WATCH: How a 14-Year-Old Helped Bring Down Teacher Tenure in California


"How a 14-Year Old Helped Bring Down Teacher Tenure in California," produced by Alexis Garcia. About 6 minutes. Original release date was January 29, 2015 and original writeup is below.

"Being a kid in the California system right now is a lot like the lottery," says Julia Macias, a ninth grader who lives in California's San Fernando Valley. "You might get an amazing teacher one year and then a not so amazing teacher and you see your scores are reflected upon that."

Julia is a dedicated student with dreams to one day attend Harvard University. She loves to read and has a passion for science. Her hard work has earned her a spot on the honor roll, but Julia wasn't always getting the most out of class.

"There was a point in my elementary school where I did have a few ineffective teachers," Julia explains. "It was definitely scary when I figured out that I wasn't learning because it took a lot of courage to go to my parents and tell them."

Julia told her dad, Joe Macias, about her struggles with math in her second grade class. Concerned about his daughter's eroding confidence in school, Joe and his wife decided to go to the school to meet with the teacher, where they were told that their daughter just wasn't good at math and advised to have her tested for a learning disability. Joe and his wife went back to observe the class and found that the teacher was unprepared and unorganized. They switched Julia to a different class, where she flourished. 

"She's coming home excited doing her work," says Joe. "And I thought what can you attribute that to because this is the same kid. But the settings changed. Different teacher."

The Macias' experience with ineffective teachers led them to join eight other students and become part of the landmark Vergara v. California lawsuit that challenged teacher job protections. 

The case took on labor statutes that make it difficult to get rid of underperforming teachers, including the permanent employment statute, which gives a teacher tenure after just 16 months on the job. It also took on dismissal statutes which make firing a low performing teacher almost impossible and the last-in, first-out rule which forces districts to lay off teachers based on seniority, not performance. 

"In California, the teacher tenure system is really an outlier among various states in the nation," says Joshua Lipshutz, an attorney with Gibson, Dunn, & Crutcher in San Francisco, California who argued on behalf on the Vergara plaintiffs. "Most states have a tenure period of three to five years and a few states don't have tenure at all."

According to expert testimony, only 2.2 teachers are dismissed each year on average out of 275,000 who are currently teaching in the state. The process can take anywhere from two to 10 years and can costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. While only about two percent of California's teachers have been determined to be ineffective, their presence can cause appreciable damage to their students' future.

study conducted by Harvard professors Raj Chetty and John Friedman and Columbia professor Jonah Rockoff showed that students assigned to an ineffective teacher can lose over a year of learning and an estimated $1.4 million in lifetime earnings as a result of that single teacher.

In a ruling delivered on June 10, 2014, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu found in favor of the plaintiffs and struck down the state's tenure laws. In his 16-page decision, Treu wrote that the challenged statutes "disproportionately affect poor and/or minority students" and that the evidence "shocks the conscience." 

The California Federation of Teachers and the California Teachers Association, both defendants in the case, denounced the verdict and vowed to appeal the decision. Appellate arguments are expected to be heard later this year. 

Union representatives argue that the court's decision will hurt teachers by removing an important safeguard against arbitrary firings and that the focus on tenure will not help teachers improve in the classroom. They say the decision will only work to exacerbate education problems in the state.

"I'm tenured right now but if I break the law or if I'm acting inappropriately I can still be dismissed. It's not a guarantee for life," says Gabriela Ibarra, a fifth grade teacher in Los Angeles and a member of the California Federation of teachers. "Taking our rights away doesn't help us be better at what we're doing. It's just putting a negative image to everybody else that we're not doing our job properly."

But the Vergara case isn't about taking away a teacher's right to tenure—it merely seeks to redefine the period of time before a teacher is granted tenure. Nor is there any system in the United States that relies solely on test scores to evaluate a teacher's value in the classroom. Many of the teachers used as examples of poor performance in the Vergara case displayed numerous indicators of incompetence that did not rely on student performance.

"Throughout the entire case we had lots of teachers who came out to support us," says Lipshutz. "[They] really explained both to the public and to the court that having ineffective teachers in their schools and in their midst is terrible for them and terrible for the profession."

As the case makes it way through the appeals process, it has already prompted advocacy groups in other states to take action. Last month, a group of families filed a similar lawsuit in New York and cases are expected to be filed in Connecticut, Maryland, Oregon, New Mexico, Idaho and Kansas.  

