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Poor Kids Versus Bad Teachers: Vergara v. California and the Social Construction of Teachers


by Jeanne M. Powers & Kathryn P. Chapman - 2021

Background: In the past decade, the laws governing teachers’ employment have been at the center of legal and political conflicts across the United States. Vergara v. California challenged five California state statutes that provide employment protections for teachers. In June 2014, a California lower court declared the statutes unconstitutional because they exposed students to “grossly ineffective teachers.”

Purpose: The purpose of the article is to document and analyze how Vergara was presented in the print news media. It is important to understand how the print news media presents education policy debates to the public, because the print news media shapes the general public’s understanding of education and other public policy debates by providing frames and themes for interpreting the issues in question and people associated with them.

Research Design: Using the social construction of target populations and political spectacle as conceptual lenses, we conducted a content analysis of print news media articles on the Vergara case published between June 2012 and November 2014. We provide a descriptive overview of the full corpus of articles published during this period and a thematic analysis of the 65 unique news articles published in the aftermath of the decision. The latter focuses on news articles because they are intended to provide more objective coverage of the case than opinions or editorials.

Findings: In the print news media coverage, the word “teacher” was often paired with a negative qualifier, which suggests that Vergara was an effort to change the relatively advantaged social construction of teachers. Similarly, metaphors and the illusion of rationality associated with political spectacle were used in ways that bolstered the plaintiffs’ claims. While Vergara consumed a substantial amount of philanthropic and public dollars, ultimately it did not change the policies that govern teachers’ employment in California. Vergara may have been more successful in shaping the general public’s perceptions of teachers and the conditions of teachers’ employment in the period following the trial.

Vergara v. California challenged five California statutes that provide employment protections for the state’s public school teachers. One grants tenure to teachers, or permanent employment in a school district after two years of employment. Three provide due process procedures for dismissing teachers. The final statute, often referred to as LIFO, an acronym for last in, first out, mandates that seniority should be used to determine teacher layoffs. Filed in the Los Angeles County Superior Court in May 2012 by Students Matter, a well-funded educational advocacy group, Vergara was controversial because it alleged that the statutes prevented school administrators from firing ineffective teachers. On June 10, 2014, Judge Rolf Treu held that the statutes were unconstitutional because they “cause[d] the potential and/or unreasonable exposure of grossly ineffective teachers to all California students in general and to minority and/or low income students in particular, in violation of the equal protection clause of the California constitution” (Vergara v. California, tentative decision, 2014, p. 3).


Vergara generated a substantial amount of national media coverage for a state court case. The controversial nature of Vergara was well captured by a TIME Magazine (TIME) cover story that we use to bound our analysis of the print news media articles about the case. The dramatic cover featured a gavel in midstrike over an apple. Inside the magazine, two pages of lead graphics depicted four apples against a white background, one of which was visibly rotten. The headline stated, “Rotten apples: It’s nearly impossible to fire a bad teacher” (Edwards, 2014). A cover story in TIME signals relevance (Goodnow, 2019).1 It was a significant marker of national visibility for a state court case that had been largely covered by California newspapers until Treu’s decision was announced. Before the decision, almost all the articles about Vergara from print news media sources outside California were news articles published in national newspapers (Powers & Chapman, 2017). After the decision, state newspapers began to cover the story, and the editorials and opinion pieces in national and state newspapers increased. Drawing on the social construction of target populations and political spectacle (Schneider & Ingram, 1993; Smith, 2004), we used media discourse analysis (Altheide & Schneider, 2013) to analyze the 95 print news media articles published between May 2012, when the case was filed, and November 2014, when the TIME article appeared. In this article, we focus primarily on the 65 unique print news media articles published after Treu’s decision, when the case moved from being primarily a state story to one that was viewed as having broader national significance.


It is important to understand how Vergara was presented in the print news media because it is one of the key sources of information for the public about education policy debates. In a poll of California voters administered in the weeks after the Vergara decision, 58% of respondents reported that they learned about what was happening in their communities’ schools through local newspapers, radio, or television news (Policy Analysis for California Education [PACE], 2014). Only 19% reported receiving information about their local schools from social media. Print news media tends to reach broader audiences and is more prestigious than social media, which provides added legitimacy to the claims presented about a policy or issue (Malin, Lubienski, & Mensa-Bonsu, 2019).


We begin by providing an overview of Students Matter’s founding and activities. In the section that follows, we describe our conceptual framework, which draws on “tracking discourse” (Altheide, 2000; Altheide & Schneider, 2013) as an overarching conceptual and analytical approach for our analysis of the print news media coverage; we use the social construction of target populations and political spectacle as specific concepts to anchor our analysis (Schneider & Ingram, 1993; Smith 2004). After describing our methods of data collection and analysis, we provide our thematic analysis of the print news media coverage of the Vergara case. Our analysis suggests that Vergara was an effort to change the social construction of teachers that was supported by the print news media stories about the case. We conclude with a discussion of the implications of our findings.


