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StudentsFirst Founder and CEO Michelle Rhee. (AP)

Q&A: Michelle Rhee On Teacher Tenure Challenges

by Claudio Sanchez
Jul 30, 2014

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Julia Macias, a plaintiff and Los Angeles Unified School District middle school student, comments on the Vergara v. California lawsuit verdict in Los Angeles.

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In Vergara v. California, lawyers for the plaintiffs argued that the state's teacher tenure system hurts poor, minority students because they are more likely to end up with "grossly ineffective" teachers. The case focused on three areas: tenure, cumbersome dismissal policies and seniority-based lay-offs. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu ruled that several relevant state laws violated students' right to an education as spelled out in California's Constitution. Teachers unions have appealed.

The Vergara ruling is already reverberating across the country. Earlier this week, a handful of parents in New York filed suit in state court, making largely the same arguments as the Vergara plaintiffs. And it's clear that the tenure critics who are mounting these challenges have broader ambitions.

Among those critics is Michelle Rhee, founder of StudentsFirst. After resigning as Washington, D.C. schools chancellor under a cloud of controversy, she embarked on a campaign to challenge tenure and seniority laws. Her group played a supporting role in both the California and New York challenges and is now considering action in several other states.


Besides New York and California, which states do you think are ripe for a challenge?

There are probably conversations going on in 4-5 states right now, thinking about this and trying to figure out if it's relevant for their state whether there's a litigation strategy. That's our sense of it, being on the ground. Some states across the country have begun to make changes at the district level or legislatively, but, in many states, the litigation strategy and going through the courts is a different way to (make the changes).

Minnesota, Connecticut, New Jersey and New York are on that list?

Yes they are. There's talk in Tennessee as well.

In order for you to challenge teacher tenure and seniority in a state, your organization has said that you need to find states whose constitutions spell out their obligation to provide a sound education. Why is that?

Well, because the reason this case has been successful in California is because the California Constitution articulates a certain level of education that needs to be provided to every child. If you look at states across the country, (some) states have very, very strong language about the quality and equity kids deserve. (Some) say you have to provide an education to kids but don't really speak about quality. Then there's a middle group. So the states that are likely to be most successful with litigation (challenging tenure and seniority), are ones like Minnesota which have a very, very high standard articulated in their constitution

Are you involved in the New York lawsuit?

We partnered with Campbell Brown (head of the Partnership for Educational Justice), helping to identify the plaintiffs, and are 100 percent supportive. Of all the in-school factors that impact students' achievement, teachers are the number one factor. And, when we have nonsensical laws that give people a job for life regardless of performance, people more and more see that as problematic and want to see changes.

The National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers have vowed to oppose what they call "Vergara-like" lawsuits. They say that the Vergara ruling was not about protecting students but about attacking teachers and their due process rights.

If you read what the judge said, that's absolutely incorrect. Everybody agrees, due process rights are absolutely critical. Nobody is arguing that we get rid of due process. What we're saying is that layoffs should not be done by seniority alone, that quality should be taken into account. And we're saying that, for egregiously incompetent teachers, the dismissal process should be more streamlined. We can solve these problems together. I mean, it was not an easy fight in Washington, D.C. (where Rhee spent three years as schools chancellor). Ultimately, we signed a contract with the union that addressed a lot of these issues, and the American Federation of Teachers signed off on it. So we have a precedent to be able to do this. (In D.C.) we are now retaining the most highly effective teachers at much higher rates.

Union leaders say they're not opposed to shortening the time it takes to fire a bad teacher or lengthening the time it takes to get tenure, but they say that these policies are not hurting kids. Other factors are to blame, like poverty, broken homes, inadequate school funding.

The unions are absolutely right. There are other issues that go into why our nation's schools are not performing well. There are many other factors. Vergara did not say (tenure/seniority) were the only factors and, therefore, if we fix it we will solve the problem. The judge simply said there are currently laws and policies in place that, if you look at the data, clearly these laws disproportionately impact poor, minority kids negatively, and we should fix or remove those policies.

Legal experts I've spoken with say that, down the road, Vergara-like cases could expose governors and state legislatures because they're the ones who approve and pass the laws and policies that are under attack.

