Courtroom as Classroom: Law as a Lens for Education Reform

MAY 2013

Courtroom as ClassroomThe scene was solemn as the jurists huddled to exchange muffled whispers. The case being decided was Vergara v. California, a lawsuit challenging the Golden State's policies on teacher tenure and alleged discrepancies between district demographics and public teaching quality. Lawyers representing the state of California and eight of the state's public school students had delivered their arguments. Then the judges were asked by Professor Rob Meyer if they had come to a decision.

It isn't typical for a university professor to have the power to rush justices to a conclusion, but considering the decision was being rendered in a classroom in the Education Sciences building on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the jurists yielded their answer: the plaintiffs had not successfully proved their case, and the judges ruled in favor of the defense.

Meyer, the director of the Value-Added Research Center, a part of the Wisconsin Center for Education Research, is in his first semester teaching classes for the La Follette School of Public Affairs. He is known for his research on value-added modeling, evaluation methods, and strategic management of human capital—all components of comprehensive education reform efforts underway in dozens of states across the country.

Meyer had students in his master's-level class, Public Affairs 974: Education Policy and Reform, enact the Vergara v. California case, which the actual California Supreme Court will hear in January 2014, as a way to give them a more personal perspective of a real-life issue being addressed by policy-makers.

"From a teaching standpoint, there's nothing like having students present arguments to lead them to really understand them. They achieve even sharper understanding when they can see both sides of an argument presented and attacked," Meyer said. "Plus, it's not traditional, and it's fun."

Dan Marlin, who is getting his master's degree in public affairs from La Follette, played the role of an attorney for the plaintiffs.
"It was a really interesting way to tie together everything we've learned this semester," Marlin said. "It made us actively think about how to tie in concepts, techniques, and strategies we had learned about during the semester into the case."

Katie Cary, a La Follette master's degree student in international public affairs who argued on behalf of the defense, said she and her classmates realized the importance of the real-life case after recreating it.

"It sparked a lot of interest in all of us students to follow the outcome of this case, because as we enter the policy arena, its outcomes may have a very large impact on us," she said. "It was interesting for all of us to see the legal processes that some of these policies ... will have to go through."

Though she didn't betray it in the courtroom, Cary admitted she was moved by the arguments of the opposing side. "It was very interesting for me to hear what I thought was a compelling argument on both sides, of protecting teachers and protecting students, and I absolutely believe it's true that those rights are not mutually exclusive," she said. "I think that's part of what has made this class so interesting—that it's taught us new manners of thinking."

Leni Wolf, also enrolled in La Follette's master's of public affairs program, played the role of one of three judges hearing the case. Though her decision would not have the impact that it might have had were she a real Supreme Court justice, she still struggled to make up her mind.

"It was kind of stressful because not all of us agreed," she said. "The other two jurors seemed like they had already decided in favor of the defendants, but I was stuck on some of the arguments of the plaintiffs."

Holding her own amongst her peers, Wolf convinced the other two judges to back the validity of one of the plaintiff's arguments, giving them a small victory despite their defeat in the overall case.

"I learned I don't know much about the legal profession," Wolf joked when asked about the lessons she had drawn from acting as a judge. "But it was definitely a unique way to break out of the traditional academic setting, and forced me into a more skeptical mindset, making me look beyond what I was reading and think about it more critically."

As a former teacher, Wolf said she also felt a personal stake in the outcome of the case.

"I think it's a really important issue. I've seen it firsthand: there are a lot of great teachers, and I also worked with some not-very-good teachers. I see the influence that special interests and politics have on the debate of policies that affect teachers and students," Wolf said. "I'm fascinated to see how the case actually plays out, because the burden really is on plaintiffs to make their argument. But I also think that as models for evaluating teachers and value added continue to evolve, there will probably be more evidence that will stack up on the plaintiffs' side that will be able to be used to consider whether the way we evaluate teachers is fair and effective for both teachers and students."

Professor Meyer said it's the combination of critical thinking, personal experience, and passion that Wolf and his other students bring into the classroom that makes him excited to be teaching at La Follette and interested in crafting nontraditional classroom experiences designed to expand their knowledge base and analytical skillsets.

"I'm attempting to teach my students how can they operate—in the good sense of the word," he said. "If they move into an advisory position, I want them to know how they can make arguments to shed clarity. If they find themselves in an advocacy position, I want them to know how they can make arguments to advance a cause. In this class, we touched on a lot of the issues that people need to think about if they're actually going to participate in that process of deliberation. I would hope people who graduate from our program could immediately go into jobs and be ready to contribute on the first day. They have the technical training and they know how the policy process works so they can really excel after they graduate."