BACKGROUND


Students Matter, the advocacy organization behind Vergara, was founded by Silicone Valley entrepreneur David Welch, who also provided a substantial amount of funding to support the organization’s activities.2 Students Matter’s website states that it


promotes access to quality public education through impact litigation, communications, and advocacy. Students Matter fights for education equality in the court of law and in the court of public opinion, where students’ rights and voices matter most. By simultaneously using litigation to challenge the laws and practices preventing students from obtaining a quality education, while influencing the tide of public opinion through a media and organizing campaign, Students Matter creates both the opportunity and the demand for meaningful and sustainable policy transformation. (Students Matter, 2019a)


To achieve its goals, Students Matter assembled a high-powered legal team: Theodore B. Olsen, Theodore J. Boutrous, and Marcellus McRae (Students Matter, 2019b). It also partnered with RALLY, an “issue-driven communications firm.” Olsen argued in the Supreme Court on behalf of George W. Bush in Bush v. Gore (2000). More recently Olsen and Boutrous have been known for their work on the legal team that convinced the Supreme Court to overturn California’s Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage (e.g., Totenberg, 2010). McRae is a former assistant United States attorney and an expert in white-collar crime, and labor and employment law. RALLY provides communications related to impact litigation. Between the time Students Matter was founded and Treu’s decision in Vergara, Students Matter issued 62 press releases and 13 fact sheets about the case (see, for example Students Matter, 2014a). During the hearing, which was held between January and March 2014, Students Matter sent out press releases almost daily and on some days issued two press releases covering different issues raised during the hearing.


Vergara was the first of three lawsuits filed between 2012 and 2016, none of were successful. In the second, Doe v. Antioch, Students Matter alleged that the collective bargaining agreements of 13 school districts were out of compliance with the Stull Act, which requires districts to use state results from state assessments to evaluate teachers (Doe v. Antioch, 2015; Fensterwald, 2015). The court ruled in favor of the districts in September 2016 (Guzman-Lopez, 2016). Martinez v. Malloy challenged three Connecticut laws that Students Matter argued limit school choice and thus students’ access to “quality public schools” in that state (Martinez v. Malloy, 2016; Students Matter, 2019c). Martinez was dismissed in September 2018, although the plaintiffs planned to appeal the decision (Lambeck, 2018).


Filed on behalf of nine student plaintiffs, the Vergara complaint alleged that the five statutes governing teachers’ employment adversely affected all students because they could potentially be assigned a “grossly ineffective teacher” (Vergara v. California, complaint, 2012, p. 1). Students Matter also claimed that the statutes specifically burdened poor and minority students, whose “schools have a disproportionate share of grossly ineffective teachers” (Vergara v. California, complaint, 2012, p. 1). As a result, the statutes “perpetuate and widen the very achievement gap that education is supposed to eliminate” (Vergara v. California, complaint, 2012, p. 1). The trial began in January 2014; six months later, Treu held that the statutes were unconstitutional. The California Court of Appeals reversed Treu’s decision in April 2016. The California Supreme Court declined to review the case when Students Matter appealed the reversal (Medina & Rich, 2016).


On the surface, Vergara made a strong claim about equity: that low-income and minority students are disproportionately taught by “ineffective” teachers. Yet the specific policy solutions that were at the heart of the case did not have clear mechanisms for addressing this problem. It is difficult to accurately assess the “effectiveness” of teachers, particularly over the long term (e.g., Rothstein, 2017). Moreover, changes to these employment provisions are not likely to substantially change the distribution of teachers between schools (Cullen et al., 2021; Rothstein, 2015). However, the concerns that animate Vergara have a long history in the “teacher wars” (Goldstein, 2014, p. 5) or the political conflicts over the status of teaching as a profession that have often accompanied high-profile educational reforms.


Vergara and Students Matter’s other lawsuits are also part of a more recent campaign bankrolled by philanthropists to limit the due process and collective bargaining rights of teachers and other public employees (Allegretto et al., 2011; Aronowitz, 2011; McGlone, 2013; Medina & Rich, 2016; Scheiber & Vogel, 2018). Similar cases include Davids v. New York, Wright v. New York,3 and Forslund v. Minnesota. The latter two cases were brought by the Partnership for Educational Justice. Both Students Matter and the Partnership for Educational Justice were supported by the Walton and Broad Foundations (Medina & Rich, 2016). These legal challenges can also be viewed as part of the broader set of processes associated with neoliberalization (Malin, Hardy, & Lubienski, 2019).


LITERATURE REVIEW AND CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORK


We begin with Altheide’s (2000) conceptual and analytical approach for analyzing mass media, “tracking discourse” (see also Altheide & Schneider, 2013). Rooted in social constructionism and ethnomethodology, tracking discourse highlights the role of the mass media in shaping social reality. The mass media is not a neutral source of information for the general public about important public policy questions. By providing frames and themes for interpreting daily experiences, the media also shapes our understanding of issues, events, and public policy debates. Frames are the overarching ways that news topics are discussed and the boundaries around them—that is, which aspects of news topics are the foci of discussion and which are in the background or outside the margins of discussion (Altheide, 1997; Altheide & Schneider, 2013). Altheide (1997) argued that a problem frame dominates the news media whereby most news topics are presented as undesirable situations that need to be fixed. Arguably, the problem frame has dominated discussions about education policy since the publication of A Nation at Risk (Coe & Kuttner, 2018; Kumashiro, 2012; Mehta, 2013; Parker, 2011). Themes are the more specific dimensions of frames that are expressed in the context of discussing a particular news topic.