Though it could take years for a final ruling, Julia Macias is busy focusing on her future. 

"I do have a goal of making kids aware that they can and do have the ability to succeed in life with the right type of education," says Julia. "I find it very important to have that goal heard and my voice heard." 

Reason Foundation is a partner in National School Week, an annual event that draws attention to increasing educational options for K-12 students and their parents. For more information on resources and activities, including more than 10,000 events taking place nationwide between January 25-31, go here now.

About 7 minutes.

Produced by Alexis Garcia. Camera by Garcia, Tracy Oppenheimer, and Paul Detrick. Lipshutz interview by Tracy Oppenheimer. Music by Podington Bear.  

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  1. When I was in 5th grade I had to help our teacher with the math. True story.

    1. Remember Sputnik? Remember there weren’t enough math and science teachers?
      Next year, I got the Spanish Language teacher for algebra; she stayed one page ahead of some of the kids in the text.
      She could conjugate a verb, but she couldn’t factor a number.

    2. Since the teachers were entirely irrelevant to my learning (school time was just a place to read my library books), I actually preferred being in an incompetent’s class. Knowing more than the teacher is always an easy “A”.

  2. I support the kid and her family for trying to get a quality education, and I’m pretty certain tenure is irrelevant for grammar-school teachers.
    But I REALLY don’t like finding a new “right” in the process. It seems we’ll all rue the day when this turns out to be a legal precedent.

    1. I get the feeling that future court cases of many kinds will end up being battles over “positive rights.” Sort of like the gay weddings versus conservative bakers thing.

    2. The CA courts invented that “right” a long time ago. This is just a case of using their own weapons against them.

    3. The right exists in broad form in all the state constitutions I’ve looked at, so it’s just a matter of working out the details in the courts. The constitutions say the states shall provide education, so then it’s a matter of how much education they owe, at what sacrifice. There are some precedents that imply an obligation to drain every $ of everyone in the state to give the maximum possible schooling or tutoring to the most difficult case, and some precedents that imply that as long as some educational option exists, even without gov’t funding, that’s enough.

      1. let’s also not forget the “appropriate education” clause that’s in some federal law that actually made a huge difference and hugely expanded special-needs teaching funding.

        The problem with this is the courts basically take the view that the federal government is in chargem at the top of a hierarchy, so there’d be no changing a state’s constitution to make for more reasonable, affordable schools

        1. That’s not true. The only thing the federal courts have demanded is that the state be non-discriminatory, de jure and de facto. If the state wanted to eliminate gov’t-funded schools entirely, the feds would have nothing to say about that.

  3. “Being a kid in the California system right now is a lot like the lottery,” says Julia Macias, a ninth grader who lives in California’s San Fernando Valley. “You might get an amazing teacher one year and then a not so amazing teacher and you see your scores are reflected upon that.”

    I.e., sometimes the teacher grades hard and I fail because I suck at math, and sometimes the teacher grades easy and I pass despite sucking at math.

    Nothing will be done about sucking at math (it can’t, so that’s a trivial inference!), but we’ll sure make sure the A’s flow!

    1. I’m sure that what you are describing happens. But I’m also sure that the kind of barrel scrapings that slouch through Ed School and clutter up the public school system can be a real hinderence to learning.

    2. Is it too much for you to read the next sentence?

      Joe and his wife went back to observe the class and found that the teacher was unprepared and unorganized. They switched Julia to a different class, where she flourished.

      There are lots of school teachers who simply don’t give a shit. They’re like cops. Indifferent government employees, doing the absolute minimum to keep their job, who don’t give a shit how much harm they inflict as they count the years until they collect their pension.

  4. I’m getting bugged that HyR is having its bloggers multiply cover and write & rewrite about the same stories. Comment threads that could’ve been consolidated and less hit-&-runnish by going on for days (facilitated by the nesting of replies) instead are fragmented & glib. Do they get more ad looks this way?

  5. Thom Hartmann claims the Koch Brothers have destroyed American democracy.

    I’m pretty sure that’s prog-speak for ‘people aren’t voting the way I want them to.’

    Of course the way they destroyed democracy is because of Citizens United. I’m always confused when progressives whine about Citizens United, because do they not realize that the New York Times is a corporation? If corporations have no speech rights, then why does the corporate entity that runs the New York Times get to have an editorial board?

