We're still failing our students

On Monday, the ACLU of Southern California and Public Advocates Inc. released an upbeat progress report on the results of the settlement of Williams vs. California, a class-action suit brought on behalf of the state's most-neglected students. In the lowest-performing schools, there are more textbooks, adequate facilities and teachers with proper credentials. However, the report, like the settlement, failed to address the bigger issue: achieving "teacher equity" across the state.

More so than textbooks or school facilities, research has shown that teachers have the greatest effect on student learning and, by extension, educational opportunity. Yet in addressing access to good teachers, the Williams settlement missed a rare opportunity to compel real action to equalize access to well-qualified and experienced teachers in California.

Filed in 2000, the Williams suit was about two things: the state's failure to provide all students with the basic resources needed to learn, and students' rights to an education provided on equal terms -- kids in poorer districts should have the same education as kids in well-to-do towns. It was settled in August 2004, and legislation that would allow the state to meet the settlement terms was passed into law the same month. It set aside money for monitoring schools, repairing them and providing textbooks. When it came to teachers, however, the settlement focused only on meeting basic standards.

In essence, the settlement legislation required counties to monitor whether teachers hold minimum credentials and authorizations for the subject area they teach, to do so more frequently in the lowest-performing schools, and to make public the number of misassigned teachers and teacher vacancies. This is good as far as it goes, but it ignores factors research has shown to be more important, such as teachers' years of experience or their demonstrated ability to raise achievement. Worse, it merely monitors the situation -- the settlement didn't require state money to be spent to bring more qualified teachers into low-performing schools.

That problem is apparent, even in Monday's report tracking improvements. The research looked at four regions, including Los Angeles County, and at statewide trends. It found that there are fewer -- but not few -- teachers who lack proper credentials or authorizations in low-performing schools.

More than half of those schools have teachers who are misassigned, meaning that they are teaching a subject area or students that they are not authorized to teach. In L.A. County, 70% of those schools have misassigned teachers. Across the state, nearly 29,000 teachers are misassigned, meaning more than 600,000 students (mostly in middle and high schools) are being taught by teachers who aren't trained in the subject area to which they are assigned.

An even bigger problem is English learners who don't have teachers certified to teach them. That situation exists in more than 20,000 classrooms with 20% or more of English learners. And there are certainly thousands more, because the Williams-initiated monitoring process doesn't require reporting on such qualifications in classrooms with less than 20% English learners.

The study was content to count the number of teachers meeting minimal standards. Finding an improvement in that number is not the same thing as analyzing whether Williams vs. California has led to greater equity in access to good-quality teachers. Despite the high-profile Williams lawsuit, a federal mandate to address teacher equity and years of research showing the unfair distribution of teachers, California has never made a serious attempt to develop a robust pipeline of highly qualified and experienced teachers who will serve in low-performing schools. Instead, the state has alternately denied the problem, tried to "define" it out of existence and continued to point to unproven programs and policies as evidence that it is doing something.

Although the Williams lawsuit could have spurred investment and innovation in addressing the problem of teacher equity, it mostly just required more reporting on it. Sadly, even if the implementation of the Williams legislation continues to progress, so too will inequalities for students.

Camille Esch is a fellow at the New America Foundation specializing in California education policy.

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