Looking at those governors and legislatures and saying, 'Here's what the data says, what are you going to do about it?', I think that's a good thing. So, if a governor or legislature decided (tenure and seniority issues) are a problem in their state and we're going to take it on by passing legislation, I think that's the ideal. Or they could be forced by the courts. They are going to mandate that legislature move on this. If I'm a politician, I don't want to be pinned into a corner by the courts. That doesn't make much sense.

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All of our scientific tools have limits. These limits ensure that we will never see the whole picture. We can never have complete knowledge of the universe. Above, the ESO's APEX radio telescope probes the heavens from its lonely perch on Chile's Chajnantor plateau. (ESO)

No End In Sight? No Problem!

Jul 30, 2014

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Julia Macias, a plaintiff and Los Angeles Unified School District middle school student, comments on the Vergara v. California lawsuit verdict in Los Angeles.

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Last week, I came across George Johnson's piece for The New York Times, "Beyond Energy, Matter, Time and Space," where he writes, in his usually engaging style, about two recent books with opposite viewpoints concerning what we can and cannot know of the world.

On the one hand, we find philosopher Thomas Nagel, and the arguments from his 2012 book Mind and Cosmos. According to Nagel, simple materialism, as we understand it today, is insufficient to make sense of some of the most complex natural phenomena, life included. He proposes an extension of current ideas, still within the material, but into yet unknown modes of thinking.

On the other, we have the berplatonism of MIT physicist Max Tegmark, as explained in his book Our Mathematical Universe. According to Tegmark, math is not just the tool we invent to describe both physical reality and pure rational constructions, but the very essence of nature.

Johnson's concluding paragraph resonates strongly with my own book The Island of Knowledge. The main point is that it is nave to believe we can have such a thing as complete knowledge of nature. There are two essential reasons for this belief.

The first is simply that to make models of nature we need data. This data comes from tools of all kinds, from microscopes and particle detectors to telescopes and mass spectrometers. Any tool has limits of precision and range. Hence, we are always partially myopic to what goes on. Tools can and will improve. But some shortsightedness will always be unavoidable.

The second reason is that nature itself operates within certain limits: the speed of light and the finite age of the universe delimit how far we can see in space and limit causal relationships; quantum uncertainties delimit what we can say about the position and velocity of submicroscopic objects, and imply in nonlocal correlations through entanglement; math itself has its limits, as Kurt Gdel explores in his incompleteness theorems. The same is true with computers, from Alan Turing's undecidability theorem.

So, the image of an island captures our struggle to make sense of things, surrounded by an ocean of the unknown. As the island grows, so do the shores of our ignorance: as we learn more about the world we are able to ask questions we couldn't have anticipated before.

To know it all we would need to know all questions. And that, of course, is clearly impossible.

Unanswerable questions invoke a feeling of humility, of how science is, in essence, an ongoing mosaic of ideas, a self-correcting narrative of what we can gather of physical reality. This is far from a defeatist view; in fact, it is liberating. What could be more exciting for us to realize that knowledge is an endless frontier?


Marcelo Gleiser's latest book is The Island Of Knowledge: The Limits Of Science And The Search For Meaning. You can keep up with Marcelo on Facebook and Twitter: @mgleiser

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All of our scientific tools have limits. These limits ensure that we will never see the whole picture. We can never have complete knowledge of the universe. Above, the ESO's APEX radio telescope probes the heavens from its lonely perch on Chile's Chajnantor plateau. (ESO)

An Unconventional Family On The Road To Happiness In 'Lucky Us'

Jul 30, 2014

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Julia Macias, a plaintiff and Los Angeles Unified School District middle school student, comments on the Vergara v. California lawsuit verdict in Los Angeles.

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Amy Bloom's new novel Lucky Us takes readers across America in the 1940s, that special decade of wartime dislocation and post-war disruption — with side-trips to England and Germany — in the company of a pair of half-sisters as endearing and comically annoying as any you'll find in contemporary fiction.

Iris is the older teenager, daughter of the narrator's remarried father. She's focused on the idea of becoming an actress. Eva, the narrator of most of the book, is the younger one. She reads biographies of Clara Barton and Florence Nightingale, and remarks that "even in the books written for little girls, you could tell these women were so tough they'd take a bullet out of you with a fork and not blink." Eva is a toughie in training. She focuses on everything in the slightly off-kilter journey she and her sister make on the road to happiness: the people, the clothes, the food, the nasty turns and the wonderful.

