David Berliner—Witness in Vergara Courtroom—Denies He Called Any Teachers “Grossly Ineffective”

Last week I blogged on the California teacher tenure decision in Vergara v. California. I concluded overall that, “The Vergara attorneys sought to portray the needs of children as separate and very different from the needs of their teachers.  In fact, teachers and children in our poorest communities share the need for society to invest in improving their public schools.”

But what had struck me as I read the decision was the supposed statistical evidence incorporated right into the decision itself by Judge Rolf Treu to prove that tenure among teachers violates the civil rights of California’s poorest children of color.  I was particularly struck by the judge’s interpretation of evidence from respected education researcher David Berliner, professor emeritus at Arizona State University and a long supporter of teachers and their need for unions.  I wrote about my puzzlement: “In one case the judge seems to have extrapolated from what he heard—from expert David Berliner, who is described to have “testified that 1–3 % of teachers in California are grossly ineffective.”  Treu continues, “Given that the evidence showed roughly 275,000 active teachers in this state, the extrapolated number of grossly ineffective teachers ranges from 2,750 to 8,250.”

I thank Diane Ravitch who posted The Statistical Error at the Heart of the Vergara Decision, for bringing to my attention an important piece published on June 12 by Jordan Weissmann, the senior business and economics correspondent for Slate.  Weissmann interviewed David Berliner by telephone about his testimony that between one and three percent of California’s teachers are grossly ineffective:  “But where did this number come from?  Nowhere, it turns out.  It’s made up.  Or a ‘guesstimate,’ as David Berliner, the expert witness Treu quoted, explained to me when I called him on Wednesday.  It’s not based on any specific data, or any rigorous research about California schools in particular.  ‘I pulled that out of the air,’ says Berliner…. ‘There’s no data on that.  That’s just a ballpark estimate, based on my visiting lots and lots of classrooms.'”

Neither does Berliner claim the descriptor, “grossly ineffective,” used by True in his decision.  Weissmann writes that Berliner denies use of “grossly ineffective” in his court testimony.  Berliner e-mailed Weissmann part of the court’s transcript (which you can read in Weissman’s piece) to prove that he never described California’s teachers as “grossly ineffective.”

In Weissmann’s interview with David Berliner, Berliner explains: “In hundreds of classrooms, I have never seen a ‘grossly ineffective’ teacher.  I don’t know anybody who knows what that means.”  Berliner told Weissman he believes test scores are not a good way to evaluate teachers.  Teachers “might do other things well in the classroom that don’t show on an exam, like teach social skills, or inspire their students to love reading or math.”

Weissmann also interviews Stuart Biegel, a UCLA law professor and education expert who testified in the trial.  Weissmann asked Biegel whether he thought the judge’s questionable extrapolation, right in the court decision, of Berliner’s speculation about 1-3 percent ineffective teachers would affect the appeal of the case.  Biegel responded that he believes there are even bigger problems in the logic of Treu’s decision:

“If 97 to 99 percent of California teachers are effective, you don’t take away basic hard-won rights from everybody.  You focus on strengthening the process for addressing the teachers who are not effective, through strong professional development programs, and, if necessary, a procedure that makes it easier to let go of ineffective teachers.”

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One thought on “David Berliner—Witness in Vergara Courtroom—Denies He Called Any Teachers “Grossly Ineffective”

  1. Pingback: High Stakes and Performance Anxiety for One Little Boy | janresseger

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