The news media also shapes the issues that are understood as public problems and the policy interventions aimed at addressing them by providing frames for interpreting the people and policies associated with education reform (e.g., Williams, 2020; see also Coe & Kuttner, 2018; Gabriel & Lester, 2013; Haas & Fischman, 2010; Malin, Hardy, & Lubienski, 2019; Malin, Lubienski, & Mensa-Bonsu, 2019; Moses & Saenz, 2008; Rooks & Muñoz, 2015). The general public’s knowledge about public policy issues is more strongly associated with indicators of the level of media coverage (e.g., volume, breadth, and prominence) than demographic factors (Barabas & Jerit, 2009). Thus, print news media stories about education are not objective reports about people and events. Rather, they reflect and often help reproduce existing dynamics of power and privilege. Print news media stories could also play a role in reconfiguring these relationships.


We also draw from Schneider and Ingram’s (1993) analysis of how the social construction of target populations shapes the allocation of entitlements and burdens through public policies (see also Ingram & Schneider, 2005; Ingram et al., 2014). Many public policies are directed at specific groups of people, or target populations (Schneider & Ingram, 1993). Target populations are socially constructed in the sense that they are a clearly delineated group associated with “specific, valence-oriented values, symbols, and images” that carry moral meanings (Schneider & Ingram, 1993, p. 335). Target populations can be arrayed within two intersecting continua based on (a) the degree to which their social constructions are positive or negative, and (b) their political power (Kreitzer & Smith, 2018; Schneider et al., 2014). Advantaged groups are target populations that are positively constructed and politically powerful, such as the elderly and members of the business community. Contenders are viewed negatively yet are politically powerful; unions are widely considered contenders. Dependents (e.g., children and the disabled) are positively constructed and politically weak, while deviants are both negatively constructed and politically weak. The latter include criminals and drug addicts.


In general, public policies tend to provide benefits for the advantaged, whereas deviants are often burdened by public policies (Schneider & Ingram, 1993). Contenders and dependents have discrepant social constructions and political power. Because contenders have negative social constructions but are politically powerful, policies that confer benefits on them are likely to be less public and visible. Although the public is sympathetic to dependents because of their positive social constructions, they lack political power. As a result, public policies aimed at dependents are likely to be symbolic because policy makers are not incentivized to direct resources at them. Rationales connect the policy being proposed, or the policy tool with the target population and the goals of the policy. In general, rationales for policies directed at the advantaged will be instrumental. For contenders, the rationales for policies aimed at reducing benefits will overstate the value of the benefits; the policy tool will be framed as correcting an unjust distribution of benefits. Rationales for providing benefits to dependents tend to invoke social justice claims.


The social constructions of target populations may be debated and contested as part of the policy-making process. Policy entrepreneurs, such as David Welch, and the print news media can play key roles in challenging and reshaping social constructions (Ingram & Schneider, 2005). Courts might also adjudicate conflicts over social constructions while resolving legal disputes (Schneider et al., 2014). We used Smith’s (2004) adaptation of Edelman’s (1988) political spectacle theory, which she and her colleagues used to analyze the contests around social constructions that occurred within and across multiple education policy contexts as an additional conceptual anchor. Smith argued that over the past 35 years, education policies have become less democratic and increasingly distorted by degenerative politics focused on winning ideological contests rather than improving public schools (see also Ingram & Schneider, 2005). Political actors attempt to redefine the symbolic meanings associated with target populations and the policies that affect them. Policies or changes to existing policies are degenerative rather than democratic when they result in unfair or superficial distributions of social benefits or burdens based on the target population’s social standing and political power.


We identified two key elements of political spectacle associated with the social construction of target populations in the print news media coverage of Vergara: (a) the mobilization of metaphorical language, and (b) the illusion of rationality or the use of numerical data, opinion polls, and research to justify policy claims or decisions (Smith, 2004). Because they “appeal to intuition, emotion, and tacit assumptions rather than to reason” (Smith, 2004, p. 20), metaphors encourage the public to link ideas and concepts in ways that shape how they interpret public problems and the policies aimed at addressing them (see also Altheide, 2000; Lakoff & Johnson, 2003). For example, the name of the What Works Clearinghouse implies that programs or practices that are not assessed using the specific set of procedures it promotes do not work (Kumashiro, 2012, 2014). Metaphors create boundaries for understanding by reinforcing the tacit assumptions most people use to make sense of policy proposals; information or interpretations that are not consistent with a specific frame are likely to be viewed as irrelevant (Haas et al., 2014).


The illusion of rationality prioritizes a specific form of rationality, the invocation of seemingly hard facts to support claims. As Stone (2002) observed, phenomena that are counted or measured, such as employment figures and value-added measures of teacher effectiveness, are not neutral. Rather, counting rules are based on often-unstated assumptions and values. As we explain, estimates of lifetime earnings using econometric techniques are numbers calculated based on assumptions that are not transparent to the general public. Likewise, while the lay observer might consider research findings to be authoritative, a normative belief shared by most researchers is that research findings are often debated and cumulative rather than conclusive.


METHODS AND DATA SOURCES


Because print news media articles are a key site through which members of the general public come to understand public policy debates (Barabas & Jerit, 2009; Jerit et al., 2006; Moses & Saenz, 2008; Rooks & Muñoz, 2015), our goal was to document and analyze how the print news media depicted Vergara. While state courts have determined the outcomes of the case, the framing of the case in the print news media may have shaped public perceptions of policies related to teachers’ employment. Vergara and its legal strategy were actively promoted by Students Matter and emulated by other organizations that were pursuing court cases in other states (Medina & Rich, 2016; Sawchuk, 2014). The first wave of national print news media stories focused on Vergara were published before Judge Treu’s decision and focused on the court proceedings, when local legal cases typically do not receive national coverage (Barabas & Jerit, 2009). The second wave of coverage addressed Treu’s decision and its relevance beyond California.


