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An Effective Teacher for All Students: Equity in Teacher Assignments (11/29/14)

An 11/14/14 Education Week article by former Los Angeles Unified School District teacher Walt Gardner highlights some provocative issues surrounding equity in teacher assignments. In his article, Gardner frames his argument around a California Superior Court case Vergara v. California. In the case the judge ruled that the disproportionate assignment of poor and minority students to lower quality teachers was a violation of California’s constitutional guarantee of equal educational opportunity for all students. Gardner’s article highlights several points that deserve honest debate on a national level if we are to ever solve the teacher equity portion of the student achievement gap in the United States; however, his assertions lack depth in understanding of the core issues that underlie equity in teacher assignments.

First, Gardner posits that the judge in Vergara v. California assumed that new teachers were automatically less effective than their experienced peers. To support his argument, Gardner used a fact from practice that all seasoned educators know to be true, some new teachers are better than their more experienced peers, far better in fact. The points that Gardner did not bring to light in this argument are that new teachers who exceed the performance of their more seasoned peers usually do so because they have more natural talent and/or passion for the profession than their more experienced peers; these two factors lead to results, period.

However, as all experienced educators also know, it is supremely difficult if not impossible to have effective schools if they are largely or completely staffed by inexperienced educators. The reason for this is that talent does not substitute for experience in every circumstance. Inexperienced educators are going to run into situations that they simply do not know how to handle because they have not encountered them previously. To be effective, schools must have a good mix of new, talented and passionate teachers, to work alongside their seasoned counterparts.

Second, Gardner asserts that teacher effectiveness is inextricably linked to the students that they are assigned. To the uninformed reader Gardner submits:

Teachers who happen to inherit a class of Talmudic scholars are going to shine, while those who inherit a class of future felons are going to bomb. Teachers are not miracle workers, despite what Hollywood would have everyone believe. Yes, some teachers can produce outstanding results with deprived students, but they are outliers.

The problem with Gardner’s whole argument here is that no one is looking for miracle workers. Outstanding results are a blessing when we get them but they are not the norm with “deprived” students as Gardner terms them. The goal for all students, including the most affluent and high achieving ones, should be growth. We need to look not so much at how a teacher’s students achieved absolutely on some state accountability test but rather how much the teacher was able to move each student under his/her tutelage academically during the school year. This is a fair assessment and a more true measure of teacher performance.

Finally, Gardner assumes that teacher incentives, intended to help alleviate the equity gap in teacher assignment, have failed largely because they have been inadequate. Gardner proposes that we think big and offers an idea of a $150,000 annual starting salary as a big idea in this realm. While I agree with Gardener that teacher pay is an issue that school districts must address, the $150,000 starting salary in not realistic. The fact of the matter is that because of the volume of educators that school districts employ and because of how school districts are funded, schools will never be able to pay $150,000 salaries for all teachers on a large scale.

However, to join Gardner in his argument for an economic incentive, I propose debt forgiveness for teachers in lieu of the gigantic salaries. This is a more substantive proposal, with real benefits for all stakeholders. For teachers who work and receive all satisfactory evaluations and show a defined consistent history of student growth for seven years in low income schools with high populations of students who are at risk due to clearly identified academic and/or social indicators the entirety of their student loan debts up to $150,000 for each individual should be forgiven at the end of the seven year period. This should be applied to all teachers no matter their degree field, as long as they meet the seven year requirement. I believe in this way school districts could attract more early and mid-career industry professionals like lawyers, medical doctors who have recently finished their residencies, engineers, chemists and such to the field. This pays off in three ways: the teacher gets to earn a high end professional degree free of charge, that they can later use in the actual degree field, if they are willing to make the commitment to the students, school districts will gain a consistent supply of highly educated and trained professionals, and all students will have the advantage of being schooled by the best and brightest our country has to offer.

To close, there is no simple answer to the teacher equity problem. It will take courageous conversations and purposeful action by all stakeholders. This includes real financial backing and not just rhetoric from states and our federal government. Working together though, the problem can be solved.

Shawn McCollough
President & CEO