The California Influencer Series

Pay teachers more. Get rid of the duds. How to cultivate top-notch educators in California?

Hundreds of Sacramento City Unified School District teachers and supporters listen as a strike date is announced in November 2017. The strike was averted with a pay hike for teachers, but the district and many others across the California are struggling to pay for pensions.
Hundreds of Sacramento City Unified School District teachers and supporters listen as a strike date is announced in November 2017. The strike was averted with a pay hike for teachers, but the district and many others across the California are struggling to pay for pensions. Sacramento Bee file

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The California Influencers Series

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Everyone agrees that talented and committed teachers can have a huge impact on their students’ lives.

“Beyond the presence of caring and engaged parent(s) at home, the single greatest indicator of a student’s success is a high quality and qualified teacher in the classroom,” said Carl Guardino, President and CEO of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group. “California must double-down on its commitment to public school teachers.”

“We can adopt materials, get new technology or have the latest newfangled approach. But if we don’t recruit and retain the best quality teachers, it is all for naught,” agreed state Democratic Party Chair Eric Bauman. “We must make the profession attractive and we have to treat teachers like professionals.”

The argument is about how to get there. Disagreements among The Sacramento Bee’s California Influencers on how to best attract and support top-level teachers reflect similar divisions that have bedeviled state and local policymakers for years.

“The challenge is to California’s elected officials: will they take the brave steps necessary to lead Californians in supporting increased spending for quality public education, in which small class size and increased teacher pay and professional development are a priority?” asked Abby Porth, executive director of the San Francisco Jewish Community Relations Council.

Most Influencers agreed with Porth’s emphasis on increased spending, but opinions on how that money should be spent were more varied.

“…the state must give teachers and districts the resources and tools to be successful (but) must allow the dismissal of poor performing educators so that both teachers and administrators are held accountable to high standards,” cautioned former California Assembly Republican Leader Kristin Olsen, now a Stanislaus County Supervisor.

“Increase pay for public school teachers, but eliminate tenure,” argued Kim Yamasaki, Executive Director for the Center for Asians United for Self-Empowerment (CAUSE), who cited “burnout, poor pay, and an outdated tenure process that does not effectively measure their skills against their potential” as disincentives for young teachers. “We need to reincentivize teaching as a profession for our next generation and to ensure we are recruiting teachers from diverse communities.”

Andrea Ambriz, chief of staff for Service Employees International Union Local 2015 in Los Angeles, said “the value of institutional memory and training that experienced, tenured teachers bring to the classroom complements the experiential growth that new and developing teachers can provide to their students.”

She also said teachers need strong financial support.

“Teachers plant the roots for a great classroom,” she said. “Let’s not forget to value and respect them and allow them to support their own families in return, by compensating them for their years of work through a strong, livable wage building toward their own secure retirement as well.”

Pastor Les Simmons of the South Sacramento Christian Center was another who stressed the importance of developing teachers who reflect and understand their students’ wide-ranging backgrounds.

California needs to focus on recruiting a diverse pool of teachers and administrators and provide them resources, training, and time…to lead even our toughest to reach children to academic success,” said Simmons. “The lack of understanding of a child’s need to learn, emotional issues, and the bias they [face] every day…is a true barrier to providing them quality education.”

The related debate over the role teachers themselves should have in making decisions about the schools in which they teach is especially heated.

“Authority needs to be properly distributed,” said UCLA Public Policy Lecturer Jim Newton. “Teachers need better pay and less of a role setting education policy.”

Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association President Jon Coupal took Newton’s proposal further.

“The single most important thing we can do to improve California’s… education quality is to lessen the inordinate political power wielded by public employee unions that represent special interests,” said Coupal, who lauded the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision making it more difficult for public employee unions to collect dues. “Californians shouldn’t conflate the interests of students and parents with the interests of unions.”

But Bonnie Castillo, Executive Director of the California Nurses Association, pushed back.

“…Protecting the collective voice and rights of teachers is critical,” Castillo said. ”California should take steps to end the anti-union, anti-worker attacks on public school teachers which undermines their ability to advocate for quality education for their students.”

Some Influencers recommended other ways of supporting teachers, such as in-class instructional assistance for students requiring additional attention.

Former Senator Barbara Boxer called for “bringing smart, young college graduates into the schools,” while UC President Janet Napolitano suggested tapping into “the energies of the retiring baby boomers… to provide a ‘tutoring corps’ that teachers could access for their students.”

Former Gov. Gray Davis offered a reminder on one key source of support for both teachers and their students.

“The most important thing we can do to help children perform better in school is to meaningfully engage their parents in the child’s education,” Davis said. “A parent is a child’s first teacher. When parents make it clear that school matters, it will matter to the child.”

“If every parent could spend just one hour a month at school, that would demonstrate to children the importance of learning.”

Dan Schnur, a veteran analyst and longtime participant in California politics, is director of the California Influencers series for The Sacramento Bee and McClatchy.