When a California judge earlier last week struck down teacher tenure protections, his reasoning was that poor students were being harmed when bad teachers with seniority were retained while younger, better teachers were either not hired or let go in layoffs.
The decision in Vegera vs. California was hailed by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who said in a statement that the students "who brought this lawsuit are, unfortunately, just nine out of millions of young people in America who are disadvantaged by laws, practices and systems that fail to identify and support our best teachers and match them with our neediest students."
With key voices from right to left endorsing the court decision, it might seem that anyone arguing the contrary must be advocating the interests of teachers over children — the core argument of the plaintiff students in the case.
Not so fast, says Jesse Rothstein, a University of California Berkeley economics and public policy professor. In a New York Times op ed, Rothstein says his own research shows surprising results when teacher tenure is eliminated.
With job security jeopardized, he argues, an already low-paying profession becomes measurably less attractive, resulting in fewer highly qualified and dynamic young people taking up the calling.
Rothstein argues that "policymakers should continue experiments with bonuses to attract good teachers, as well as ways to reduce the transfer of effective teachers out of schools where they are most needed."
"Attacking tenure as a protection racket for ineffective teachers makes for good headlines," he concludes. "But it does little to close the achievement gap and risks compounding the problem."
The real problem, argues Century Foundation fellow Richard Kahlenberg in Slate, is segregation that has isolated impoverished students in impoverished schools — not formal segregation, but the informal segregation of neighborhood schools combined with sharply separated housing patterns.
Finding and retaining good teachers to teach in segregated neighborhood schools is difficult, Kahlenberg writes, because the atmosphere tends to be much more challenging.
"Racial segregation continues to bedevil American society and is closely coupled with rising income segregation," Kahlenberg argues. "Concentrations of poverty have much more to do with why poor and minority students often end up with the worst teachers than do tenure laws. If the plaintiffs were genuinely concerned about connecting great teachers with poor and minority kids, they would go after that problem, not the due process rights of teachers."