We constructed our data set by searching LexisNexis and ProQuest for articles published between May 2012, when Students Matter was founded, and the publication of the TIME cover story in November 2014; we used the search terms “David Welch,” “Students Matter,” “teacher tenure,” and “Vergara.” Our searches yielded 214 print news media articles published in national core and California newspapers.4 We included articles published in the Los Angeles Times in our counts of California newspapers. Although ProQuest considers the Los Angeles Times a core national newspaper, because the Los Angeles Unified School District was a defendant in the lawsuit, the Vergara case was an event in the Los Angeles Times’ local media market that would merit coverage. The articles ranged in length from brief updates on the case to more extensive discussions of the case and decision. We also included articles that mentioned Vergara in other contexts. For example, some articles published in California newspapers mentioned the case while covering the statewide elections for governor and state superintendent of public instruction. In New York newspapers, Vergara was discussed in articles about Davids v. New York.


Our analysis was shaped by our disciplinary perspectives (sociology and early childhood education, respectively) and our shared scholarly interest in policies that promote educational equity. The second author is also a former teacher. First, we categorized the articles by a set of descriptive characteristics: (a) year published, (b) article type (news article, editorial, opinion piece), (c) news source (California, national, or international newspaper, and other), and (d) published before or after Treu’s decision. The latter demarcates the two waves of coverage we identified, which we describe in more depth later. Next, we developed five thematic codes that addressed the elements of political spectacle described by Smith (2004): (a) the use of metaphor, (b) the illusion of rationality, (c) the casting of political actors in character roles (e.g., heroes, villains, and victims), (d) dramaturgy or the staging of events, and (e) a disconnection between means and ends, or indicators that there is a mismatch between the goal(s) of a policy proposal and the possible outcomes. Although we found evidence of all five elements of political spectacle, we present the two most salient here: the use of metaphor and the illusion of rationality.


We also developed inductive codes as the analysis proceeded. For example, additional codes specified instances when advocates and opponents of the lawsuit were mentioned by name or quoted, direct references to or quotations of Treu’s opinion, and the metaphors that were mobilized by both sides. One of the latter is that the teachers’ employment protections were described as a problem for administrators. We also coded the descriptors associated with the word “teacher,” an analysis we describe in more detail later.


We jointly coded an initial set of five articles to develop and refine our definitions of our codes and developed a codebook that listed the name and description of each code. For the remaining articles, we divided the articles in half; one of us was the primary coder, and the other was the secondary coder for each half. Throughout the analysis, we discussed our coding strategies to ensure that we were applying our codes consistently. We used the Dedoose platform to create and house the codebook and code all the text in each article, which allowed us to extract codes within and across articles. We addressed risks to validity by working back and forth between the codes and the data as our analysis unfolded, and searching for disconfirming evidence for our conclusions (Maxwell, 2013). We also consulted the Students Matter website and documents related to the case to triangulate our claims.


In the initial phase of the analysis, we focused on the first wave of articles published between May 2012 and April 2014, or the period between Students Matter’s founding and Judge Treu’s decision (Powers & Chapman, 2017). In this article, we analyze the second wave of articles published in the aftermath of Treu’s decision through November 2014, when the TIME article appeared in print. Because objectivity is a central norm in American journalism (Cook, 1998; Schudson, 2001), we focused our thematic analyses in both phases on the 95 news articles that, although intended to present neutral accounts of the case, also reflect editors’ judgments about the stories and the aspects of stories they considered newsworthy (Rooks & Muñoz, 2015). We viewed the opinion and editorial pieces as more explicitly partisan, although we do briefly address the opinion pieces later.


Table 1.  Descriptive Characteristics of Print News Media Articles by Publication, Type, and Year

 

California newspapers

N = 119

Other state newspapers

N =  29

National newspapers

N = 63

International newspapers

N =  3

Type

N (%)

N (%)

N (%)

N (%)

 News

40 (33.6)

15 (51.8)

39 (61.9)

1 (33.3)

 Editorial

18 (15.1)

7 (24.1)

4 (6.3)

0 (0.0)

 Opinion

52 (43.7)

7 (24.1)

20 (31.8)

2 (66.7)

Letters to the Editor

9 (7.6)

0 (0.0)

0 (0.0)

0 (0.0)

Year

    

2012

9 (7.6)

0 (0.0)

2 (3.2)

0 (0.0)

2013

7 (5.9)

0 (0.0)

0 (0.0)

0 (0.0)

2014

103 (86.5)

29 (100.0)

61 (96.8)

3 (100.0)


FINDINGS


DESCRIPTIVE ANALYSIS


Table 1 outlines the descriptive characteristics of the print news media articles. A majority (119, or 56%) were published in California-based newspapers, while a quarter were published in national core newspapers outside California. Almost all the articles were published in 2014 and covered the Vergara hearing and the decision. In the first wave of coverage before the decision, some newspapers, including Education Week (a national newspaper aimed at a readership interested in education) and the Los Angeles Times summarized the testimony at the hearing in detail. After Treu announced his decision, the articles shifted to providing details of Treu’s ruling, often through direct quotation. More than half of the California articles were opinion pieces, which reflected Students Matter’s explicit goal and efforts to use impact litigation to “turn the tide of public opinion through a media and organizing campaign” (Students Matter, 2019d). Newspapers in other states did not begin covering the case until the second wave, after Treu’s decision was announced.


