Former superintendent backs tenure, layoff laws as defense opens in 'Vergara' lawsuit
March 5, 2014 | By John Fensterwald | 15 Comments
A former superintendent of three school districts defended the current laws for granting teachers tenure, dismissing ineffective teachers and conducting layoffs based on seniority as the defense began in Vergara vs California, the lawsuit putting employment protections for teachers on trial.
Robert Fraisse, a 40-year educator who’s currently a Distinguished Educator in Residence at California Lutheran University, also criticized the use of standardized test scores to evaluate teachers, which he said would complicate efforts to recruit teachers to high-poverty schools and undermine collaboration among teachers, which he attributed to raising student achievement in districts he had led.
“I would predict schools would have trouble maintaining and recruiting a work force” if results of student test scores became the basis for determining who was hired after a probationary period and who was deemed to be effective, Fraisse said during his day-long testimony. “Teachers would not perceive that as fair and morale would be hurt.” The proceedings were streamed over the Internet by the Courtroom View Network.
Attorneys for the state and the state’s two teachers unions, the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers, will spend the remaining weeks of the trial undermining the case built on behalf of the plaintiffs, high school student Beatriz Vergara and eight other students, that laws on tenure, dismissal and layoffs by seniority protect the worst teachers. These teachers, plaintiffs’ witnesses said, are disproportionately assigned to poor, minority students and deny them an equal opportunity to a good education. Students Matter, a nonprofit created by Silicon Valley entrepreneur David Welch, filed the lawsuit on the students’ behalf.
Value of test data disputed
The use of standardized test scores is not on trial, per se. But the plaintiffs’ experts have used scores and a refined version of them tied to student demographics, called value-added metrics, to define the worst-performing teachers and document the harm they cause students they teach. Student test scores also could be a measure of teacher effectiveness as a basis for dismissing and laying off teachers, instead of by seniority alone.
Fraisse was a high-ranking administrator or superintendent in three Southern California school districts over the past 20 years: 22,000-student Conejo Valley Unified, 9,000-student Hueneme Elementary School District and 11,500-student Virgenes Unified School District. While he was there, the districts didn’t use student test scores to evaluate teachers and to decide who should be hired as a permanent teacher following probation, Fraisse said. Test scores were used to identify schools that needed improvement and subgroups of students that needed more attention, he said.
Fraisse implied that measuring one teacher’s impact on a student’s test scores can’t be done accurately in a district with a culture of collaboration. At Hueneme Elementary School District, “the principle was that every student belonged to every teacher in school; there was mutual responsibility for success of all students, and all teachers owned all kids,” he told Jim Finberg, lead counsel for the California Teachers Association. Teachers switched off on one-to-one tutoring and student interventions; different teachers taught Saturday classes for students who were behind. (Plaintiffs’ attorney Marcellus McRae tried to get Fraisse to acknowledge that such a strategy might not be relevant to a huge district like Los Angeles Unified, but Judge Rolf Treu cut short that line of questioning.)
Witnesses for the plaintiffs, including Los Angeles Unified Superintendent John Deasy and former Sacramento City Unified Superintendent Jonathan Raymond, testified earlier in the trial that the probation period in California was too short, the dismissal process too complicated and expensive and the layoff process, unrelated to measures of effectiveness, detrimental to students.
On tenure, Fraisse said that in almost all cases, principals could accurately determine who should be given permanent status or tenure in the time required. California is one of only a few states that grant tenure after two years of teaching; in most states it is three to five years. To comply with notification requirements, tenure decisions must be made by March of the second year, less than two years. In “one or two cases” in which teachers “were on the bubble, we took a conservative approach. We would reluctantly have to terminate employment.”
On layoffs, Fraisse said that he had not seen a better, more objective system than seniority. “It is a fair method that is perceived as fair when tight economic times require tough things,” he said. (He also said he believed that substituting test scores as a measure of effectiveness might lead to a narrowing of the curriculum and a breakdown of collaboration, but after plaintiff’s attorney McRae objected, Judge Treu disallowed that answer as speculative.)
On dismissals, Fraisse said that teachers in his districts who were found to be unsatisfactory, based on evaluations, were given specific improvement plans, and then, if they failed to make progress, were persuaded to quit or resigned on their own. The districts didn’t have to pursue firing through a Commission on Professional Competence, a three-person appeals board – an avenue that the plaintiffs argued can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and can take years to resolve. Fraisse said that he was able to avoid conflicts over dismissal by working through a collaborative Peer Assistance and Review process that involved union participation. And he acknowledged that “small” financial settlements, such as a short-term payment of health benefits, helped seal the resignation deals, though the district made up the difference by hiring lower-paid long-term substitutes or new teachers at lower starting pay.
On cross-examination, McRae, representing the plaintiffs, pressed the former superintendent to admit that voluntary resignations don’t solve the problem of the worst performers, who then can apply for jobs in other districts with their teaching credentials intact. Fraisse said he didn’t know what happened to teachers after they left the district but admitted that the agreements they signed with the district were confidential.
Fraisse acknowledged that in both Conejo Unified and Laguna Beach Unified, the two more recent districts where he was superintendent, minority and low-income students – the focus of the Vergara case – made up a small percentage of students. McRae asked him to verify that African American and Latino students had significantly lower API scores in districts that he led, indicating there was a significant achievement gap. But Fraisse said he could not confirm the numbers from state data a decade or so ago. At this point, the API data for his districts haven’t been entered into the court record.
John Fensterwald covers education policy. Contact him and follow him on Twitter @jfenster. Sign up here for a no-cost online subscription to EdSource Today for reports from the largest education reporting team in California.