Q. Why did Silicon Valley decide to challenge teacher tenure?
A. The Silicon Valley reformers look at public education today and think that this just can’t stand. [They see] that American students are often testing worse than a lot of northern European and East Asian students. And they worry that in a globalized economy, [the students] will not be able to compete, especially in math and science. So the education reformers say we need to fundamentally change education in this country. How do we do that? Some look at charter schools, and some look at more technology in the classroom, and this particular reformer, David Welch, was looking at teacher tenure as the systemic root of the problem, especially in California.
Why California in particular?
The California situation is interesting because teacher tenure and other job protections exists in most states, and California has among the strictest. Teachers get tenure after less than two years in California, and in most states it’s between three to five years. In the Vergara case, David Welch’s non-profit Students Matters - which is funded by a few other Silicon Valley guys and some other [education] reformers - their idea was to say “Look, these laws are actually harming children by keeping bad teachers in the classroom.” And that is a pretty innovative legal strategy because the courts have never made that connection before.
Who else in Silicon Valley wants to have a say in this matter? Do any of them have a background in education?
None of the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who are sort of taking on education right now, including David Welch - of course Bill Gates has poured billions into educations - Mark Zuckerberg, Peter Thiel, Reed Hastings, there are so many of them. None of these guys have any background in education and I think that’s a major concern. But they would say, ‘look, we need to make a change, and the only way a society has ever changed is when an individual with conviction wants to attempt to change it.’ Now that’s one argument.
The other argument in this story is that no one elected these men to take on the knotty problems of fixing our public schools, but here they are anyway, and I think that’s a major issue. Where are we in our politics - are we so gridlocked, are our politics so dysfunctional, so money driven that the normal avenues of social form and political change don’t work anymore and we have to rely on these Silicon Valley millionaires and billionaires to effect change and fight for what they believe is in the public’s interest? Or should the public respond in a different way? I think that is the major question that a lot of people who are looking at education reform today are asking.
Have you been surprised by some of the negative reaction to your story?
Absolutely. The story I wrote is pretty bare-bones. It doesn’t make a case one way or another, pro or con, about teacher tenure. The primary goal of this piece was to raise the question that I just articulated. This is happening, we do have Silicon Valley millionaires and billionaires pouring in an enormous amount of their personal wealth into education reform. They say that this is a good thing because the education system needs to change and we have a gridlocked system right now and are facing all kinds of problems getting anything passed through Congress and State legislatures. It really is a piece that raises more questions than it answers. I think a lot of people are reacting to the imagery and the language on the cover, which is only very loosely related to the content of the piece.
Your intention was not to attack teachers, but that’s how people have interpreted it?
Absolutely. The actual title of the article, is Taking on Teacher Tenure, and the deck is that it’s really difficult to fire bad teachers and Silicon Valley businessmen want to change that. I very much stand by the question and think it’s a very important one that our country should be asking. How do we want our education reform to happen? What needs to change? This specific Vergara case takes on teacher tenure in a state where tenure laws are stricter than they are elsewhere. Most teachers, including the American Federation of Teachers, believe that tenure should be given after three years on the job, so there is a gap there. There’s a place for compromise, and I think that reasonable people agree that teachers are extraordinarily valuable, arguably the most valuable part of your child’s in-class education. I think that there’s a lack of communication right now, and the issue has become so politicized that it’s hard to have a discussion about it.
So what do you think are some of the changes that need to or can be made?
Some really smart people believe that hiring good teachers is as big a problem as firing teachers, and I think that is a really smart point. It’s difficult to lure the best and brightest of our society into teaching, which is exactly where they should be. And to do that, people say, ‘well, let’s offer them good job protection.’ So there’s a place to begin.
Alternatively, we can pay them more, and that gets into all kinds of issues since American taxpayers pay teachers’ salaries in places like California. That has to pass among the voters which might be a hard sell in the kind of economic climate that we’re in. Another thing is getting teachers the support they need in classrooms. Why not have better teacher training and professional development and just more support in particularly needy classrooms, where there are lots of students with developmental problems and emotional disabilities, or come from violent or broken neighborhoods. There are a lot of things that go into the teaching profession, and teachers are on the front lines of a lot of social issues like poverty and violence. I mention that very briefly in the piece. I say that the statistical measures that the Vergara case is based on fail to take into account the messy reality of teaching in communities where kids must contend with poverty and violence, and that could be an entire story.
Does there need to be a reprioritization to get the right people to become teachers?
I think that we’re beginning to have that discussion, which is important. But I’m not sure that there’s a wide scale push-through. It’s just one of these large policy issues - where do you even begin? I think that there’s been a big push in the last ten or twenty years, beginning with Clinton and some of his initiatives. Then No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, and there’s been a huge focus on evaluation, testing and holding teachers accountable, and less emphasis on attracting teachers to the profession and supporting teachers who are already in the classroom. I’m not exactly sure how you’d do it, and there are lots of people who are thinking about that, but it’s a pretty large challenge to take on.
Haley Sweetland Edwards
Haley Sweetland Edwards is a correspondent for Time Magazine. In the November 3rd issue of Time, her story Rotten Apples: The War on Teacher Tenure was the cover story. In it, she explores the court case Vergara v. California, and the tech entrepreneurs that are trying to reform the education system in the state of California. Edwards is a former staff reporter for the Seattle Times, whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, and New York Magazine. She earned her B.A. in Philosophy from Yale University, and has an M.A. in International Politics and Journalism from Columbia.