Opinion pieces provide insight into how public policy issues are presented to the public because the editorial page is intended to present a range of perspectives, and editors select which opinion pieces will be published (Saguy & Gruys, 2010). In our analysis of the first wave of print news media coverage before the decision, there was a distinct imbalance in the number of opinion pieces written by proponents of the case compared with opponents (Powers & Chapman, 2017). Many of the former were high-profile authors, while the authors of the opinion pieces opposing the case were less known. There was a similar imbalance in the opinion pieces published after the decision, during the second wave of print news media coverage. In the second wave, 23 were written by high-profile supporters of the Vergara decision, such as Michele Rhee, John Deasy (both superintendents of large urban school districts), and Lawrence Tribe (a well-known constitutional scholar). Seven were written by lesser known opponents of the decision, including school principals, education consultants, and professors.


THEMATIC ANALYSIS


Our thematic analysis is focused on the 65 unique news articles published in the second wave of coverage after the Vergara decision, when the case gained national significance.5 We restricted the analysis to news articles because they are widely understood as more neutral and objective than the other types of articles, and because of the imbalance in the stances of the opinion pieces we documented. Our analysis suggests that Vergara was an effort to change the social construction of teachers that was supported by print news media stories. Beyond the specific policy changes the organization sought, another stated goal of Students Matter’s litigation strategy was to change public perceptions of teacher employment laws and other education policies. In the immediate aftermath of Vergara, Students Matter may have had some success with this secondary goal, particularly in California. That said, any influence the case had on public opinion likely dissipated in the wake of the teachers’ strikes that occurred in the years that followed and the school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic (see for example, García, 2020).


“Ineffective Teacher”


Smith (2004) argued that one of the features of political spectacle is the use of symbolic language such as metaphors, which we address later. In addition to metaphors, the most striking pattern we identified in the print news media coverage was an explicit use of language—the collocation of the word “teacher” with other words (Warren, 2013; see also Blinder & Allen, 2016). We focused on the L1 collocates, or the adjectives6 that were the first words to the left of the word “teacher,” which we coded as positive, negative, or neutral (Warren, 2013). We did not code instances when the word “teacher” was used as stand-alone term, such as “the teacher” and “all teachers,” or when the term was used in conjunction with a verb (e.g., “firing teachers,” “improve teacher performance”). Table 2 provides an overview of the terms mentioned two or more times7 in the articles across the entire set of articles (pre- and postdecision) because the findings were similar for both waves of print news media coverage. The terms are listed by a code for the connotation of the term (positive, negative, or neutral) and frequency, with the number of mentions in parentheses. We did not list terms that were used only once.


Table 2. Collocation of “Teacher” in Print News Media Articles by Connotation of Paired Adjective


Negative (N = 219)

Neutral (N = 68)

Positive (N = 74)

ineffective/grossly ineffective/ least effective (N = 117)

public school (N = 18)

effective (N = 16)

bad (N = 32)

new/newest/

newly hired (N = 11)

best (N = 13)

incompetent (N = 22)

veteran (N = 4)

good (N =  11)

poor and variations (N = 12)

senior (N = 3)

great (N = 6)

weak (N = 6)

tenured (N = 3)

quality/high quality (N = 8)

low performing (N = 4)

middle school (N = 2)

young paired with positive qualifiers (N = 7)

tenured paired with

negative qualifiers (N = 3)

experienced (N = 2)

competent (N = 4)

problem (N = 3)

less experienced (N = 2)

 

unqualified (N = 3)

full-time equivalent (N = 2)

 

unsuitable (N = 2)

  

worst (N = 2)

  


In a substantial majority of instances, the word “teacher” was paired with a negative term. More positive terms, such as “effective teacher,” “good teacher,” and “quality teacher,” were far less common. The phrase “ineffective teacher” recurred the most frequently. Although somewhat ambiguous, the terms “effective” or “ineffective teacher” are associated with value-added models for measuring teachers’ performance, a popular policy proposal when the case was moving to trial (see, for example, The Measures of Effective Teaching Project, 2015). One of the plaintiffs’ key claims was that decisions about teachers’ continued employment should be based on their effectiveness as measured by value-added models rather than seniority. Although scholars have raised concerns about the use of value-added models for high-stakes purposes (e.g., Darling-Hammond et al., 2012), possible problems with value-added models were not explained in the print news media coverage of the Vergara case.


In general, teachers are viewed positively, with some degree of political standing (Kreitzer & Smith, 2018; Schneider & Ingram, 2019). The consistent pairing of the word “teacher” with negative qualifiers could have shaped the social construction of teachers to the extent that it moved teachers from being considered a relatively advantaged social group to less advantaged or even contender status in the wake of the decision. Moreover, throughout the newspaper coverage of the case, ineffective teachers were positioned as harming children, a group that is socially constructed as dependent and, as such, that needs to be protected (Kreitzer & Smith, 2018).


