After nine students successfully challenged teacher seniority rules and tenure laws in Vergara v. California, public school teachers have become the subject of intense media attention. But despite what many headlines might have you believe, teachers are not the victims, the losers, nor the villains in this ruling.

As a teacher, I don’t feel blamed. I feel empowered. This ruling is a serious wake-up call: America is failing to provide every kid with an equal opportunity to succeed in school, and we teachers must lead the charge in changing this, systemically, meaningfully and quickly.

So let’s shift the conversation around Vergara. Instead of talking about how to fire bad teachers, let’s discuss how to keep good educators in the classroom.

Here in Minnesota, the Vergara decision provides an impetus to create policies that develop new teacher career pathways that will reward and retain talent, elevate the teaching profession and increase student achievement. Just as all teachers should have due process, we should also have opportunities to advance and grow in our practice, rather than remain in a mostly flat career trajectory where, unfortunately, teaching in the classroom is often considered the lowest rung on the career ladder. Many Minnesota teachers crave to work in a culture of opportunity in the classroom, not to move into administrative roles as soon as we can.

In a 2009 study, ‘Retaining Teacher Talent,’ the nonprofit, nonpartisan organization Public Agenda found that many teachers, specifically “Generation Y” teachers, are, “open to rewarding teachers for outstanding performance and increased responsibilities, provided the system is fair and valid and salaries are raised across the board.” In order to get highly effective teachers in front of our most vulnerable students, we must develop human resource systems that identify, retain and reward talent. Districts need the flexibility to provide incentives to get—and keep—proven expert teachers in traditionally tough-to-staff schools.

Vergara also called into question—and ultimately deemed unconstitutional—“Last In, First Out” quality-blind labor laws similar to those we have in Minnesota. This ruling, then, should encourage Minnesota to re-examine “Last In, First Out” and re-envision opportunities for teachers that include a well-compensated career, multiple pathways and earned professional milestones (e.g., “established teacher,” “advanced teacher” and “expert teacher”). Restructuring traditional seniority-based pay and lay-off systems will make teaching a more attractive career option and keep highly effective and expert—not just senior—teachers in the classroom.
A new system of alternate career pathways for teachers could include teacher-designed leadership and hybrid-teaching roles that keep expert teachers working with kids in the classroom. Expert teachers need time to design curricula, conduct research, prepare teacher candidates, advise policymakers, analyze student data, develop community partnerships, and help schools integrate new technologies. We need systems that foster, prize and retain this kind of expertise and dynamism.

Thanks to the Vergara decision, people are talking, but too often about the wrong things. So please join me in changing the conversation, from one in which teachers are victims, to one that celebrates us as the best agents to elevate our profession and reward talent, to improve American public schools and provide all kids equally with a top-notch education.

Holly Kragthorpe teaches seventh-graders at Ramsey Middle School in Minneapolis, where she is a union steward for Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, a school captain for Educators 4 Excellence, and a teacher blogging fellow and teacher policy fellow for MinnCAN.


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