Everything is Untested Until You Test It

9486459224_e1517c1dab_nTeacher tenure is a hot topic in California these days thanks to the Vergara trial, so it was newsworthy when the San Jose chapter of the California Teachers Association asked the State Board of Education for a waiver from state law extending the probationary period for some teachers using a system of peer review. They didn’t get it:

The State Board of Education on Thursday denied the San Jose Unified School District and its teachers union their request for the authority to require some probationary teachers in the district to work an additional third year before becoming eligible for tenure.

Granting a one-year waiver from state law, Jennifer Thomas, president of the San Jose Teachers Association, had argued, would send a message that “a union can be an incubator of innovation in pursuit of educational excellence.” Board member Carl Cohn, a retired superintendent of Long Beach Unified, agreed, urging the board to encourage the cooperation between a teachers union and a district reflected in the request. “Sometimes it is easier to teach kids to read than to get this kind of trust,” Cohn said.

But with its 7-2 vote, the majority sided with the California Teachers Association and the state Department of Education’s position that the district and the union should ask the Legislature to change the tenure law or grant it an exception. Waivers, said board member Sue Burr, should be narrow and limited to circumstances involving individual teachers, such as a teacher who went on maternity leave while on probation. “For better or worse, we’re being asked to waive a fundamental personnel protection,” she said.

One of the big disappointments here is that San Jose Unified and its teachers union were cooperating(!) to try something new and different and it’s state law – not mutual mistrust – that’s preventing them from moving forward. The proposed experiment wasn’t a big one in absolute terms – it’s unlikely that many teachers would have their probationary periods extended in any case – but it involved grappling with hot-button issues of teacher evaluation and tenure that rarely receive even that level of experimentation.

One of the lines often leveled against education reforms is that they are “untested” and therefore shouldn’t be imposed on schools because we don’t have a good sense of what the effects are likely to be.

In many cases it’s true that a proposed reform is untested, but note that this can often be avoided by letting schools and districts test them.

Of course, it may not always make sense to give local education agencies flexibility on every issue. But the disappointment you see expressed over the San Jose case is due, in part, to the sense that it should be possible for the district, especially in collaboration with the union, to perform modest experiments with tenure and peer review.

Much has been made of the fact that the CTA lobbied against the local chapter’s request, but it’s not hard to understand why the Board would be reluctant to waive away the legislatively-established two-year probationary requirement. Arne Duncan’s NCLB waivers have been harshly criticized in some circles as bureaucratic overreach, and that’s a situation in which virtually everyone agrees that the law being circumvented is long overdue for revision. There is less consensus about California’s tenure laws, so it’s natural that the Board may not want to pick that fight with the legislature.

So while the outcome of this decision is frustrating, the underlying issue in this case – and likely many others – is that the laws themselves may need to be loosened to some degree to allow reasonable experimentation at the local level.

And if we can’t test new ideas at all, it’s not clear how we make progress.

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