Vergara trial turns another focus onto LA Unified teachers

Thomas Kane

Thomas Kane

A Harvard professor of education and economics provided the Vergara plaintiffs powerful testimony today when he told the court that schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District have ineffective teachers and a disproportionate number of them are assigned to minority and low income students.

The opinions of Thomas Kane went to the heart of the plaintiffs’ case in Vergara v California, in which nine students are challenging state laws governing teachers employment. While the students claim that laws on seniority, dismissal and tenure violate their fundamental right to an education, their opponents — the California Teachers Association, the California Federation of Teachers and the state — say other factors are at play.

Armed with slides, charts and graphs, Kane summarized his findings from a number of studies, including one paper that examined teacher effectiveness in LA Unified.

He began his testimony with a bit of humor, telling the court that not using measures to gauge teacher effectiveness is like going to a Weight Watcher’s program “without a bathroom mirror or a scale.”

He made five overarching points: that’s it’s possible to implement measures of teacher effectiveness, that LA Unified has a higher ratio of ineffective teachers than school districts studied by other researchers, that a disproportionate number of ineffective teachers in LA Unified serve Latino and African American students, that effective teachers have a causal effect on student achievement and that teachers have long-term impacts not only on student achievement but also lifetime earnings.

He showed a chart that that suggested the net difference between an effective teacher and an ineffective teacher can mean as much as 7.6 months of learning within an academic year.

But James Finberg, an attorney for the teachers’ union, did his best to point out flaws in Kane’s testimony, at one point demonstrating that his research only applied to one school district in California, LA Unified, which could weaken a lawsuit aimed at statewide policy.

Deputy State Attorney Jennifer Bunshoft also tried to demonstrate the limitations of Kane’s research. Under her questioning, Kane conceded that the research came only from students in third, fourth and fifth grades and only in math and English language arts classes.

He also agreed with her suggestion that there could be other in-school factors that could have impacted student test scores like class size and curriculum.

Before court concluded, one more witness took the stand. Kareem Weaver, an award-winning elementary teacher and principal from the Oakland Unified School District provided compelling testimony about the impact grossly ineffective teachers have on students.

He told the court that as a fourth-grade teacher he constantly had to deal with students coming into his class who performed poorly due to ineffective teachers. Frustrated with the system, he testified that he actually pulled students out those classes with ineffective teachers and took on the responsibility of instructing them himself.

Weaver continues his testimony tomorrow.

Previous Posts: Commentary: Why Vergara won’t solve the real teacher problemVergara trial finally gets a human face on laws that affect teachersVillaraigosa offers his support for students in Vergara trial.