The defense in Vergara v California began its case today, calling to the witness stand a veteran educator whose testimony about identifying and dealing with ineffective teachers came in stark contrast to the views of earlier witnesses in the case.
Robert Fraisse, whose career included serving as superintendent in three California school districts, appeared to give the defense a boost by testifying that the five laws under challenge in the trial — governing teacher seniority, tenure and dismissal — are not to blame for the presence of ineffective teachers, that well-managed districts can operate smoothly within the laws and that the statutes don’t infringe on students’ rights to a quality education.
Point by point, his comments contradicted many of the plaintiffs’ witnesses, who appeared over the first four weeks of the case. Fraisse was the first to the stand for the defendants — the state and its two biggest teacher unions — after Judge Rolf Treu ruled yesterday that the case would proceed.
Among other things, Fraisse said appropriately trained evaluators can identify ineffective teachers within two years if the school district’s human resource plan is working properly. He said standardized test scores are not necessarily the major factors in making teacher evaluations and that alternative data is vital to consider as well, including local standardized exams, portfolio assessments and teacher evaluations.
In countering another major contention of the nine students who are the plaintiffs, Fraisse told the court that while superintendent for the Hueneme Elementary School District, he never experienced an unequal distribution of ineffective teachers in lower-income schools.
Glenn Rothner, a lawyer for the unions, asked Fraisse, “Did you do anything to encourage highly effective teachers to teach in lower income schools?’ Fraisse said he would assign the best principals to the neediest schools as a way to attract effective teachers to those campuses.
Fraisse also told the court that if principals did not adequately perform their job functions, including evaluating teachers for tenure, he would have them removed.
Rothner then asked Fraisse whether a system that determines teacher layoffs based on effectiveness was preferable to one based on seniority. Fraisse’s response: “I have not seen a better or more objective system than seniority.”
On cross examination, plaintiffs’ attorney Marcellus McRae tried to chip away at the heft of Fraisse’s testimony by having the witness concede that the districts he led were relatively small with few schools and had student populations that were largely white, with much smaller percentages of blacks and African Americans.
Attempting to show that even a well-managed school district can’t close achievement gaps in student learning, McRae showed Fraisse data from the state Department of Education showing significant differences in test scores between African-American and Latino students and white students in some of the administrator’s former school districts. Fraisse said even looking at the material, he could not recollect the actual figures.
Christine McLoughlin, an award-winning teacher at Blair Middle School in Pasadena, took the stand next. Earlier in the trial, one of the four student-plaintiffs who testified in the case, Raylene Monterroza, described difficulties she had with McLoughlin, her eighth-grade English teacher.
Under questioning from Rothner, McLaughlin refuted almost everything Monterroza had said, testifying that she had given her students texts, that she had her students read novels, that the class had discussed short stories they read — all the opposite of what Monterroza had testified.
When Rothner asked whether Raylene completed all of her homework, McLoughlin said, “No.” Rothner followed up by asking whether she believed that Raylene put forth her best efforts in her class. McLoughlin responded, “It was less than her best.”