The results of polls conducted in the years after the lower court trial and decision support this conclusion (Peterson et al., 2017). When California voters were polled the week after the Vergara decision was announced, 61% or more of the respondents were opposed to the tenure and seniority rules at the heart of the case (PACE, 2014). Two articles in the Los Angeles Times and the Orange County Register reported the results (Blume, 2014; Leal, 2014). Although the poll covered other education policy issues, these results were the primary focus of both articles. In an April 2015 poll of approximately 1,500 California voters, 52% of respondents reported that making it easier to fire underperforming teachers would improve public schools “a lot,” and an additional 21% reported that making it easier to fire underperforming teachers would somewhat improve public schools in California (Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, 2015). The poll did not assess respondents’ opinions about how seniority should be used to retain teachers. Similarly, 59% of respondents agreed that administrators should take performance into account much more than years teaching when making decisions about layoffs, while 23% reported that performance should count somewhat more than years teaching. Only 11% of respondents prioritized seniority. In August 2016, two years after Treu’s decision, a sample of 1,200 California voters were polled and asked to estimate the percentage of teachers who were ineffective and needed to be replaced (PACE, 2016). Fifty percent of the respondents provided estimates that ranged between 21% and 60%. The average registered voter estimated that 33% of teachers were ineffective and needed to be replaced.


Proponents vs. Opponents


Another noteworthy feature of the print news media stories published after the decision is the imbalance in how proponents and opponents of the decision were featured. We coded the stories to note mentions of and quotations from (a) people who were advocates of the plaintiffs’ claims and supporters of the decision, and (b) defenders of the statutes. Within these groups, we focused on the proponents and opponents with national reputations.


In the print news media stories published after the decision, there were clear differences in the extent to which proponents of the decision not directly connected to the case were mentioned or quoted compared with opponents. Twenty-one articles mentioned national figures who supported the decision, compared with 12 articles that highlighted the perspectives of opponents. This is in part because Vergara had an extremely prominent advocate, then Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who was described as an enthusiastic supporter of the decision. The day Treu’s decision was announced, Duncan issued a press release endorsing it. Duncan’s support was mentioned in 13 articles; seven contained quotations from Duncan’s press release. For example, a Washington Post article published the day after the decision contained a quotation from the press release used in four other articles:


The students who brought this lawsuit are, unfortunately, just nine out of millions of young people in America who are disadvantaged by laws, practices and systems that fail to identify and support our best teachers and match them with our neediest students. (Layton, 2014)


The same article had quotations from five other prominent supporters, including Jeb Bush and Michelle Rhee. Only two opponents of the decision were quoted, Randi Weingarten and Dennis Van Roekel, the presidents of the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, respectively. The latter are less known than the proponents of the lawsuit, particularly Jeb Bush. Research in advertising has indicated that high profile or celebrity product endorsers have more credibility with the general voting public than people with less name recognition (Agrawal & Kamakura, 1995; Mittelstaedt et al., 2000).


Nationwide Trend


One salient theme in the print news media coverage after Treu’s decision was the claim that the case had implications beyond California. Perhaps not surprisingly, this theme was largely prevalent in stories outside California. The majority of the 15 news stories published in state newspapers were written by local reporters who discussed the implications of the case for their states. For example, an article published in Pennsylvania reported that the Vergara decision provided momentum for a bill being considered by the state legislature that would require teacher furloughs to be determined by performance rather than seniority (Nussbaum, 2014). That said, six of these were published in two New York papers, the New York Daily News and the New York Post, and drew connections between Vergara and the New York lawsuit Davids v. Wright. Davids is still being fought in the courts after a March 2018 decision by an appellate court ruled that the case could proceed. The articles anticipated that Vergara would prompt legal campaigns in multiple states that never materialized. Although Students Matter was described as considering similar lawsuits in up to nine additional states, only two were initiated, Doe v. Antioch and Martinez v. Malloy.


Political Spectacle


We identified two aspects of political spectacle: (a) the use of metaphor, and (b) the illusion of rationality. One key metaphor used throughout the print news media coverage of the case was that the employment protections challenged by the case were characterized as a problem for schools and school administrators. The most extreme version of this claim was that incompetent or bad teachers were “virtually impossible to fire.” Drawn from the plaintiff’s post-trial brief (Vergara v. California, post-trial brief, 2014, p. 1), the phrase “virtually impossible” was used in four articles in the coverage after the decision. In subtler versions of these claims, which were often uncritically reproduced from Treu’s opinion, the due process procedures for dismissing teachers were described as “time-consuming,” “expensive,” “difficult,” and “complicated.” Only two of the 30 instances when this metaphor was used in the second wave of coverage balanced the point to some degree. For example, in an article published two days after the decision, the New York Times characterized the tenure provisions as follows:


Those tenure rules—which teachers unions say represent important job security, and detractors say make it impossible to fire bad teachers—have been publicly debated for years and have often prevailed, particularly in states like California where unions hold sway in the legislature. (Medina, 2014)


Although this description noted that tenure provides teachers with job security, teachers are not described neutrally. The word “teacher” is used in the phrase “bad teacher.” Teachers’ unions, a contender group, were mentioned twice, and the political power of teachers’ unions was also noted.


A second metaphor we identified was that the statutes provided an undeserved benefit. This metaphor was most frequently invoked by the claim that teachers’ employment protections exceeded those of other state employees or private sector workers. A Los Angeles Times story published the day after the decision was announced summarized Treu’s opinion as follows:


The 16-page decision ends the process of laying off teachers based solely on when they were hired. It also strips them of extra job safeguards not enjoyed by other school or state employees [emphasis added]. And, lastly, it eliminates the current tenure process, under which instructors are either fired or win strong job security about 18 months after they start teaching. (Blume & Ceasar, 2014)


