Opinions

California schools: Searching for top teachers

OPINION: California’s public schools used to be the nation’s gold standard. But today, the Golden State’s 4th graders rank 46th in reading, while our 8th graders rank 47th in math.

When you see figures like this, it’s clear that our students are unprepared to meet the demands of both college and the 21st century workforce.

California is home to some of the world’s most innovative and creative companies. Every day, they are shaping the global economy. They are seeking a skilled workforce that has a strong knowledge-base, keen analytical skills, and proficiency in math and science.

But the failure of many of our schools to teach students basic reading, analytical and mathematical skills denies them the solid foundation they will need to succeed and prosper in this new economy.

One of the key things we can do to help turn our schools around is to get a great teacher into every single one of our public school classrooms. Study after study has shown that if a good teacher is standing at the front of the class, students learn more. A great teacher is the most important in-school factor for student success, and one that our education policy can address.

This is especially important in schools in poor and minority communities where the need is greatest.

Unfortunately, our current system grants permanent employment status to teachers after two years and makes firing ineffective and even abusive teachers a time-consuming and costly process. The status quo guarantees bad teachers can stay put.

To be sure, there are many great teachers in California that are working hard and going above and beyond what is expected of them to help our students succeed. They deserve to be recognized for their outstanding performance. But their reputation should not be dragged down by a system that keeps in place those teachers who are failing to make the grade.

Every day the status quo is in place is another day that our state fails to adequately prepare students to be successful employees, entrepreneurs and innovators.

Our children deserve better.

Fortunately, a legal case is making its way through the California courts that has the potential to change all of this.

Nine public school students filed the Vergara v. California case last year with the help of a nonprofit organization called Students Matter. The month-long trial for this groundbreaking lawsuit began last month.

When these students have their day in court, their lawyers will argue that our state’s outdated and misguided laws governing the hiring, firing and seniority of teachers violate the California Constitution’s guarantee of an equal right to a quality education.

Defending the right to education is usually the legislature’s job. As a legislative body, we are supposed to work together to set education policy that puts the needs of our state’s children first. But as a member of the California State Assembly and Vice Chair of the Assembly Education Committee, I have seen time and time again how powerful interests in Sacramento and fearful politicians have been able to stymie progress, keeping California lagging at the back of the pack.

That’s why I’m cheering on this case and its student plaintiffs.

If these nine courageous kids are victorious and these outdated, unfair laws are overturned, we will have a golden opportunity to reset the conversation in California about our schools and how to achieve top-ranking status once again.

We will have the chance to reach across the aisle and create a new, more modern system of teacher hiring and dismissal, a system in tune with the educational needs of our kids and the economic needs of our future.

Ed’s Note: California Assemblywoman Kristin M. Olsen, R- Modesto, is the vice chair of the Education Committee.  This commentary revises her earlier piece.


  • Christopher Burrell

    What a terrible argument this essay makes. The California education is a victim of wealth inequality. As the wealth accumulates to the wealthy, the wealthy buy politicians and pay less in taxes to support among other things the educational system. Now, a group of wealthy individuals wants to privatize California’s education system. This lawsuit is merely an opening salvo in that campaign. Kristin Olsen is extremely ignorant and shortsighted if she thinks removing these protections will improve education. What will most likely happen is that the unsatisfactory teachers will be fired and not replaced, increasing the burden on the remaining teachers, and overall bringing down the quality of education even further. However, some wealthy individuals will find a way to get even wealthier while further destroying the quality of education. Look at the ag business as an example. Do away with safety regulations and then wonder why there are toxic chemicals in your food.

  • teacherwhoneedsnounion

    I can understand why CTA opposes this case and tries mightily to downplay the importance of the students’ involvement in the case. CTA hates the thought of losing its lucrative hold on California teachers’ wallets as they have on mine. I am what is known as an “agency fee payer”. I am a teacher in a California public school who is forced to pay union dues, even though I refuse to join the local union. I refuse based on my very personal experience with the negative side of CTA, which governs most of the teachers’ unions in California, including my local school district’s teachers’ union. CTA doesn’t like people who disagree with them and that is why they want to smother any attempt to disengage from unions that future reforms may allow. I look forward to more cases like this one that will highlight the need for quality teachers over union protectionism that thwarts the reform that needs to happen in order to truly improve public education in California. Obviously, the system has fallen miserably since the 1980’s and change is needed. I love my job, but am discouraged by union leaders who spend more time focusing on issues that have nothing to do with directing student learning toward achievement. Under the guise of promoting social change, union leaders have distorted and dismantled the once world-class education system that incubated the innovative leaders of past generations. As a teacher, I learned firsthand what happens when an individual chooses to follow their own plan to help students that doesn’t meet CTA or local union approval. I wanted our students to be able to participate in the county-wide Spelling Bee, but was told there was no school plan for that. I decided to organize a local Spelling Bee, so that our students could then send the winner from our school to the county Spelling Bee. Unbelievably, a union board member who works at my site, criticized and berated me in department and grade level meetings for suggesting my idea. I was told things such as “I’m not going to help you or do anything to participate”. I was also told by the same person that I would have to do it on my own and it is beyond the duty day, so I should not expect any help from any others. Oh well, so much for the saying “we put students first” that they wear on their “solidarity t-shirts”. Anyway, I went ahead, without much help and we have just had our 4th successful Spelling Bee and are sending the winner to the county Spelling Bee. I don’t care if the union ever helps with this, because in my experience they just try to make everything about themselves anyway. They say that a teacher who works beyond the duty day is de-valuing fellow teachers and therefore not supporting the unions’ message that “an injury to one is an injury to all”. Ha! I hope these kids win their case and good for the wealthy man supporting their cause.

  • capilar

    One of the most depressing experiences I had as a teacher was watching as our principal did all he could to try and remove a permanent teacher. This teacher was borderline cruel to students, winged it in class everyday and fostered gossip, rumor and ill will among staff. He was toxic in the classroom and toxic to our school morale. However, because he had not committed an egregious act or was not thoroughly incompetent, our principal was unable to fire him. This was a “C” or “D” teacher not an “F” teacher. Dismissing an “F” teacher is far easier. But how can we allow such low performers, the “C” and “D” teachers, to continue in the classroom? It was explained to me that it would cost the district more than $250,000 and several years of litigation to try to dismiss this teacher – money a small school district like ours just doesn’t have. There is no employee on the planet that should cost a quarter of a million dollars to dismiss. I support a teacher’s due process rights – they should be told of their deficiencies and given support and an opportunity to improve. But why the countless hearings and appeals that skyrocket the cost? Weak teachers are hurting the profession and the union should be more actively involved in doing a better job to weed out those that are ineffective.

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