Reengineering Tenure in the K-12 System in California: David Welch '85 Ph.D.
By Chris Dawson
When David Welch was a boy in Maryland, he built things in the garage with his father. He remembers making an electronic tic-tac-toe machine that, at the time, was pretty impressive. “I was predestined to be an engineer from the start,” says Welch. “I was the youngest of seven children and my father was an engineer. Almost all of us had a technical bent. I really enjoyed making things with him.” Now that Welch has his own kids, he sometimes finds himself in the garage, making things with his youngest son. His voice rises with obvious pleasure as he says, “Get on YouTube and check out something called a ‘Rubens’ tube.’ My son and I built one of those in the garage and it was great.”
Welch, who received his Ph.D. from Cornell’s School of Electrical and Computer Engineering almost thirty years ago in 1985, has never really stopped making things, (though many of his creations these days come out of the lab, not the garage). He holds more than 130 patents and has started his own successful optical telecommunications systems company called Infinera. While Welch’s technical and entrepreneurial accomplishments are many and impressive, he has gained widespread notoriety lately for something far removed from the realm of optical telecommunications.
In June of 2014, Judge Rolf M. Treu of Los Angeles Superior Court ruled that California’s teacher tenure laws are unconstitutional because they deprive students of their right to an education and because they violate students’ civil rights. The ruling came in the case of Vergara vs. California and it might never have been made without the direct participation of David Welch.
While the link between creating optical telecommunications systems and challenging California’s teacher tenure laws might not be obvious to you, to David Welch it is clear that both actions spring from the same source within him. “I am an engineer and I take a systems approach to things,” says Welch. “When I see that something is not working, I look to see how I can create a better way to do things.”
In his professional life, Welch has worked for two tech start-ups. The first, Spectra Diode Labs (SDL), was a leader in creating and integrating semiconductor laser technology. SDL was the first major supplier of quality high-power semiconductor diode lasers for government and commercial applications. According to the founders of SDL, Ralph Jacobs and Donald Scifres, “it helped pave the way for the revolution that has taken place in the laser industry.” Welch joined SDL in its early days and learned much in his seventeen years there about the excitement of being part of a tech start-up and about the importance of disruption.
Welch’s second start-up experience was with Infinera, which he co-founded in 2001 with Jagdeep Singh and Drew Perkins. Welch and his team created the first commercial optoelectronics integrated circuit, years ahead of his competitors. Infinera’s photonic integrated circuits (PICs) combine lasers, modulators, wavelength multiplexers, demultiplexers, and photodetectors on two small chips, and they give global telecommunications networks greatly expanded bandwidth and efficiency.
“I am an entrepreneur—I love to take bold new steps and make changes in technology. In both of my start-up experiences, new technology—a new way of doing things—disrupted the marketplace and made tremendous change possible,” says Welch. “The same can be true for education.”
Welch is certainly not alone in his focus on the American public education system. There have been several national efforts to reshape the system in just the past twenty years. President George W. Bush implemented the No Child Left Behind testing regimen designed to make sure traditionally underserved populations, like students with disabilities, English as a Second Language students, and students in low-income inner-city neighborhoods, were not receiving short shrift from the nation’s school systems. Many states have been experimenting with magnet schools, charter schools, and alternative schools to allow parents some measure of choice in where their children are educated. Recently, many states have adopted the Common Core set of learning standards, setting off much debate about the role of the federal government in local educational standards.
Even with all of these reform efforts, Gallup polls regularly show only about half of Americans with children in public schools are satisfied with the quality of the education their children are receiving. (http://www.gallup.com/poll/1612/education.aspx) International comparisons of test scores from children in 4th grade, 8th grade, and high school regularly show that American students are firmly in the middle of the pack in most areas, including math and science. (http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2012/01/12/16overview.h31.html )
“If you cross my research and start-up experiences with my personal history growing up, it leads to a strong interest in education,” says Welch. “I have always had a passion for education.” And, though he does not say it in so many words, his successes with SDL and Infinera have given him the financial resources to have some actual influence on the debate about what to do with our schools and how best to do it.
After examining the educational system in his adopted home state of California, Welch came to the conclusion that there was one specific change that could have a great and immediate impact: getting rid of the laws that get in the way of ensuring every student has an effective teacher in every classroom. “We need strong mentors in the education system. I saw that the most important thing—having this mentor that harnesses your passion—was inhibited by the laws.” Welch had been greatly influenced by several mentors during his school years, including his dad as they built things in the garage and the late Professor Les Eastman as they did research into optical semiconductors at Cornell. He had also seen firsthand the difference several excellent teachers made in the educational lives of his own children.
