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Letter to U.S. Education Secretary Duncan on the Vergara decision

June 12, 2014

Secretary Arne Duncan
U.S. Department of Education
400 Maryland Ave. S.W.
Washington, DC 20202

Dear Secretary Duncan:

This week, we needed your leadership; to demonstrate that teacher and student interests are aligned; that we must press—60 years after Brown v. Board—for educational equity; that it takes more than a focus on teachers to improve public education; that, when it comes to teachers, we need to promote strategies that attract, retain and support them in classrooms; and that, of course, removing teachers who can’t do their job in quick and effective ways is important, but so is due process, so teachers can take creative risks that enhance teaching and learning.

But instead, you added to the polarization. And teachers across the country are wondering why the secretary of education thinks that stripping them of their due process is the way to help all children succeed.

As you said in your statement, we must “increase public confidence in public education.” However, in pitting students against their teachers, the Vergara lawsuit had the opposite effect. Polls show that a vast majority of Americans trust teachers most to improve public education. Why say something that erodes that trust?

I’m glad you mentioned the other “inequities in education–including school funding, access to quality early childhood programs and school discipline.” As you know, research shows that these factors contribute to two-thirds of what affects student achievement. Tackling these issues is the paradigm shift we must make happen.

The Equity and Excellence Commission Report, which your department released in 2013, made a clear call for concrete investments in our children—investments such as wraparound services, early childhood education and high-quality teacher preparation. The report, however, has gone largely untouched by the Obama administration.

The Vergara decision does not address these significant out-of-school factors. Unfortunately, the underpinning of the Vergara decision suggests that if we just remove the small fraction of teachers who are ineffective, all will be solved in public education. While the Vergara lawsuit raises legitimate issues, we should be wary of solutions or judicial rulings that do not take on the broader issues discussed in the commission’s report. 

We, too, want great teachers in every classroom. That’s why we have advocated for sound evaluation systems to help teachers who are struggling and to usher those out of the profession who are not up to the job.

There are many places around the country that have transformed due process laws and aligned them with good evaluation systems. In Connecticut, a law passed in 2012 preserves due process, while making it more efficient and identifying the supports that would address any deficiencies. A New Jersey law requires that every new teacher has a full year of mentoring and all teachers receive individual professional development plans. In Maryland, the law requires that teachers promptly receive additional support if an evaluation says they are missing the mark.

We have seen how genuine collaboration can work. Several superintendents testified that they have the management tools they need to address teacher quality. One example is just miles from the Los Angeles courthouse where Vergara was tried: A partnership between the ABC Unified School District and the ABC Federation of Teachers was forged in the late 1990s, when district administrators, school board members and union officials came together to figure out ways to push the envelope to improve schools, teaching and learning. The result? ABC Unified’s district score on California’s Academic Performance Index has increased every year under the labor-management partnership, most recently coming in 53 points higher than the state average.

Educational equity and opportunity cannot be achieved with quick fixes, blame games or silver bullets. My fear is that the Vergara decision will set us back in our effort to help all kids succeed. We must focus on recruiting and retaining great teachers. We must hone in on poverty, underfunding and other factors that went unaddressed in the Vergara decision. We must listen to teachers, who—in being the closest to the classroom—are invaluable in providing a high-quality education to every child. We must bring teachers, students and parents together to scale and sustain solutions that work. If we do this, then we will be much closer to the goal of reclaiming the promise of public education. 

We need your leadership, Secretary Duncan.

Sincerely,

Randi Weingarten 
President, American Federation of Teachers