An Interview with Rick Hess: Feedback on California Decision

Jul 17, 2014 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy

1) Rick you have just done a presentation with Randi Weingarten about the California decision, and some educational issues. What were the main points discussed?

We covered a raft of topics ranging from Vergara to VAM to early childhood education. Randi told me that it’s clear that tenure should not be used as a shield for terrible teachers. I told her that I agreed with her, and I bet a lot of reformers would also nod along to the way she’s talking, but the problem is that reformers just don’t know how to trust that unions will work to keep teachers accountable. When you look at the numbers on these things, it starts to cut against the message that Randi gave and I’d agree with.

2) Let’s talk tenure- Do teachers really have tenure ? Or do they have job security?

Vergara highlighted that in a state with 275,000 teachers, an average of 2.2 teachers are dismissed for unsatisfactory performance, and removing a tenured teacher costs the district between $250-450k. I’ll leave it to your readers to decide whether that sounds more like tenure than job security.

3) It seems that their job security now depends on how well students fare on standardized tests-Right or Wrong? True or False ?

That seems to be a hard proposition to square with the Vergara data.

4) Teacher shortage—do you see it looming on the horizon?

No. There are over 3 million K-12 public school teachers. If anything, advances in technology and blended schooling will lessen the need for in-person teachers.

5) You have been following Common Core- obviously—where does this fit into the big picture?

It will depend. The common core was overlaid on the raft of reform measures and the implementation has been mixed. It’s possible that this can fit over everything just as perfectly as the reformers dreamed, but I’m betting on it ending up much messier and less effective than they anticipated.

6) Let’s talk Disconnect—Is there a huge disconnect between the unions- and even the teachers nowadays?

There’s some disconnect, but the real disconnect, as my friends Paul Peterson and Marty West point out in their new book “The Teachers versus the Public”, is between teacher opinion and public opinion on education issues. To the extent that there is a disconnect between unions and teachers, I think we’d start seeing younger teachers joining teacher advocacy orgs like Teach Plus and NNSTOY and see those groups as more faithful to their opinions. I discuss a lot of this is my forthcoming book The Cage Busting Teacher, due out early next year.

7) Second thoughts on Vergara -from your point of view- and I know there is a link with more information.

One thing all of my reformer friends seem to miss is that Vergara wielded a sword that cuts both ways. Proponents of Vergara are generally big believers in district autonomy, but the more judges start dictating what constituted acceptable educational practice, there’s no reason they would stop at tenure laws. The logic of Vergara would justify a suit to strip the rights of charter authorizers if the poorer performing charter schools disproportionately affect minority students – even if those those were still doing better than their neighborhood public school peers.

8) “VAM is a Scam” has been attributed to Randi Weingarten. What are your thoughts? Should teachers be held responsible for children’s progress (particularly when we have so many kids with exceptionalities (ADD, LD, BD, ED, ID) being mainstreamed into the schools?

I think most reasonable minds would agree that teachers should be held responsible for student progress. The question is how that’s done. As your question points out, there’s a lot that can go wrong with insufficiently thoughtful metrics – so the real question is how to get them right!

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