Nine of the 16 articles published after the decision that used this metaphor tended to provide more detailed discussion of the plaintiffs’ claims than the defendants. Although some articles included quotations from opponents of the decision, such as representatives from teachers’ unions, these generally amounted to broad criticisms of the decision and plans for appeal rather than specifically addressing the plaintiffs’ claims. The remaining seven articles tended to be more balanced by discussing the issues raised by both sides. Relatedly, many of the articles compared California’s employment statutes to those of other states; a sizeable subset of these claimed or implied that the provisions in California law were an anomaly because they were less stringent than those in other states, such as in this article in the Whittier Daily News:


California, Treu said, is among just five outlier states where the probationary period used to determine whether junior teachers are worthy of lifetime protections—a status widely referred to as tenure—is two years or less. Forty-one states have a probation period that lasts at least three years, and four states have no tenure at all. Only one state, Hawaii, makes it easier for teachers to obtain tenure and its guarantees, awarding the status after just one year on the job. (Kuznia, 2014)


The other salient feature of political spectacle we identified in the print news media stories published after the decision was the illusion of rationality or the effort to support claims with what seem to be hard facts. We identified three types of hard facts: (a) summaries of numeric data related to teachers’ employment, such as the cost of due process and the number of teachers released from their contracts for unsatisfactory performance; (b) descriptions of findings from scholarly research; and (c) the use of data from opinion polls to support a claim.8


The most widely cited numbers in the print news media coverage were related to the metaphor of teachers’ employment protections as a problem, described earlier. During the trial, John Deasy, the superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, testified that it took between two and 10 years to dismiss a teacher, at a cost of $250,000 to $450,000 (Students Matter, 2014b). An Oakland school administrator provided a range of $50,000 to $400,000; Treu’s decision combined the two ranges as $50,000 to $450,000. These figures were cited in six newspaper stories, while others summarized them as “hundreds of thousands of dollars.” In two stories published by the Orange County Register and one story in The Washington Post in the days after the decision, the high-end figures were reported—10 years and $450,000—rather than the range (Layton, 2014; Petersen & Terrell, 2014). These figures are an estimate of the cost of dismissal in two school districts—one of which is the second largest school district in the country—and may not reflect the costs in other districts (Henrion, 2016). Other print news media stories cited figures suggesting that few teachers were dismissed from their jobs because the process for dismissing teachers was cumbersome. For example, a story in The Economist stated,


A teacher in California has a one in 125,000 chance each year of being sacked for incompetence. In this respect, Californian teachers’ jobs are about 3,750 times more secure than those of private-sector workers. Contracts make it almost impossible to fire duds. (“Brown v. Board, the Sequel,” 2014)


Another dimension of the illusion of rationality was references to academic research. One key element of the expert testimony on behalf of the plaintiffs was a study conducted by Raj Chetty, a Harvard professor of economics, and his colleagues (Chetty et al., 2014). Chetty’s testimony included compelling findings from a large-scale statistical analysis. He and his colleagues estimated that replacing a low-quality teacher (a teacher in the bottom 5% of the distribution as estimated by value-added models) with an average-quality teacher would result in income gains for students in adulthood of $250,000 per classroom. The figure cited by Treu and reported in the print news media coverage was that “a single year in a classroom with a grossly ineffective teacher costs students $1.4 million per classroom” (Vergara v. California, tentative decision, 2014, p. 7). This latter figure is the estimate per classroom of undiscounted earnings gains; this does not account for the decline in the value of money over time, whereas the estimate of $250,000 does. The print news media also cited the finding as $50,000 per child, a figure drawn from the fact sheet distributed by Students Matter a few days before Treu’s decision was announced (Students Matter, 2014b).9


The print news media coverage did not address how these figures were estimates derived from a set of complex analyses. Chetty et al. (2014) calculated teachers’ value-added scores or the gains that an average student would make in a single year after being taught by those teachers. They used this set of estimates to predict students’ earnings by the age of 28, and then extrapolated students’ lifetime earnings from their earnings at age 28. Each step relied on assumptions documented in the scholarly paper reporting the analysis—such as the discount rate used to calculate the present value of lifetime earnings—that were not discussed in the print news media articles. Rather, the numbers were presented as straightforward facts. The print news media coverage did not address how these numbers are products of the assumptions and decisions of the researchers (Stone, 2002; see also Adler, 2013).


DISCUSSION AND CONCLUSION


While Students Matter’s primary goal to change the employment protections granted to teachers by state law fell short, in the immediate aftermath of Vergara it may have been more successful with its secondary goal of shifting public perception of these statutes and the teaching profession more broadly. More specifically, Vergara was aimed at changing the social construction of a target population—teachers—and reframing the rationale for the policy tools that confer benefits on them, the California statutes related to tenure, due process, and seniority (Schneider & Ingram, 1993). Vergara was also an effort to bring heightened visibility to this set of benefits. Moreover, the proponents of the case argued that tenure, employment based on seniority, and due process rights were unjust and that teachers did not deserve them. The plaintiffs played an important role in this public drama. Vergara pitted teachers, a relatively advantaged group, against low-income and minority students, a compelling group of dependents, who claimed they were harmed by the statutes in question.


One of the most striking features of the print news media coverage was the way that the term “teacher” was consistently linked with negative qualifiers. This finding suggests that even the most balanced news coverage of the Vergara case was more aligned with the plaintiffs’ arguments than the defenders of the statutes. It would be interesting to assess whether the negative framing of teachers and teachers’ work that dominated the coverage of Vergara has been reflected in the print news media coverage of other issues related to teachers, such as the statewide teacher strikes in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona, and the role of public schools, teachers, and teaching after the school closures because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Arguably, the print news media coverage of Vergara and similar phenomena have likely contributed to the mistrust in public institutions associated with neoliberalism (Lakoff, 2008; see also Harvey, 2005).


