There Is No War on Teachers

By 06/18/2014

2 Comments | Print | NO PDF |

Public schools are constitutionally empowered to educate our next generation, but they often stray from that path to over-emphasize the rights, pay, and benefits of their employees. In a stunning decision, a judge in the California Superior Court has ruled that, because education is a fundamental right of California youth, the laws governing teacher tenure, teacher dismissal and rules for layoffs are unconstitutional. This ruling only applies to California – and surely will be appealed by the teachers union – but it could open up consideration of students’ rights in a larger number of states.

The California laws addressed in the lawsuit advantage teachers at the expense of students. One law requires administrators to make essentially a lifetime employment decision within the first 16 months of a teacher’s being hired, before the teacher has even finished an induction program. Another group of laws creates procedural impediments that make removing an ineffective teacher so onerous and costly that it is rarely done. And, when layoffs are required, a final law requires that decisions cannot take into account a teacher’s effectiveness but must be based entirely on seniority.

The five statutes in question were struck down because the State of California, helped by the California Teachers Association, could not show that the laws in any way supported the education of children. To the contrary, these laws have the effect of retaining and protecting some grossly ineffective teachers – thus, denying equal protection to the unfortunate students who are assigned to them. Moreover, the trial showed that the system is stacked against poor and minority students who are more likely to get the bad draw of teachers.

The teachers unions will undoubtedly fall back on the tired rhetoric that this is a “war on teachers.” But there is no such war. These laws protect just a very small minority of teachers who are harming children and who should not be in the classroom. Indeed, protecting these grossly ineffective teachers seriously harms better teachers who are unfairly tarnished by association with unquestionably bad teachers sheltered by the unconstitutional statutes.

The decision brings into sharp focus the central policy issue of student achievement. As the court noted, students facing grossly ineffective teachers suffer long term economic losses, amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars for each classroom of students subjected to these teachers.

There is also a larger national interest in resolving this problem. The economic future of our nation rests on the skills of our population. My own research suggests that replacing just 5% to 8% of the least effective teachers with an average teacher would noticeably boost the achievement of our current students and would pay off lavishly in the future, through their enhanced productivity and faster economic growth. The gains according to historical economic patterns would be measured in trillions of dollars and would be sufficient to solve our national fiscal problems as well as the vexing income distribution issues currently being debated.

This is not a war on teachers but a straightforward move in what must be a concerted national effort to lift the performance of our students. It is something that the unions should be supporting. They should not be in the position of defending the worst teachers, but instead should be rallying around a national effort to recognize the importance of our schools.

Eric Hanushek is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. He is co-author of “Endangering Prosperity: A Global View of the American School” (Brookings, 2013). He testified for the plaintiffs in the Vergara case.

This first appeared in USA Today.

Comment on this article
  • PhillipMarlowe says:

    This is a bizarre argument at many levels. First: the burden of proof is not teachers and their unions to show that tenure “supports the education of children”; the burden of proof is on the billionaire who brought the lawsuit to show that tenure harms children. And it’s clear that the Vergara case did no such thing.

    There is nothing inherently wrong with policies that support teachers so long as they don’t harm students. If the state wants to save money and protect taxpayers by offering tenure to teachers in lieu of increased wages, they should be able to do so, provided there is no evidence tenure causes harm to children.

    Which brings us to the next problem in Hanushek’s argument: he says the trial showed tenure protects “grossly ineffective teachers” — but the teachers cited in Vergara weren’t ineffective at all. Christine McLaughlin was a Pasadena Teacher of the Year, and the plaintiffs’ treatment of her was self-contradictory:
    • The plaintiffs couldn’t demonstrate teacher incompetence.

    The lawsuit claimed that three teachers were incompetent. I researched them and found that one of them, Christine McLaughlin, was actually named Pasadena’s 2013 teacher of the year. The others have not only received no other complaints, but have been lauded for their dedication to the students. The students claimed McLaughlin didn’t assign them any homework or classwork. McLaughlin brought in the assignments given to class. The plaintiffs (funded by the group “Students Matter”) offered no counterattack to that evidence.

    • The plaintiffs contradicted themselves regarding teacher incompetence.

    When confronted with the evidence that so-called incompetent teacher McLaughlin was named the best teacher, Students Matter claimed she had received four LIFO (Last In First Out) layoff notices over the past seven years and used that as evidence … that she was a good teacher yet got layoff notices.
    Wait, wasn’t this the person they named in the lawsuit as a bad teacher? Of course, she wasn’t laid off, but you can’t have it both ways.

  • PhillipMarlowe says:

    Thomas Piketty Has Eric Hanushek’s Number

    Eric Hanushek, the intellectual godfather of reforminess, testified for the plaintiffs that his research shows that removing the bottom 5 to 8 percent of “ineffective” teachers would generate a bazillion dollars and wipe away the national debt and leave everyone’s breath minty fresh. It’s a nice idea… But there are so many practical considerations missing from Hanushek’s framework that it’s astonishing to think we’d even consider large scale policy changes based on his musings. For example: how do you identify the lowest 8 percent? Where’s the cutoff between 8 percent and 9? Do you have any idea whether the teachers replacing these slackers are any better? What happens to the pool of teacher candidates when you change their compensation (tenure is part of a teacher’s compensation)? How will this affect the distribution of teacher quality across and within districts? What’s the effect of firing misidentified good teachers on the willingness of workers to enter the teaching corps? Will teacher shuffling affect the quality of community-building that goes on in schools? Are teachers equally “effective” in all environments? Hanushek’s models can’t account for all of this ; how could they? And yet Judge Rolf Treu stepped in and overturned state law on tenure based on what is really nothing more than speculation. This strikes me as more than a little rash. – See more at:

  • Comment on this Article

    Name ()


    Sponsored Results

    The Hoover Institution at Stanford University - Ideas Defining a Free Society

    Harvard Kennedy School Program on Educational Policy and Governance

    Thomas Fordham Institute - Advancing Educational Excellence and Education Reform