How California can get better teachers

Kristen Manchester uses a laptop computer and a large screen TV to teach history at Winston Churchill Middle School in Carmichael in 2016.
Kristen Manchester uses a laptop computer and a large screen TV to teach history at Winston Churchill Middle School in Carmichael in 2016. Sacramento Bee file

Californians have built companies that have changed the world and made us the world’s sixth-largest economy. But not everyone is sharing in the state’s success.

Reducing inequality requires getting smarter about bringing the best people we can into the teaching profession. California is facing a shortage of 100,000 teachers over the next decade, while enrollment in training programs has dropped 70 percent.


We make it hard to become a teacher with long and expensive programs. We should let in more people by doing three things:

▪ Expand alternative certification programs so teachers get started earlier and hone their skills in the classroom. Teach For America has done this brilliantly, bringing thousands into the profession.

▪ Improve outreach to new college graduates. Many want to teach but don’t know where to get started. We should use social media and other tools and match potential recruits with principals in high-need areas.

▪ Get creative with funding to attract teachers to poorer communities and in science and math, where the shortage is most acute.

The federal Every Student Succeeds Act, passed in 2015, provides low-income schools with resources to attract and retain high-quality teachers. We should also consider providing incentives for college graduates with expertise in high-need subjects (STEM and bilingual education) to teach in high-need schools.

Just as important as reducing barriers to entering the profession is making sure that we do a better job of retaining new teachers. We can start by paying senior teachers to provide support and mentorship.

Also, we need make it easier to dismiss bad teachers. “Last in, first out” policies and strong tenure laws make it nearly impossible to remove nonperforming teachers from the classroom. This hurts students, but it also diminishes the status of the profession, deterring talented people from pursuing teaching careers.

“Last in, first out” needs to go. Schools should not be forced to let go of talented recent hires while retaining nonperformers. At a minimum, we should extend the tenure review period from two years to at least three or four, so that principals can better determine which teachers fit their schools’ needs before granting tenure.

We should also shift toward merit-based pay by issuing bonuses for performance. Teacher turnover is one of the most significant problems in low-income schools, and merit pay could help ensure that the best teachers have good reason to stick around.

We can’t fire our way to a better teaching force, but we owe it to our kids to bring the highest performers we can into teaching. By increasing the status of the profession, we will, over time, attract better teachers.

Now, teaching is unlike other middle-class professions. It’s harder to get in, and it’s harder to let go of poor performers. The solution is to tackle both problems at once.

Steve Westly, state controller from 2003 to 2007, is founder of the Westly Group venture capital firm in Menlo Park. He can be contacted at