Another way that the print news media coverage of Vergara tended to favor the proponents’ claims was the coverage of commentary by proponents compared with opponents. High-profile advocates of the case who were not directly involved in the legal challenge were quoted more frequently and extensively than the statutes’ defenders. The latter group, although national figures, were also less likely to be household names than Jeb Bush or Arne Duncan, two prominent advocates for the plaintiffs. Although the primary venue for Vergara was the courts, it was also widely reported in the media, including in state newspapers outside California. After the decision, print news media stories in other states both reported on the decision and addressed the relevance of the decision for their own state contexts.


Although most elements of political spectacle were present in the print news media stories in the second wave of stories published after the decision, the use of metaphors was the most pronounced. The first metaphor, teacher employment protections as a problem, suggested that the statutes posed overwhelming obstacles for school administrators and barriers for improving schools. The print news media coverage predominantly emphasized the claims of the plaintiffs’ legal team that the statutory rules burdened districts, schools, and administrators because adhering to them consumed money and time. Yet while the print news media coverage focused on claims about the prohibitively high cost of dismissing teachers, which had the effect of exaggerating their value, the issues that were absent from the coverage are also worth noting. For the most part, the print news media articles did not explain the employment protections at the center of the case from a teacher’s perspective or why tenure and due process rights—which cannot be as easily monetized as the cost of dismissing a teacher—might be important and necessary protections for teachers. Rather, the articles focused on how California’s statutes were anomalies compared with those of other states. Likewise, these employment protections were characterized as an undeserved benefit, without addressing the relatively low salaries teachers receive compared with other professions (Allegretto & Mishel, 2019).


We also identified two salient aspects of the illusion of rationality: the use of numbers and the use of research as seemingly hard facts to legitimize claims, such as the cost of dismissing “ineffective” teachers, or the projected earnings gains students receive by being taught by a “teacher of average effectiveness” (Students Matter, 2014b). Notably, the numbers cited by proponents were not rebutted. The claim that effective teachers raise students’ future earnings by $1.4 million is both attention-grabbing and a figure in need of unpacking, given that it is an average and a classroom-level estimate that does not account for the changing value of the dollar over time. It is unrealistic to expect newspaper stories to cover the assumptions and methodological choices involved in this and similar analyses in depth (see, for example, Pivovarova et al., 2016), however, journalists can and should explicitly state that these figures are estimates and averages.


If Judge Treu’s decision had been upheld and triggered legislative changes to the state statutes governing teachers’ employment, public school teachers in California would have lost these benefits, but it is not likely that the policy changes that Students Matter was pursuing would have ensured that poor and minority students would be taught by “effective” teachers, however defined. The latter requires more substantive reforms that change the way teachers and students are distributed in schools and classrooms. In the aftermath of Vergara, it seems clear that the case, which consumed a substantial amount of philanthropic and public dollars, ultimately did not have much effect on the policies that govern teachers’ employment in California. The jury is out about the extent to which Vergara made progress on Students Matter’s goal of changing the general public’s perceptions of teachers and the conditions of teachers’ employment. Our analysis suggests that contesting the narratives about teachers and teaching associated with degenerative politics will remain a significant challenge for public school advocates.


Notes


1.

TIME is among the most widely read and influential weekly U.S. news magazines (Angeletti & Oliva, 2010; Meisner & Takahashi, 2013). In 2014, TIME had the highest print circulation of 15 major news magazines in the United States and the second highest digital population as measured by unique visitors in a one-month period (Pew Research Center, 2015).


2.

According to the Students First Foundation’s tax returns, Welch or the foundations and trusts connected to his family donated $1.25 million to Students Matter between 2010 and 2015. Other major donors included the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, the Broad Foundation, and the Arthur Rock Foundation.


3.

Davids and Wright were consolidated.


4.

We did not code duplicate articles. ProQuest categorizes the following as the national and expanded core of newspapers: The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, USA Today, and The Christian Science Monitor. We included Education Week in this group because it is a major national newspaper focusing on education.


5.

Seventy-two news articles were published after the decision. Six were articles in regional California newspapers that duplicated others, and one was published outside the United States.


6.

In a small number of cases, we coded multiple words depending on the context.


7.

Our cutoff point was two uses of a term or a variation of a term because it allowed us to show the range of terms in the neutral category.


8.

As we discussed earlier, two articles reported extensively on findings from a state opinion poll conducted in the wake of the Vergara decision that included survey items related to the case (Blume, 2014; Leal, 2014).


9.

In the scholarly paper published a few months after the decision, these figures appeared in a footnote rather than in the main text (Chetty et al., 2014).


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 123 Number 4, 2021, p. 1-26
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23651, Date Accessed: 10/24/2021 11:16:05 AM

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About the Author
  • Jeanne M. Powers
    Arizona State University
    E-mail Author
    JEANNE M. POWERS, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, Arizona State University. She is a sociologist of education, and her recent research addresses school segregation, school choice, the academic achievement of immigrant students, the teacher workforce, and the process of policy implementation.
  • Kathryn P. Chapman
    University of Kentucky
    E-mail Author
    KATHRYN P. CHAPMAN, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral scholar in the Department of Educational Leadership Studies in the College of Education at the University of Kentucky. Her research focuses on the intersection of policy, leadership, and financial investments to address inequities across early childhood systems.
 
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