Improving what works in education, not marketplace gimmicks

“We need to get rid of the bad teachers and the current system is too costly and time consuming,” has become a common refrain. The recent decision by the State Supreme Court not to hear the Vergara v. California lawsuit and the defeat of proposed legislation by Assemblymember Susan Bonilla reaffirmed, for some, a sense of frustration that a broken system will continue.

Children deserve top notch teachers. Most do have good teachers, some great ones and, unfortunately, some have poor ones who should not be in a classroom. How we ensure good teachers is an area of contention.

Those behind the Vergara lawsuit and similar efforts believe that creating more competition in our schools will help push out poor teachers and keep the good ones. Few workers, they say, have the workplace protections enjoyed by many teachers and other unionized workers.

However, using the marketplace as a model for public education doesn’t work. Our children are not commodities to be weighed, measured, evaluated and sold. We value art and music in education because they help our children become well-rounded individuals. And we rightly devote resources to special needs children so they reach their full potential. In a marketplace, less capable children might be cast aside because they can’t compete.

When we impose the dynamics of the marketplace, we create conditions that make test scores the be-all and end-all of education. Schools eliminate art, music, P.E. and other courses because they don’t narrowly lead to improved scores. Teachers have less incentive to work with special needs kids, or work in poorer communities, since they will be judged on student test scores.

The rights and protections that teachers have are not only good for students; they help safeguard the free flow of ideas that is the bedrock of a democratic society. Teacher unions opposed the Vergara lawsuit and the Bonilla bill because these proposed changes hurt students and teachers and don’t get at the real issues shaping teacher quality.

Once a K-12 teacher clears her probationary status, generally two years but often more, she is entitled to due process, not a guarantee of a lifetime job. The administration must have evidence that a teacher is incompetent in order to dismiss. This protects teachers from outside politics, favoritism and other factors apart from the quality of their teaching.

Once the process begins to remove a teacher from the classroom it should not be unduly expensive or lengthy and we should support changes that make this process more efficient. But we shouldn’t short-circuit the process either. To fire a teacher and therefore make it impossible to continue in the profession for which she has spent years preparing should be accomplished with care.

The length of time for probationary status is not the key element in determining teacher quality. The real issue is the amount and quality of time spent observing teachers during the evaluation process. It is essential that administrators have the proper training and can spend time in the classroom observing and advising teachers. Without that, we can make the probationary period three, five or ten years and it won’t change anything except that teachers are kept in limbo, poor teachers remain in the classroom and great teacher leave the profession.

In the upcoming legislative session, rather than focus attention on how to get rid of teachers amidst a huge teacher shortage, we should be looking at reforms that help develop outstanding teachers, create conditions that keep people in the classroom, and help struggling teachers become better. We need laws that help train administrators and give them more time to observe and assist teachers. We should support programs that mentor new teachers and encourage all districts to have peer assistance and review programs. Much can be done to help improve the teaching profession but eviscerating teacher rights is not the way forward.

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. is president of the California Federation of Teachers.