Teach for America alumnus Ben Spielberg talks Vergara vs. California, teachers unions and why education reform without social justice isn’t possible.
Spielberg: I’ve got to believe that they won’t win because their case was really bad. Even the experts they brought in to testify have found that there’s not that much disparity in terms of teaching quality between lower income and higher income schools, and because the statutes in question apply equivalently to low income and high income schools, it would be really hard to prove that they affect lower income and minority students differently than they do higher income students. I think that large part of the plaintiffs’ intention had less to do with winning than with waging a PR campaign against organized labor. The people who are driving this are generally wealthy interests that really dislike the concept that there are due process protections for any workers, not just teachers. They want all employment to be at will and they don’t want a collective voice.
EduShyster: You’ve written extensively about Vergara and the claims being made by the high-profile and well-funded legal team, but I want to start by talking about your background because it’s unusual.
Spielberg: I have a somewhat unique perspective in that I’m a math coach for the San Jose Unified Schools and am very involved in our teachers association—I’m on the Executive Board. But I was a 2010 TFA corps member and am still pretty tied in as a TFA alum, including running some professional development for corps members. I tend to think that I hear better ideas about education policy from my colleagues in the union than I do from my Teach for America colleagues.
EduShyster: I’m all ears! Are there specific areas where you’ve had disagreements?
Spielberg: One of the main areas is the question of what would be useful policy changes to help increase teacher effectiveness. The leaders of my union have seen tons of classrooms— they’ve taught for a number of years and have been able to see a wide spectrum of what instruction looks like across the school district. They have a broader perspective on the rationale behind teacher employment laws. My colleagues from TFA have similar ideas as far as what they’d like to see in terms of improving the quality of instruction. But I think that a lot of rhetoric, especially coming from the national education reform movement, is what many people in TFA grab onto. They’ve picked up the idea that ineffective teachers who are in place because of seniority laws and cumbersome dismissal procedures represent the biggest hurdle to effective instruction. Most of the people I know in TFA are excellent people who really care deeply about the same ultimate mission that people in our teachers association care about—but they’re less knowledgeable about what the law and its effects actually are.
EduShyster: You make a really compelling case for why education reform isn’t possible without social justice. Take it away.
Spielberg: The research suggests that 67% of the opportunity gap—at a minimum—is explained by factors outside of schools. It’s extremely important for those of us in education to think about education-related changes that can can affect that other 33%. But if you’re going to be a legitimate advocate for low-income students and you want to be credible you need to simultaneously argue for social justice policies. If we want to actually move the needle for low-income kids, what matters is that we address economic inequality and that we address the conditions in which poor kids live.
I have conversations with people in TFA where they say “Teach for America” says that. And I have to say “actually, no, Teach for America doesn’t say that.” TFA sends the message that education matters at least as much as poverty. You kind of pay lip service to poverty then move on to education. You need to say that if I’m an organization that’s working for educational equity, that means my social justice agenda across the board needs to look like this. Here are the education policies I’m advocating for, but I don’t support politicians who only support those education policies then undermine them by undercutting a social justice agenda. That’s the area where the education reform movement has failed.
EduShyster: You point out that wealthy interests on one side of the education reform movement have managed to convince the public that they care more about low-income minority students than the people who work with them everyday. Can you elaborate?
Spielberg: The thing that’s really great about education for wealthy individuals who have an anti-union mindset is that they can simultaneously pitch themselves as caring about poor kids while actively undermining the structures that are really important for poor families. Politicians and business leaders can pose as left-leaning champions of low-income people while actively undermining their interests. Eli Broad’s opposition to Proposition 30 was a good example of that, as is the conversation around Bill de Blasio or the education reform agenda of Chris Christie. The comprehensive impact of those policies are so much more than just what their education agenda is. We should continue to have a debate about what are the smartest education reforms, but it’s important to note that people who oppose de Blasio only on education grounds, or support Christie only on education grounds, are at best myopic and at worst they know what they’re doing and they’re trying to deflect attention away from the issues that really matter for low-income students.
EduShyster: The Vergara trial was a veritable *who’s who* of education policy stars, like Harvard economist Raj Chetty. I have it on good authority that you’ve actually read Chetty’s 2013 study on measuring the impact of teachers…
Spielberg: My background is in mathematical/computational sciences and I feel pretty confident that if I look through a study I can get a sense of whether the measures are likely to have bias or not and to understand the statistical parameters of the research. I do try, especially when I’m discussing education policy with someone who cites research to make their point, to go and look at that research as a whole—what does it actually say vs. what do the media sound bites say it says. I went through it it and I think Chetty’s work supports what I’m saying. His most recent work shows that most of the achievement gap isn’t caused by ineffective teaching and that there’s very little variation between schools when it comes to teacher quality.
EduShyster: True or false: teachers in California are guaranteed a job for life, unless they die in the classroom.
Spielberg: That would be false. The reality of the matter—and this is one of the areas where Students Matter has been really successful in misleading the public—is that if somebody is grossly negligent or abusive, you can get rid of the teacher immediately. That’s very clear from the California education code and the fact that districts do it all the time. Students Matter talks about a cumbersome dismissal process, and the main issue is that it takes too long and costs too much money because there are a lot of appeals possible. All that permanent status grants you is that an administrator has to tell you what the issue is with your performance and give you 90 days to improve. For me that’s just an ethical way to treat the workforce. It’s not helpful to have a lot of teacher turnover. And it’s also not helpful to have teachers with no support. That statute basically ensures that you’re not going to be constantly turning over your workforce, and you’re going to be mandated as a district to try and help your workforce get better at their profession before you dismiss somebody.
Ben Spielberg was a 2010 Teach for America corps member. He works as a math coach in the San Jose Unified School District and is a member of the Executive Board of the San Jose Teachers Association. He’s the co-founder of the blog 34justice.
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