    By leftist logic, the Times should only be allowed to publish news stories because any editorializing is devastating democracy.

    1. I just realized something even funnier than the New York Times example. itself is part of Salon Media Group, also known as Salon Media Group, Incorporated.

      They’re a publicly traded corporation. So by Salon’s owns logic, Salon should have no free speech rights because they’re a corporate entity and therefore allowing them to engage in free speech is fascist.

      1. “Nuh uh, we’re the press! We get free speech, other kkkorporashuns do not!”

        ~Salon derp

      2. I think where they draw the line is between those whose writings you pay to read or hear, and those who pay for the exposure to eyes & ears. Advertising’s always been somewhat disreputable, because if you have to pay for the privilege, how good could your message be?

        1. “because if you have to pay for the privilege, how good could your message be?”

          Publishing newspapers doesn’t cost the publisher something?

          1. Not on net, unless they’re losing $.

            1. Robert|2.9.15 @ 12:29AM|#
              “Not on net, unless they’re losing $.”

              IOWs, exactly the same as advertisers?
              I’m amazed at the lengths those who think advertising is somehow different than news are willing to go to somehow hope they an find a difference.
              You haven’t.

    2. Every time I read one of these pieces of drek claiming corporate-funded fascism is just around the corner because of Citizens United, I have to wonder how the evil corporations allowed Obama to be elected for a second term.

      1. Hell the “Evil Corporations” own Obama lock, stock, barrel, trigger, and magazine. but they are good Progressive corporations that do what they are supposed to and come to Elected Progressives hat in hand, instead of selling thing people actually want like common tradesmen.

  6. Which Keirsey Personality Type Are You?

    I was a rational.

    You’re a Rational! Rationals are abstract and objective thinkers that seek knowledge. You strive to learn as many subjects as possible and you have an incredible knack for strategic thinking. You’re most likely tech savvy, down to earth, and very reliable. As a rational, you also excel in any kind of logical investigation. This makes you perfect for anything that involves a deep level of thinking or strategizing. You either tend to be an attentive mastermind and use your intelligence for coordinating people and things or you’re a true architect at heart with incredible intellectual potential. As a Rational, you’re in some seriously awesome company! Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, Napoleon and Julius Caesar were all famous Rationals!

    1. I’m sure you’re the only one here. /s

      This is a pretty dumb image to use for “literal”, IMO.

    2. I’m a rational woman. Which is why I don’t fit the female stereotype but hate feminism.

    3. I’m a Guardian. Really small question set, interesting. Of course in cases like this, there’s usually a full version 10 times as long.

    4. Team America only listed *three* personality groups.

  7. so, who’s going to warn this kid that dreams of Harvard are stupid? The last thing we need is another fucking social worker, sociology major, or teacher, or the like.
    We need people with real skills. Who’s going to write her a letter advising her to learn technical skills at a community college, or get an engineering degree?

    1. Yeah, who ever heard of anyone getting a programming or science education from Harvard?

      1. Don’t be such an aspberger-douche, Irish.

      2. Well “half” a programming education from Harvard. The rest, I assume, he learned from the streets.

      3. You people with lowly technical degrees, you aren’t scientists, and we don’t need you, because I said so!

        /Tony the rocket scientist

  8. By the way, the rise of the “learning disability” was created by the American school system. It’s not a teaching problem, it’s a massive learning-disability problem. Give us more money.

  9. with that attitude, she’ll never get a man/woman to marry her.

  10. Six months ago I lost my job and after that I was fortunate enough to stumble upon a great website which literally saved me. I started working for them online and in a short time after I’ve started averaging 15k a month… The best thing was that cause I am not that computer savvy all I needed was some basic typing skills and internet access to start…
    This is where to start???.


  11. my buddy’s mom makes $86 an hour on the computer . She has been out of a job for 5 months but last month her check was $15207 just working on the computer for a few hours. site here…………….

  12. “I’m tenured right now but if I break the law or if I’m acting inappropriately I can still be dismissed. It’s not a guarantee for life,” says Gabriela Ibarra, a fifth grade teacher in Los Angeles

    “But if I decide I don’t want to put any effort into my job anymore I can’t be dismissed. The students can go fuck themselves for all I care.”

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