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Commentary: Why Vergara won’t solve the real teacher problem

Ellie Herman | February 4, 2014

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bad teachersBad teachers need to leave. And it is a gross injustice that they are disproportionately congregated in low-income communities. Right now, because of Vergara vs. California, the lawsuit waged against education laws alleged to protect bad teachers, there is a tremendous amount of public anger directed at those teachers.

But to fire grossly incompetent teachers is not the same thing as to guarantee every child a quality education, which is at the core of this lawsuit. If it’s true that our failure to do that is unconstitutional, then even if this lawsuit is successful, we can’t just breathe a sigh of relief and relax. Even if we fire all grossly ineffective teachers tomorrow and hand out effective teachers like Oprah giving out cars, the far more serious problem is that schools in underserved communities struggle to retain effective teachers for very long.

That’s the deeper inequality we should be addressing.

Teacher turnover in low-income communities is high whether those teachers work at district schools or charters. It is naïve to think that eliminating seniority-based layoffs will solve this issue; a 2011 Berkeley study showed that turnover at Los Angeles charters in high-poverty communities was almost 50 percent per year. Some people now claim that this high turnover is not in itself a problem, as if the notion of effectiveness can be disassociated from a teacher’s relationship to the community.

If a teacher is “effective” enough, the claim goes, it won’t matter if she quits as long as she’s replaced by another “effective” teacher. Is that actually a serious claim? What is the “effect” on a student when every year there is a mass exodus of beloved adults from his school? How are we going to ask that kid to then invest emotionally in his education?

We need to look seriously at the reasons good teachers leave schools in low-income communities in such disproportionate numbers. It’s a common misconception that teachers leave because of the students themselves. But though the work can be challenging, it can also be also be uniquely, profoundly rewarding. When I taught in South L.A., I was so frequently moved by my students’ courage, dignity and persistence that my son asked me to stop telling inspirational stories that ended with “ … and then I cried.”

The problem is not the students. The problem is doing a deeply meaningful job in conditions that prevent you from being effective. If I’m in a classroom of students from a high-poverty community who come in at very low reading levels, many of whom are still learning English and some of whom have behavioral or attentional deficits due to the chronic stress of poverty, it’s delusional to think that I can be effective when I’m facing down as many as 50 students at once, which many LAUSD teachers do. I don’t care if Eric Hanushek testifies until he’s purple in the face that I’ll be effective regardless of class size, that’s insane. Not every child in that classroom has access to an effective teacher; it’s physically impossible.

You can’t be effective without basic resources. Despite the urgent needs of students in high-poverty communities, funding has been slashed for security guards, counselors, nurses, deans, assistant principals and office staff. Everyone knows that schools need new resources to support students who have behavior issues; but with staff cuts, nobody has time to develop, test or implement them. Many teachers I talk to are serving over 200 students. That’s not sustainable.

Finally, real change can only start at the top. It astonishes me when people in business talk about installing “effective” teachers as if they were changing light bulbs when anyone in business knows that every organization takes on the characteristics of its leader.

I recently visited the classroom of a great, experienced teacher who had just moved to a very chaotic school in a high-poverty neighborhood with a brand-new principal, the third in five years. There was no school-wide plan or support for kids with serious issues; if a kid acted out in her class, all she could do was urge him to stop. In her first period class of almost thirty, only five students were there at the start of school. If I taught at that school, my class would be pandemonium.

So yes, every child deserves an effective teacher. But school is a complex culture of relationships that define and shape us. We need to create the conditions in which talented and committed people will invest years of their lives to the fundamental right of educational equality. It will take time. And patience.

And money. If Students Matter, Eli Broad and the others behind the Vergara lawsuit are really serious about the constitutional rights of children and not just union-bashing and questionable state policies, I’d love to see them demand that we get the resources we need to do our job. We live in a state with the largest concentration of high-wealth people in America—and also the highest poverty level. It’s a disgrace that states like New York and New Jersey are investing nearly twice what we invest in our children’s education, even after Prop 30.

So I agree from the bottom of my heart that every child deserves a good teacher. But the fight for every child’s right to a quality education is going to be a lot harder and cost more than just firing people. Are we ready for that fight? I hope so. To shy away from it, as the Vergara plaintiffs point out, is unconstitutional.

Ellie Herman is a guest commentator. Read more of her thoughts at Gatsby in LA.


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