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Another View: Focus on teacher tenure distracts from schools’ real problems

I have read with some dismay lately Bee writers repeating shibboleths about education, specifically tenure, as if they were documented fact.

This was aggravated by the editorial “Brown owes an explanation on teacher tenure” (Sept. 4). I have no doubt you are correct as to the politics in play regarding Vergara v. California, but your conclusion about tenure couldn’t be more wrong.

We have spent in excess of a decade “fixing” the wrong things in education, thanks to No Child Left Behind, at a cost of billions, for insignificant gains. Let’s not do that again.

I would maintain that the Vergara decision and the focus on tenure is misdirection to divert the public from addressing the real factors, issues that touch on race, class, economics and social policy that many politicians and parents don’t want to confront.

The No. 1 reason low-income students, especially students of color, achieve less than their white peers is family income. A number of studies have found that the main determinant of student success in school is family income, not who their teacher is.

Segregation of students by race and economic class is another huge influence on student achievement. Our public schools are now almost as segregated as when the court ruled on Brown v. Board of Education. Studies have found that the more segregated a school is, the less well students of color perform. You only have to look at Sacramento City schools to verify this. Which high schools are at the bottom academically? Which are at the top? Which schools are predominately upper- or middle-income, and which are predominately low-income? Which of those categories contains the highest percentage of students of color?

The third factor overlooked is the fact that large urban districts with lots of low-income children of color train the largest cohort of new teachers who, once experienced, tend to migrate in large numbers to wealthier suburban districts for better salaries and improved teaching conditions.

Fourth, charter schools are a big factor contributing to low-income students receiving instruction from less-experienced teachers. Charters, as several studies have documented, have extremely high teacher turnover rates. Ironically, the schools sold to us as a solution to the gap in learning by race often contribute to that gap. They are concentrated in high-poverty, high-minority neighborhoods.

Another issue that exacerbates the challenges of educating lots of poor children is the overload of site administrators. We have been sold a fiction by the corporate “reform” folks that we can do a better job with fewer resources; everyone just needs to work harder. Principals are overworked and under-resourced. Crucially, they don’t have enough time to observe, coach and evaluate new teachers. That is how “bad” teachers get into the system. Yes, the firing process needs to be streamlined, but should we spend all the political capital that will take for the meager impact it will have over the larger system? There are other solutions that will have greater impact on students.

Last, but definitely not least, we have pretended for decades that schools would fix poverty. They definitely do not, as our outcomes demonstrate. The gap in family income between white and black families hovers at about nine to 11 times in favor of whites. If you think sending your child to music lessons or a summer camp helps them, what does it do for the low-income child whose family can’t afford either? We have to stop pretending it doesn’t make a difference and address poverty and income disparities.

A big contributor to our education dilemma is the real estate lobby. The more single-demographic income neighborhoods they build and market, the more segregated our schools become, the more difficult it is to span the income and race gaps.

The most intractable interest group to change may be parents. Middle-income parents naturally want the best for their children. Despite how they vote, they often see that as not sending them to school with “those” children. Studies have found that if you mix low-achieving children in with high-achieving children, the low achievers improve without dragging down the high achievers.

If we don’t make some drastic changes in education soon, we will have yet another generation of low-income students on a path to incarceration and menial jobs instead of college and the American dream.