Welch asked himself, “If I cared primarily about the education of children, what kind of system would I create?” The more he thought about it, the more obvious the answer became: “One that attracts the highest quality teachers and keeps them.”
“Decaying systems need to reestablish their priorities,” says Welch. “And it is clear that California’s current education system is not the best it can be. School boards were unable to address the issue and it became clear to me that what we needed was a new way of thinking. We needed to disrupt the system and make tremendous change possible in our schools.”
Welch decided that the most efficient way to disrupt the system would be a legal challenge to California’s teacher tenure laws, teacher dismissal laws, and “last in-first out” teacher layoff policy. Welch started Students Matter and helped nine students from schools throughout California file a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of five statutes dealing with teacher employment and retention. “The system had existed for so long that it felt unchangeable,” says Welch. “But for me it was obvious that we were right. Changing tenure, however, requires such a big change in the inertia of the system that we didn’t know if we would win.”
The plaintiff’s lawyers in the Vergara suit argued that under the current rules, incompetent teachers are often transferred to schools in poor neighborhoods because it is hard to fire them. They also said that new teachers, who often start in disadvantaged schools, are the first to be laid off, which leads to turmoil for the schools and the students.
In June of 2014, the nine students who filed suit against California did indeed win. Judge Treu was blunt in his 16-page ruling: “All sides to this litigation agree that competent teachers are a critical, if not the most important, component of success of a child’s in-school educational experience. There is also no dispute that there are a significant number of grossly ineffective teachers currently active in California classrooms.” Treu went on to say, “both students and teachers are unfairly, unnecessarily and for no legally cognizable reason (let alone a compelling one) disadvantaged by the current Permanent Employment Statute.”
Judge Treu’s decision did not take effect immediately. He granted a stay because he assumed the defendants, including the State of California and the state’s two largest teachers’ unions, would appeal the decision. If Treu’s decision stands, it will overturn the “last in, first out” rule, which requires teachers with the least experience be laid off first during cutbacks. It will eliminate the rule granting tenure after less than two full years of work. The ruling would also make it easier to fire teachers for incompetence.
While Welch was thrilled with the decision, his efforts at education reform have not made everyone happy. "Here is someone who shows up out of nowhere with his millions, claiming to have the best interests of disadvantaged students at heart, and what he's proposing is to take away rights from one group in order to create rights for another group," said Fred Glass, spokesman for the California Federation of Teachers, one of two unions that defended California tenure laws alongside the state.
Welch says that he is ready to discuss schools and education with anyone, “as long as they are ready to discuss the facts.” To him, the facts are obvious. Many schools in California are letting down many disadvantaged kids, and this directly contradicts the California State Constitution guarantee of an education free from discriminatory practices. When asked why he chose to challenge tenure laws instead of curriculum guidelines or school funding, Welch made it clear that teacher quality is the single-biggest factor in the education of a child. “Why has everyone made this more complicated than it is? Children love to learn naturally. When they feel good about learning they want to learn more. Whatever money you put into a system, you need to ensure you then have the highest quality teachers you can afford. You want to create a system that attracts the highest quality teachers and keeps them.”
Many teachers bristle at talk of measuring the quality of something as nebulous as teaching, stressing that it is overly-simplistic to reduce everything they do to a spreadsheet of student test scores. David Welch agrees. “Schools need to be creative and devise incentive programs to attract the best teachers and retain the best teachers. Good teachers are motivated by assessment programs that recognize and reward quality,” says Welch. “Quality teaching will look different depending on who and where you are teaching and therefore the system for assessing teacher quality needs to be flexible and recognize the reality on the ground and in the classroom.”
Despite his success with the Vergara lawsuit, Welch is not likely to give up his business and make a full-time job of education reform. “My work at Infinera gives me enough variety that I still feel like I am working at a new start-up every day. There is lots to keep me interested.” You get the feeling that whether he is working on the next generation of photonic integrated circuits, building a flaming metal tube in the garage with his son in order to visualize acoustic standing waves, or trying to make California’s education system better, David Welch is always interested—is always thinking like an engineer and trying to make things better.