In the next three months, an appeals court will rule in the landmark Vergara vs. California case, which could upend many union job protections for public schoolteachers in the state. If the appellate justices agree with L.A. County Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu, teachers will no longer get tenure after only two years in the classroom, and they will no longer be laid off on the basis of "last in, first out," the so-called LIFO rule that forces out new teachers regardless of how well they are doing their jobs. In 2014 Treu ruled that these and other employment practices endanger students' constitutional right to an education.
Vergara will set California law, but it is also a national test case for what has become a central strategy for improving teacher quality in America: Sending ineffective educators packing.
There's a need for vigorous debate about the rules that Vergara targets. But as important as such policies can be, we're wrong to let them monopolize the effort to improve American education. For too long in this country we have done too little to address two universal challenges: how to create teacher training and evaluation systems that will help the vast middle-tier of teachers improve and how better to support young teachers, particularly those working in high-poverty schools where attrition rates are sky high.
When it comes to teachers, America has an unhealthy fixation on the extremes: the "hero" and the "zero." Popular culture and the media perpetuate the myth that most teachers fall in one category or the other. Consider the hero educators in "Stand and Deliver," "Dead Poets Society" and "Lean on Me." Or the flip side: Cameron Diaz in "Bad Teacher," the stultifying economics instructor in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" and the drug-addicted middle-school teacher in "Half Nelson."
Most teachers are neither lost causes nor leading lights.
"As much as we want to identify chronically underperforming teachers, we want to build systems that help all teachers grow and improve," said Sandi Jacobs, senior vice president of state and teacher policy at the National Council on Teacher Quality.
One way to accomplish that is to make sure job evaluations focus on improvement and not just accountability.
Wisconsin has tried to design such a system. Teachers get graded on, among other things, whether their students meet quantitative goals that the teachers themselves set (80% of students reading on grade level by the end of the year, for instance). And to protect against setting too low a bar, teachers also get graded on how thoughtful their objective is, and how well they adjust their instruction over the course of the school year to achieve it. It's too early to evaluate the new system; it has been in place statewide for a year and a half only, but it has already gotten high marks from some individual instructors.
The second major challenge — strengthening young teachers working in low-income schools — is crucial because these are the teachers most likely to leave the profession (not counting expected retirements). Many of them arrive with high ideals and a deep sense of devotion. If they leave before their enthusiasm can be translated into strong teaching skills, schools lose talent and children suffer from chronic teacher turnover.
Several studies have found that there's one dominant reason young teachers choose to retreat: They feel dissatisfied, often because they aren't getting enough constructive guidance when it comes to their work in the classroom.
There are promising models for programs that can make a difference. In Tennessee's competitive Memphis Teacher Residency program, for instance, aspiring teachers spend a year helping a veteran mentor teacher before they lead a classroom of their own. Dana Goldstein described the process in her 2014 book "The Teacher Wars: A History of America's Most Embattled Profession." The program allows novices more time and more direct help than is typical as they absorb the basics of discipline and lesson planning. Goldstein reported that 87% of participants in urban teacher residencies continue in the profession four years later.
I spent a year observing, among other New Orleans schools, a charter high school staffed mostly with young, inexperienced teachers. In the years after Hurricane Katrina, the state had handed over most of the city's schools to charter operators, and in a preview of a Vergara future, most principals could fire teachers at will.
At the high school I observed, I was told a math teacher had balked when the principal insisted she focus more on her lowest-performing students. When the principal didn't like her effort, she was shown the door.
Any teacher who refuses outright to teach her most struggling students doesn't belong in the classroom, but a quick dismissal does nothing to fight an equally perilous problem that emerged at the school: Several teachers told me they felt utterly unsupported by the principal and charter network that operated the school. Within four years, every one of them was gone.
In California and across the country, affording principals the right to fire more liberally will be far less meaningful, for good or for ill, if school districts, parents and policymakers don't face up to an even more complicated challenge: finding ways to help the hundreds of thousands of teachers who will be staying in the classroom do a better job and feel sustained in what's arguably the most important profession in the world. Without that, we will never see America's education system improve in the way our schoolchildren need.
Sarah Carr directs the Teacher Project at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She is the author of "Hope Against Hope: Three Schools, One City, and the Struggle to Educate America's Children."
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