And so it goes… The VergarGuments keep-a-comin… spreading their way from California to the Empire State, from Albany to Buffalo. And what are VergarGuments you say?
Well, a VergarGument is a fallacious form of legal reasoning applied in the context of state constitutional litigation over causes of inequities and inadequacies of schooling selectively suffered by disadvantaged children. Yeah… that’s a mouthful, but it is worthy of its own newly minted, excessively precise definition.
The VerGargument arises from the recent Vergara case in California where a sufficiently gullible (or politically predisposed – you be the judge) judge accepted whole hog, the assertion that state laws governing the assignment and dismissal of teachers under district contractual agreements caused that state’s most disadvantaged children to be disproportionately subjected to “grossly ineffective” teachers.
You see, “causation” is a pretty important part of such legal challenges. And here, the burden on those bringing the case against the statutes in question was to show (reasonably/sufficiently display a connection… not “prove” beyond any reasonable doubt… and also not quite the same as statistical causation) that those statutes are responsible for the selective mistreatment of those bringing the case to court (deprivation of their state constitutionally guaranteed rights) . As I explained in my previous post, the causation assertion is suspect on simple logical grounds, with little need to get into the weeds of the statistical analyses.
The assertion that state policy restrictions on local contractual agreements is a primary (or even a significant) cause of teaching inequity is problematic at many levels.
First, variation in access to teacher quality across schools within districts varies… across districts. Some districts (in California or elsewhere) achieve reasonably equitable distributions of teachers while others do not. If state laws were the cause, these effects would be more uniform across districts – since they all have to deal with the same state statutory constraints (perhaps those district leaders testifying at trial in Vergara and bemoaning the inequities within their own districts were, in fact, revealing their own incompetence, rather than the supposed shackles of state laws?).
Second, teacher quality measures and attributes tend to vary far more across than within districts, making it really hard to assert that district contractual constraints (which constrain within, not cross-district sorting) imposed by state law have any connection to the largest share of teacher quality inequity.
But hey, let’s take a closer look at the evidence that already exists on these and related points in New York State, home to the newest rounds of VergarGuments, where a group calling itself the NYC Parents Union has filed suit claiming that New York State’s tenure laws cause poor minority children to be deprived of a Sound Basic Education (constitutional requirement upheld in previous litigation over funding disparities that have yet to be resolved).
We know from a long line of research, much of which can be found here, that teacher quality & qualification distributions vary in roughly equal parts across New York State school districts as they do within the largest district(s) across schools. Specifically, in one of the first major published studies of the new era of teacher quality research, Lankford, Loeb and Wyckoff (2002) found:
- Teachers are systematically sorted across schools and districts such that some schools employ substantially more qualified teachers than others do.
- Differences in the qualifications of teachers in New York State occurs primarily between schools within districts and between districts within regions, not across regions.
- The exception to the result that there is little difference in average teacher characteristics across regions is for the New York City region, which on average employs substantially less qualified teachers.
- Nonwhite, poor, and low performing students, particularly those in urban areas, attend schools with less qualified teachers.
Again, to support the idea that state restrictions on local contracts are the primary, or even a significant cause of teacher quality disparity to the point of deprivation of the constitutional right to sound basic education, one would expect to find that within districts, under a common contract and tenure protections, children in high need schools suffer disproportionately, and that districts have limited if any control (due to state law constraints) over that disproportionate suffering.
A second bit of empirical evidence that severely undermines the claim that state legal restrictions are prohibitive of districts improving the distribution of teaching quality is the finding of a few years later, by an overlapping group of researchers, that New York City had taken steps to substantially mitigate differences in teacher qualifications across schools, in part with the help of additional state policy restrictions.
The gap between the qualifications of New York City teachers in high-poverty schools and low-poverty schools has narrowed substantially since 2000. For example, in 2000, teachers in the highest-poverty decile of schools had math SAT scores that on average were 43 points lower than their counterparts in the lowest-poverty decile of schools. By 2005 this gap had narrowed to 23 points. The same general pattern held for other teacher qualifications such as the failure rate on the Liberal Arts and Sciences (LAST) teacher certification exam, the percentage of teachers who attended a “least competitive” undergraduate college, and verbal SAT scores. Most of the gap-narrowing resulted from changes in the characteristics of newly hired teachers, rather than from differences in quit and transfer rates between high and low-poverty schools.
That last part is critical here, since the central VergarGument for why state imposed legal protections harm low income and minority children is that they force districts to retain and place the worst teachers with the neediest students. Recruitment and retention are completely overlooked in the VergarGument which instead places the entire emphasis on dismissal, and legal restrictions on dismissal.
But there’s another piece to this puzzle as well, also documented in research done on New York State. And that is, that variations in compensation matter – and may determine whether a district even has the capacity to retain the teachers it would need, to, say, provide a sound basic education to low income and minority children. Ondrich, Pas and Yinger (2008) explain:
We find that teachers in districts with higher salaries relative to nonteaching salaries in the same county are less likely to leave teaching and that a teacher is less likely to change districts when he or she teaches in a district near the top of the teacher salary distribution in that county.
And it is abundantly clear that New York State school districts – especially those serving the state’s neediest children – lack the ability to pay the necessary wages to recruit and retain the workforce they need.
VergarGuments are an absurd smokescreen, failing to pass muster at even the most basic level of logical evaluation of causation – that A (state laws in question) can somehow logically (no less statistically) be associated with selective deprivation of children’s constitutional rights.
Are children in New York State being deprived of their right to a sound basic education.
Are VergarGuments the most logical path toward righting those wrongs? Uh… no.
 Lankford, H., Loeb, S., & Wyckoff, J. (2002). Teacher sorting and the plight of urban schools: A descriptive analysis. Educational evaluation and policy analysis, 24(1), 37-62.
 Boyd, D., Lankford, H., Loeb, S., Rockoff, J., & Wyckoff, J. (2008). The narrowing gap in New York City teacher qualifications and its implications for student achievement in high‐poverty schools. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 27(4), 793-818. http://cepa.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/Narrowing.pdf
 Ondrich, J., Pas, E., & Yinger, J. (2008). The determinants of teacher attrition in upstate New York. Public Finance Review, 36(1), 112-144.