EDGES BLOG: The Bad Teacher Fantasies of Corporate Education Reform

Cultural Studies PhD candidate J. Scott Killen uses the January 27th, 2014 Vergara vs. California case as an entry point to discuss the intersection between "bad teachers" and constitutional rights. Read below for his take.

On January 27th, Vergara vs. California began hearing testimony in Los Angeles County Superior Court. The lawsuit against the state of California, the California Teachers Association (CTA), and the California Federation of Teachers (CFA) was filed on behalf of Beatriz and Elizabeth Vergara and 7 other student-plaintiffs who claim to have suffered through several bad teachers, thus violating their Constitutional right for equal protection—which includes an adequate, equal education.

The suit, initiated and orchestrated by the nonprofit organization Students Matter, seeks to deem three laws unconstitutional: the permanent employment statute (tenure), current dismissal statutes (the processes by which teachers are dismissed), and the layoff statute (which grants job seniority according to years of service). Such laws, the argument goes, allow ineffective teachers to continue teaching, especially in socioeconomically disadvantaged schools. Thus, we must remove these laws to fire bad teachers in poor schools, offering everyone equal educational opportunities.

Sounds reasonable, right?

Like so many neoliberal mythologies, the narrative surrounding this case is coherent, elegant—and patently false.

For private-sector workers unacquainted with the logic behind teacher tenure, this sophist narrative may seem perfectly sensible, even natural: Isn’t it necessary to remove bad workers? Isn’t that just the way the world works? As I will attempt to show, however, this most recent attack on teacher protections is anything but practical, efficient, or cost-effective (as the plaintiffs would have us believe): it is political and ideological. The real problem that requires address is not one of firing bad teachers, but of keeping good ones.

Money Matters 

Although draped in a thin veil of grassroots activism, this lawsuit is far from a plebian outcry. Despite being filed under the names of 9 real students, the impetus, the financing, and the planning behind this case can be traced back to Students Matter, an organization founded by the wealthy David Welch out of his own personal frustrations. As reported by David Callahan, Welch became interested in the fight over tenure through dealings with his children’s public school; he was displeased with how hard it is to dismiss supposed bad teachers. Prior to 2010, Welch had never made a campaign contribution to either major political party,nor did he have any major financial stake in for-profit education or the standardized testing industry.

Welch, with a PhD in electrical engineering, founded Students Matter in 2011 with the stated goal of “creating positive structural change in the California K-12 public education system.” Since then, he has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to various foundations associated with corporate education reform, like Michelle Rhee’s Students First Foundation. This seems to be paying off for his lawsuit as he has garnered support from both Students First and Parent Revolution, the group that concocted parent trigger laws. Other funding has come from groups known for attacking teacher unions, like the Los Angeles entrepreneur Eli Broad, and the powerful legal team for Welch’s case includes Theodore Olson, the former US solicitor general for George W. Bush. Ted Mitchell, recently appointed for the #2 position in the Department of Education by President Obama, is also a member of Students Matter and a supporter of the plaintiffs in the Vergara trial. Mitchell, like many of Welch’s new connections, has strong ties to the school privatization movement.

Despite his inactivity before 2010, it seems clear that Welch is now interwoven within a larger, synchronized corporate education reform movement that supports the proliferation of charter schools, the use of value-added models to evaluate teachers, high-stakes standardized testing, and the general diminution of teachers’ labor protections.

So the orchestration of this lawsuit did not come from a collaboration of concerned parents. It did not come from meticulous research in the fields of Education or Public Policy. Nor was it refined through the trials of rigorous debate in the public sphere. Rather, one solitary millionaire—without any notable expertise in education, public policy, or even the schools in his local community—was able to initiate the whole circus with the support of his new connections within the corporate education reform movement: a political movement whose members stands to gain hundreds of billions of dollars if their agenda is successful.

It is safe to assume that this lawsuit would never have been raised except for the pursuit of a small, but moneyed, group of individuals like Welch—highlighting once again the undue influence of money on our politics, its ability to exert power over public life.

Real-World Problems

With any sleight of hand, the trick is always to direct the attention of the audience, to have them look here rather than there. Likewise, the focus on a handful of bad teachers draws attention from many of the real problems facing public education today.

Consider the enormous gap in funding between rich and poor schools. According to a 2013 report by the Equity and Excellence Commission, the disparity between per-pupil spending in California is one of the highest in the country at roughly 3-to-1; The poorest districts spend roughly $6,000 per pupil, the richest $18,000. As reported by the National Education Association, California’s average per student spending is roughly $2,500 below the national average—much less than comparable states like New York and Massachusetts. Furthermore, the financial crisis led to massive personnel reduction in California, both staff and teachers.

Alternatively, one could consider the number of children living in poverty. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, the percentage of children living in impoverished families has increased by 6% from 2000 to 2011. The Southern Education Foundation estimates that 54% of all California students are living in low-income families, the highest percentage on the West coast.

