By Kara Kerwin
In a California courtroom on February 4th, it took little over a minute for a former elementary school teacher to deliver one of the saddest commentaries on the dysfunction that encompasses teacher employment policies in the U.S. public education system.
“I just felt like no matter what work I did in the classroom or how hard I worked that none of it mattered, because a seniority date mattered way more than how much I did for kids, or what principals would say about me, or what parents would say about me,” Bhavini Bhakta recalled during her emotional testimony in the Vergara v. California lawsuit aimed at changing teacher hiring and retention practices. “All that mattered was my hired date. And after that happening for that many years, you think that, ‘I’m not even a person, I’m not even doing anything, it’s just my hired date that matters. I’m a number and not a person.’ And that’s not easy.”
In California, only three numbers matter when deciding the fate of teaching personnel. These numbers cannot be found on test scores or report cards, and cannot be quantified by the number of students who positively benefit from having a teacher who goes the extra mile.
The only numbers that actually factor in when determining teacher retention are the month, day, and year the teacher was hired. This explains how Bhakta was honored with a Golden Apple teaching award but then also laid off the same year.
In May 2012 nine student plaintiffs filed the Vergara lawsuit to change rules that make it impossible to encourage and reward teachers who do their job well, and remove those who do not. If successful, the case could open the door for evaluation and student achievement to play a larger role in administrative decisions, as opposed to seniority alone, and would prompt a thorough reexamination in how California rewards good teaching.
Teacher quality standards should value the positive role a teacher can play in a student’s life, and ensure proper safeguards are in place so students receive the critical support in the classroom that they deserve.
These nine students, along with their peers, want someone at the front of the classroom who will bring out the best in them and help them excel academically. Students care little, if at all, when a teacher was first hired compared to other staff members or whether the school’s administration has honored a permanent guarantee of employment, two principles that remain unfortunately influential in most schools around the country.
The role of a teacher is arguably the most important job in our society, yet we don’t honor it by entrusting them with schools that encourage success, and acknowledge hard work. If there is any place where good work should be rewarded and incentivized, it’s in the classroom, equally applied to both students and educators.
Bhatka has since left the teaching profession, at least in the capacity of being a traditional classroom instructor. If other state lawmakers do not heed the lessons of Vergara, they too will lose out on retaining other good teachers because of demoralizing employment practices. As of now, California is one short already.
Kara Kerwin is President of The Center for Education Reform, a K-12 education policy and advocacy organization based in Washington, DC.