Ever since a California superior court determined three years ago that teacher tenure and seniority rights concentrated inexperienced teachers in disadvantaged communities (Vergara v. California), the state’s Board of Education has been trying hard not to think about teacher effectiveness. An appeals court overturned the lower court decision, but the state board remains worried about other legal and political attacks.
The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), a federal law signed by President Obama in December 2015, requires that every state, to receive federal funds, inform the US Department of Education whether ineffective teachers are concentrated in schools with disadvantaged students.
In July California’s Board of Education decided to duck the problem. Taking the advice of the California Teachers Association, the board decided that holding the right credentials makes a teacher effective. But “the mark of an effective teacher should be their ability to help students learn,” says Ryan Smith, executive director of Education Trust West, an education-minded civil rights group based in Oakland.
Still, if the board sticks to its plan when it submits its final plan to Washington this September, effectiveness in California will mean nothing other than sitting in the appropriate education classes at college. Ting Sun, a member of the state board, sighs, “The whole ineffective teacher definition gives me heartburn."
The California board denies what California parents and teachers both know and are willing to admit. More than 10 percent of state teachers are performing at an unsatisfactory level, they say. I’ve learned this from the eleventh annual survey of a representative sample of the American public conducted in May and June of this year under the auspices of Education Next, a journal of opinion and research published by Harvard University.
Because my colleagues and I surveyed 4,200 members of the public, with an oversampling of parents and teachers, we were able to gather information from a representative sample of 523 Californians, including 276 parents and 75 teachers. (The survey was administered by Knowledge Networks, an online polling firm.)
Among the results were the following:
- Both parents and teachers praise nearly two-thirds of California’s teachers. The average parent said 63 percent of teachers at their local school were good or excellent; the average teacher said the same about 64 percent of their colleagues at their local school.
- Nonetheless, the average parent told us that 15 percent of teachers were “unsatisfactory.” Teachers themselves, on average, said the percentage was 11 percent.
With only 75 teachers in our California sample, our estimate is imprecise. But it is probably close to the mark because our national sample of 669 teachers yields exactly the same teacher estimate of the percentage of their colleagues they deem unsatisfactory: 11 percent.
This is germane to one of the more distressing aspects of education in the Golden State: California students are among the lowest- performing in the United States. According to the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), California ranked among the ten worst-performing states in both reading and math at both the fourth- and eighth-grade level. In fourth-grade reading California edged out only New Mexico.
Apologists will try to explain California’s low performance by pointing to the waves of immigrants into the state. Yet if one looks at the fourth- and eighth-grade performances on the NAEP of only California’s white and black students, the picture remains bleak. When performances on these tests are combined, California’s white students trail those in Massachusetts by one year’s worth of learning in both reading and math, on average. The same is true for California’s black students.
Of all school characteristics, teacher quality is the one that has the largest impact on student performance. If one could replace the least effective teachers with one of simply average quality, California schools could move from mediocre to the very best. Unless California takes its head out of the sand and addresses the quality of its teaching force, its educational system will remain mediocre at best.
Our survey also asked Californians about merit pay, teacher tenure, and teacher unions.
Just about half the public opposes teacher tenure ( two years after beginning work California teachers can earn tenure or be dismissed); only a third like the idea (with the remainder saying they neither support nor oppose the idea).
When it comes to basing a part of teachers’ salaries on “how much their students learn,” Californians are just about equally divided–40 percent taking each side, with the rest taking the neutral position.
As for teachers unions, about 40 percent of Californians think they are a positive force, 35 percent think they have had a negative impact, and the balance take a neutral view.
On these issues and others, opinions about schools and school policy in California resemble those of people across the United States.
(For results from the 2017 survey of a nationally representative sample of American adults on a wide range of education issues, see our analysis at Education Next. That includes an interactive graph that displays results for the general public as well as for parents, teachers, Republicans, Democrats, and other groups.)
CALIFORNIA K –12 AND VOX POPULI
During the past four Januarys, Hoover’s Golden State Poll asked Californians to list their policy priorities for state government. K –12 education’s position among twenty options is no worse than eighth place and no better than fourth, with a consistent 45 to 50 percent of respondents giving it top billing. Strengthening the economy always topped K –12; education consistently trumped climate change and the environment. The last time K –12 heavily affected the political conservation in California was 2012’s Proposition 30, which raised sales and income taxes (on high-end earners) under the guise of bringing relief to schools financially strapped by Great Recession budget cuts. The ballot measure’s logo was a white 30 superimposed on a red teacher’s apple.
TEACHING IS BLISS?
Every year, the online jobs site Careerbliss.com comes out with a list of “happiest jobs in America” based on employee reviews (it also does happiest companies and happiest cities in which to work). In third place, behind marketing specialist and job recruiter, was graduate teaching assistant: helping grad professors in various capacities, including possibly lecturing classes. As is often the case with teaching jobs, it’s more a labor of love than profit: the average annual salary doesn’t top $30,000. The same site also compiles a list of “unhappiest” jobs. The good news is teaching didn’t make the cut–just a bunch of jobs on the receiving end of abuse: customer service reps, cashiers, registered nurses, and administrative assistants.