Teachers Have a Respect Problem. Guess Why?

There’s big lawsuit in California. With the backing of a group called Students Matter, nine public school students from across the state are suing, in Vergara v. California, arguing that state laws make it so hard to to fire bad teachers in public schools that many students, especially black and Hispanic ones, can’t get a “basic” education. Plaintiffs says this is about ensuring teacher quality. The opponents say this is about the labor rights of teachers.

But there’s a problem with this lawsuit. For even if one accepts that students have some right to decide what does or does not make a good teacher, this lawsuit will not result in better education. It can’t. That’s because a lawsuit ostensibly about “improving the teaching profession” will ultimately do nothing but make the teaching profession more unattractive and unstable.

Consider this. According to a recent piece in the New York Times:

Lawyers for the students named in the case, Vergara v. California, have argued that California students are subject to an unfair system that deprives them of a fair education, which translates into the loss of millions of dollars in potential earnings over their lifetimes.

Under California law, teachers are eligible for tenure after 18 months on the job, and the teachers who are hired most recently are the first to lose their jobs during layoffs. School administrators who try to dismiss a teacher with tenure for poor performance must complete a lengthy procedure.

Surely there are quite a few bad teachers, but are bad teachers the cause of low achievement? It’s hard to tell.

Lawyers for the state and the teachers’ unions say that while the plaintiffs have relied on complicated algorithms and emotional speech, they have done nothing to prove that students’ constitutional rights are being violated by existing teacher employment laws. In fact, the state’s lawyers argued in closing briefs, one of the teachers cited by plaintiffs as “grossly ineffective” was awarded “Teacher of the Year” by the Pasadena school district.

It’s sort of hard to tell what an “ineffective” teacher really looks like.

In fact, of the primary reason for teacher success, and this is a little debatable, but bear with me, is the confidence they have in their own jobs. This is not some woofty Education Graduate program talk, this is true of all jobs. People perform better when they feel respected and valued in those jobs.

And teaching has a huge respect problem. As Anya Kamenetz put it in this publication last week:

About 70 percent [of teachers] are classified as disengaged…. This is surprising in some ways, because teachers score close to the top on measures that indicate that they find meaning in their life and see work as a calling. Unfortunately, the structures that teachers are working in-which may include high-stakes standardized testing and value-added formulas that evaluate their performance based on outside factors-seem to tug against their happiness. “…They don’t feel their opinions matter,” [the executive director of Gallup Education] says. K-12 teachers scored dead last among 12 occupational groups in agreeing with the statement that their opinions count at work, and also dead last on “My supervisor creates an open and trusting environment.”

Now, why might they feel like they’re not respected? Why might have feel like they’re not valued in their profession? Perhaps lawsuits focused on making it easier to fire teachers, and the fact that policymakers see low quality teachers as the primary cause of low education performance, have something to do with this respect problem.

And making it easier to fire teachers wouldn’t magically result in better teachers; it would just result in higher teacher turnover, which would also be bad for students.

If teachers did feel respected they’d be sort of delusional, wouldn’t they?

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer