizing social promotion would have been implemented long ago. Most poor and minority students enter LAUSD behind and are never brought up to grade-level in a timely manner, which becomes more impossible as years go by. Inner-city predominantly poor and minority filled schools- LAUSD is 90% Latino and Black- are not just bad for the students, they are toxic for any serious teacher not willing to go along with the complete lack of rigor mindlessly enforced by entrenched LAUSD administration. No secondary single-subject credentialed teacher- whatever their level of seniority- can be expected to teach humiliated students that LAUSD administration continues to put in classes years beyond their objective ability. Clearly this is the recipe for the disaster that LAUSD continues to be, which has nothing to do with teacher seniority.

    The reason that schools like Liechty, Gompers, and Markham Middle Schools, mentioned in the Reed case, were so adversely impacted when it came to loss of predominantly novice teaching staff, was because any teacher with enough seniority wouldn’t be caught dead in a school where there was no support for excellence in education that the plaintiffs in the aforementioned cases supposedly so desperately claim they want in their lawsuit. Any teacher who insists on excellence and has the teaching skill to do it has been systematically targeted over the last 5 years, brought up on fabricated charges, and removed or forced into early retirement.

    Both Reed and Vergara purposefully ignore the context in which seniority-based reductions take place. No mention is made of excellent teachers being completely undermined in a system that values Average Daily Attendance (ADA) payments from the State more than whether the students are actually learning something of value in a timely manner. The fact that 55% of Roosevelt High School students have quit school before ever reaching the 12th grade and that only 30% of the graduating class has the A-G requirements necessary to get them into the University of California schools says it all, but is conveniently ignored in Vergara.

    What is the financial and pedagogic cost of 50% of new teachers quitting LAUSD within their first 5 years of teaching? Why are they quitting? What’s the cost of having to constantly replace that level of attrition to a cash strapped public education system? If the students were really the concern in Reed and Vergara, wouldn’t some of those behind the financing of Reed and Vergara have found more fertile ground in trying to find out why so many initially dedicated teachers leave the profession like they are abandoning a sinking ship. But, alas, one would have to look at those running LAUSD into the ground, instead of scapegoating teachers, while their inept union United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) sits by and does nothing.

    And finally, none of this scam would be possible without the complete complicity of the mainstream and public media, who are owned by some of the same players trying to privatize public education with charters. Supposed charitable trusts like Eli Broad, Bill Gates, and the Waltons control subsidized NPR to the point where NPR will report nothing to contradict what Professor Diane Ravitch calls “the dominant narrative of bad teachers and great charters. What is ultimately at stake is allowing 40% of the state supplied public school budget to go for “charter administration costs,” while allowing the further dumbing down of our future citizens.

  5. I think everyone needs to stand up and build up encouragement for effective and efficient education system. However, Government is working hard to make sure people have what they need to get to where they want as far as education system is concerned. We citizens need to do more to encourage and support the government for better and strong education system. Also, the education system that would meet up the standard and recognize the plan of the government for the future of our children.

  6. First of all, Beatriz Vergara would not have taken this to court without the billionaire behind StudentsMatter doing it for her. There is something deeply wrong when millionaires, whose children go to FULLY FUNDED public schools, or expensive private schools, think that they know best for poor children. Secondly, tenure is about due process, something that this judge doesn’t seem to understand. Of course we need to make sure that good teachers teach all students, including students in poor neighborhoods. But tenure isn’t the problem – lack of funding, an over-reliance on bad tests, poor evaluation processes, lack of support for teachers, along with poverty itself – these are not addressed in any of these “reform” efforts such as this case. I speak as a teacher of 25 years in urban schools. This case, and others that may follow, will do nothing to actually solve educational inequities, and will surely do nothing to entice great teachers to come to underfunded schools. SHAME on you for supporting this.

  7. Here you claim that you want to simply ensure that disadvantaged students have high-quality teachers, but every policy you have put in place — from closing struggling schools, encouraging “turnarounds” where up to half of teachers will be fired, to requiring that teachers be evaluated via test scores, and encouraging schools to increase class size when this is one of the few ways proven to narrow the achievement gap — has sadly had the opposite effect.

Comments are closed.