California Forum

Viewpoints: In support of a modern teaching profession and Beatriz Vergara in her suit against California

Teachers have the most important job in the country: building our future by educating the next generation. Yet too often teachers, schools and districts are held back by a confluence of human capital policies, specifically certain tenure, dismissal and layoff policies, that do not take into consideration teacher effectiveness or allow for student-centered decision-making about staffing.

The vast majority of California’s 275,000 teachers do a good job, often despite difficult, sometimes unimaginable conditions. But the system is clearly broken when year after year low-income and minority students face ineffective teachers due to employment decisions that are blind to the quality of a teacher’s work, or his or her impact on students. This is demoralizing to good teachers who want to be recognized through transparent employment practices that honor their efforts and not just their number of years in the classroom.

A group of students, led by Beatriz Vergara, have finally said “enough” and are taking legal recourse through the Vergara v. California lawsuit. These young plaintiffs are seeking to overturn state laws that too often leave low-income and minority students with the least effective teachers, a problem further exacerbated by funding shortfalls and inequities. The current system wrongly places greater importance on a teacher’s seniority than on the education of a child. These students want a shot at the American dream and know that, without an excellent education, that dream is out of reach.

Thanks to these students’ leadership, such policies are in the spotlight in an unprecedented way. So is the critical role of teachers and the right of all students to access effective teachers. The students’ lawsuit is an important piece of the puzzle to achieving sensible reforms to staffing policies that will protect and promote all students’ right to an equal education – and, if necessary, mandate that change via the courts.

The research on the importance of teacher quality is clear. Raj Chetty, a professor of economics at Harvard University, testified that students taught by effective teachers are more likely to attend college, have higher earnings and save more for retirement – things that most parents want for their children. But Chetty testified that even one ineffective teacher over the course of a child’s education makes these positive outcomes less likely.

As a classroom teacher and as a member of Congress who has vested a 40-year career in fighting for education and labor rights, we have very different vantage points on our state’s education system. However, we have come to the same conclusion. We believe in the rights of all students to an effective teacher, and we hope the Vergara case can drive a statewide discussion that will change the system of how teachers are trained, hired and supported to put students at the center.

We believe the result of this case should be implementation of a modern, student-centered system for the teaching profession, one that would:

•  Provide teachers-in-training with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in the classroom before they start teaching.

•  Ensure the meaningful induction and support that early career teachers deserve.

•  Provide teachers with the chance to grow in the profession through real career ladders that enable them to share their expertise with their peers and reach more students, and offer a range of options for advancement over time.

•  Employ rigorous new evaluations that are rapidly gaining popularity with teachers as their evaluation results are connected to targeted professional development that allows them to make more progress with students.

•  Replace the antiquated tenure system with informed tenure decisions that take into account a teacher’s effectiveness over a sustained period of time.

The fact is, our state and our nation are on the cusp of exciting and dynamic reforms that could trigger a new wave of educational excellence in America. With Common Core State Standards, next-generation assessments and weighted-student funding on the horizon, California faces a real opportunity to make our schools dramatically better.

But we are at risk of failing our kids again if we do not change the way teachers are assigned and assessed. By taking the new policies and the new funding together, we can restore California as a national leader in education.