Bloom does the same. Witness her cameo portrait of a gay Hollywood hairdresser named Diego who looks "like everyone's Mexican grandfather" and thinks of himself as an artist: "He'd been putting makeup on beautiful women and pretty girls and some very attractive men for thirty years. He'd done the deep-red Cupid's bow lips, the delicate pink flush, the Betty Boop eyes, and narrow, penciled-on eyebrows one hair thick, and then the full slick brows and Maybelline lashes and the big, raspberry eat-me-now mouth ... He'd met Max Factor ... He had made a sweet stick of a farmgirl into an Egyptian princess and watched her glide onto the set, knowing she now knew who she was."

Iris has a conman's, or an actor's, ability to counterfeit personalities — early in her Midwestern life she was a fixture at contests, "[trouncing] the Italian girls with 'Musetta's Waltz' at Casa Italia in Galesburg, where she also won in a walk for 'Why I am Proud to Be an American' at Temple Beth Israel, reciting as Iris Katz." It doesn't take all that long for her to find herself a couple of rungs up on the Hollywood success ladder — only to fall in love with another actress, who escorts her to a lesbian orgy, with starlet upon starlet lighting up the sky — and the couches. When a Hollywood photographer catches them skinny-dipping together, Iris's lover betrays her to the blue-nosed gossip columnist Hedda Hopper and in an amoral trade-off gets herself pardoned for her frisky business. Meanwhile, poor Iris is banished from the movies for sexual misconduct.

So then it's good-bye Hollywood, as the sisters travel east, with Diego the hairdresser in tow, to Brooklyn and Long Island. They regroup around their father, who learns how to become a butler. Iris steals away a soldier's wife, then the sisters steal away an orphan from a local institution and raise him as their own. The details remain as goofy as they sound. But when the man with the stolen wife returns home from the war, we find ourselves witnessing quite unexpected and wonderful results in the realm of family building.

With a deeply ingratiating comic insouciance in her sentences and an ever-expanding notion of what makes a loving family, Eva tells the story of the decade of her education and her flowering into womanhood with an endearing fusion of toughness and tenderness all its own. Eva — she'd take a bullet out of you with a fork and not blink. Lucky us!

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Water cascades down a stairway to a parking structure adjacent to Pauley Pavlion, home of UCLA basketball. (AP)

Water Main Break Dumps Up To 10 Million Gallons Of Water, Flooding UCLA

by Eyder Peralta
Jul 30, 2014

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Julia Macias, a plaintiff and Los Angeles Unified School District middle school student, comments on the Vergara v. California lawsuit verdict in Los Angeles.

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A 90-year-old water main broke near the University of California, Los Angeles, on Tuesday, spilling 8 to 10 million gallons of water.

As The Los Angeles Times explains, officials are facing some tough questions this morning because it took them about four hours to figure out which valve needed to be closed. Meanwhile, water rushed into the campus, flooding many university buildings including the track and field facility and Pauley Pavilion, which just underwent a $136-million renovation. At one point, the Times reports, the pavilion was under eight inches of water.

But the surreal drama of it all was perhaps best captured by Instagram user tony_ker. The video he posted showed some stairs looking like waterfalls:

The AP reports when the 30-inch main burst, it sent water 30 feet into the air. The AP adds:

"The break came amid a historic drought when residents are now being threatened with $500 fines for overuse.

"'We lost a lot of water, around 35,000 gallons a minute, which is not ideal in the worst drought in the city's history,' City Councilman Paul Koretz said. ...

"Firefighters, some using inflatable boats, saved at least five people who were stranded in the structures where more than 100 cars were stuck, city fire officials said. No injuries were reported."

The Los Angeles Times reports officials with the Department of Water and Power were stuck in rush hour traffic. After they got to the scene, Jim McDaniel, DWP's senior assistant general manager, said they had to do research "to get to the correct valve." The city, he said, did not want to close the wrong valve because it "would have left people without water."

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Water cascades down a stairway to a parking structure adjacent to Pauley Pavlion, home of UCLA basketball. (AP)

France's Nude Models Threaten To Strike

Jul 30, 2014 (Morning Edition)

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Julia Macias, a plaintiff and Los Angeles Unified School District middle school student, comments on the Vergara v. California lawsuit verdict in Los Angeles.

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