Cultivating Success

Matthew Miller, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, is host of "Left, Right & Center" on KCRW (89.9 FM). This article is adapted from his new book, "The Two Percent Solution: Fixing America's Problems in Ways Liberals And Conservatives Can Love."

In his inaugural speech, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger invited Californians to witness a “miracle of Sacramento.” Here’s one he could pull off: improving teacher quality in our poorest schools.

Conventional wisdom says that poor and minority students achieve less in school because of poverty or family stress. But research shows that half the achievement gap of these students is traceable to systemic differences in teacher quality. Teacher recruitment at poor schools is thus more than a big issue in education. It’s the next great frontier for social justice.

The tragedy today, which union leaders are the first to lament, is that teachers at poor schools are recruited from the bottom third of college graduates. This is vastly different from a generation ago. Through the mid-1970s, the quality of America’s urban teacher corps was inadvertently subsidized by discrimination. Because many women and minorities didn’t have as many employment opportunities outside the classroom then, they became teachers. That generation will retire in the next few years. Trouble is, their younger counterparts aren’t becoming teachers; they want to be doctors, lawyers and businesspeople.

Labor-market realities aggravate the situation for poor children. California’s urban districts cannot compete with more affluent suburban schools in terms of teacher pay, working conditions and teachability of students. Over time, the best teachers gravitate to the best suburban schools. As a result, we’re essentially relying on teaching missionaries to bring quality instruction to poor Californians.


Acknowledging this reality doesn’t diminish the efforts of thousands of teachers who work their hearts out for poor kids under trying conditions. In fact, these teachers are the first to say how unqualified and mediocre so many of their colleagues are. In Los Angeles, San Francisco and other big-city school districts, countless children go from kindergarten to sixth grade with an undertrained rookie teacher at the head of virtually all their classes. All the research shows that after a few years, these kids never catch up.

What could be more unjust?

This is where Schwarzenegger’s chance to pull off a miracle comes in. On the cusp of a generational turnover in the teaching ranks, he should campaign for a better caliber of college graduate in our toughest classrooms. Better working conditions and enhanced prestige are important parts of the equation. But when it comes to specialties (math and science) facing severe shortages and staffing the state’s toughest and poorest schools, there’s no avoiding salary.

I’m not simply suggesting that money should be thrown at the problem. Rather, money should be wedded to sensible reforms. The grand bargain would be to make more cash available for teachers in exchange for flexibility in how the money is doled out.


For starters, the standard lock-step union pay scale should be scrapped. Why should a physics graduate be paid the same as a physical education major when both have the same tenure in the classroom, especially since the science teacher has lucrative options outside teaching?

It should also be much easier to dismiss poorly performing teachers who even union leaders agree are blighting the futures of up to 10% of urban children.

Put another way, the goal should be to make teaching poor children a career of choice for talented, young Californians who want to make a difference with their lives and make a good living too.

To this end, the new governor should offer to raise salaries for every teacher in poor schools by 50%, on two conditions. First, that the teachers unions scrap the lock-step pay schedule, which would enable the top half of performers in the teacher corps and certain specialties to receive, on average, an additional 50% boost in pay. Second, that unions streamline the dismissal process for poorly performing teachers to a four-to-six-month period.

In the Los Angeles Unified School District, these reforms would mean that a starting credentialed teacher at a poor school, who now makes $40,000, could earn $60,000. The top-performing half of teachers and those in shortage specialties would eventually earn $85,000 to $90,000, on average. (Currently, a teacher with a PhD tops out at $70,000.) The best teachers could eventually earn close to $150,000 a year. About 50,000 of the state’s 300,000 teaching positions would be directly affected by these reforms.

This plan to make teaching poor children an exciting career option would cost about $3 billion to $4 billion a year, less than three-tenths of 1% of the state’s annual personal income of $1.5 trillion. Seen another way, $4 billion represents an 8% increase in the state’s annual K-12 spending, a small price to pay for a 1,000% revolution in the way the career of teaching is viewed.

What should be appealing to Schwarzenegger the centrist is that these reforms would blend liberal and conservative approaches to solving our problems in education. College students would be inspired to serve a cause bigger than themselves. The governor might structure the idea as a challenge, committing Sacramento to put up the money if a school district comes forward with a definite plan to implement the reforms. Roy Romer, superintendent of L.A. Unified, and Alan Bersin, superintendent of the San Diego school district, have expressed interest. Union leaders have told me they’re ready to discuss big pay differentials and streamline the dismissal process. All that’s needed is creative gubernatorial leadership.

Not long ago, a prison warden was asked how the corrections system estimated capacity needs. He said it looked at the population of at-risk youth in elementary schools and extrapolated how many of these kids would end up in jail in a decade or so. Implicit in his grim calculation is a stunning indictment of a society that casually writes off so much human potential.


A bold reform plan that would replace these children’s unqualified teachers with talented and motivated ones would be a signature way to breathe life into what Schwarzenegger calls his “immigrant optimism” -- and mark his ascent as a miracle worker.