One would think that making sure all of California’s schools are sufficiently funded and that children are adequately housed, fed, and have sufficient healthcare would be more important than eradicating teacher tenure or expediting the teacher dismissal process, but Welch and his associates would rather divert our attention. Thus, the emphasis on “bad teachers” draws us away from larger systemic problems running amok in our society: the ongoing disinvestment of the public sphere, the emergence and growth of various inequalities, and child poverty itself.

A Costly Quitting Spree

Within the more focused arena of education policy, the fantasy of the bad teacher both juxtaposes and effaces another real problem challenging our schools, not the problem of bad teachers staying, but of good teachers leaving: the crisis of teacher attrition.

According to a report by the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, one-third of new teachers leave the profession within 3 years, and 46% leave within 5 years. As of 2012, teacher job satisfaction reached a 25 year low. Although it is true that US high school teachers earn much less than the OECD average while also working longer hours, this does not seem to be the most prominent reason for leaving. In fact, job dissatisfaction is by far the most cited reason for quitting the profession. As stated by Cynthia Kopkowski of the National Education Association, teacher attrition is high due to an overemphasis on standardized testing, unsupportive staffs, poor pay, and lack of respect.

This loss of qualified and experienced teachers is exceedingly destructive on several fronts.

On a basic pedagogical level, this means that inexperienced educators are always replacing experienced teachers. Instructors who know their material and have refined their technique are choosing to leave—or being pushed out by the crescendo of demands and slanders placed on their heads. At-risk schools are hurt the most from this.

In addition to pedagogical concerns, teacher attrition is extremely expensive. According to the Alliance for Excellent Education, teacher turnover costs California over $450 million a year in recruitment, training, and processing. And this number doesn’t include retirees. With only 100 teacher dismissal hearings in California between 1996 and 2005, the cost of teacher turnover to the state is astoundingly higher than the current cost of dismissing teachers.

These figures suggest that one of the biggest dilemmas facing public education is the reduction of teacher attrition, not the removal of tenure and other labor protections. Yet, during an attrition crisis where we should be paying our teachers more, scolding them less, and finding new ways of supporting their work to keep them in the classroom, corporate education reformers would rather make it easier to fire instructors—to take away one of the only benefits that makes teaching an attractive profession.

Synecdoche of Destruction

In the current trial, the Vergara sisters have made some serious allegations concerning 3 of their past teachers. 15-year-old Beatriz Vergara, for example, claimed that her bad teachers couldn’t control their classes, simply didn’t care, or verbally abused their students. If these allegations are true, then certainly corrective actions should be taken. However, current California education codes already call for immediate suspension and dismissal for these violations. Why, then, attack tenure? And, more specifically, why attack labor protections belonging to all educators, both the “bad” and good?

The plaintiffs want everyone to think that tenure—and other labor rights—creates lethargic teachers who stop performing once vested. However, research shows that this is not true. As stated by Stanford’s Center for Research on Educational Outcomes, charter schools without teacher tenure have been found to perform no better (perhaps worse) than comparable public schools with teacher tenure. Furthermore, states without binding teacher contracts perform much worse on national assessments than states with the protection of a binding contract. Thus, not only is the alleged “bad behavior” paraded through the Vergara trial anecdotal, but the assertion that tenure leads to bad behavior is mendacious as well.

The sketchy fantasy of the bad teacher, then, acts as a synecdoche that stands in for all teachers, justifying the systematic destruction of labor protections that have spanned over 100 years. Like the fabricated “welfare queen” narrative of the 1980s, the “bad teacher” mythos is deployed to attack protections that are widely beneficial: a bludgeon used to beat public opinion into shape.

Empirically, however, the “bad teacher” is little more than an unsubstantiated spirit: a ghost deployed by privatizers to achieve a lucrative agenda. But as narrative, bad teacher fantasies also resonate with the beliefs, experiences, and frustrations of citizens—making such accounts all the more dangerous.

For advocates of the corporate education reform movement, this trial represents an important battle in the war on teacher unions. Teachers’ unions are among the few social blocs that can effectively oppose the corporate campaign for a profit-driven education system. Accordingly, any assault that drains valuable resources from these unions can be counted a victory: Better to attack tenure than risk a fight over new rights, improved benefits, or higher wages. “The best defense…” as the aphorism goes.

All told, the outcome of Vergara vs. California will have widespread implications that will deeply affect the arena of educational policy in our nation. However, it must also be said that this trial represents much more than a mundane policy debate. It speaks to labor and politics, profits and ideology, obfuscation and fantasy: Everything except education itself. Unless teachers, parents, and students form broad collations to actively shape schooling in their communities, the corporate education reform movement will continue to drive such conversations—all the way to the bank if we let them.