Education Opinion

Assigning Teachers Fairly

By Walt Gardner — November 14, 2014 2 min read
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The U.S. Department of Education is stepping up its efforts to ensure that poor and minority students are not disproportionately taught by the least qualified teachers (“U.S. to Focus on Equity in Assigning of Teachers,” The New York Times, Nov. 11). Although states were last required to provide data along this line in 2006, large disparities still exist.

I think the move gained traction after a Superior Court judge in Vergara v. State of California wrote that evidence shows poor and minority students more likely to have ineffective teachers, a situation which violates the state Constitution’s guarantee of equal educational opportunity. For example, black and Hispanic students in the Los Angeles Unified School District are two to three times more likely to have a teacher in the bottom quartile of effectiveness than their white and Asian peers.

The debate is over how to remedy this situation. As a former teacher in the LAUSD, I submit that the solution is far more daunting than reformers understand.

The judge assumed that newer teachers are automatically less effective than their experienced colleagues. Hence, any school serving a large number of poor and minority students with many novice teachers must, by his definition, be bad. I don’t agree with this conclusion. Some rookie teachers are more effective than grizzled veterans and vice versa.

So much of teacher effectiveness depends on how students are assigned. Unless this is done on a random basis, 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.

Teachers cannot be forced to accept assignments to schools. But what if we made them an offer that few teachers could refuse: starting salaries of $150,000, three classes a day, and two aides in every class? In exchange, teachers would promise to teach in these hard-to-staff schools for a minimum of three years. In other words, let’s start thinking big. Incentives in the past have been paltry. No wonder few teachers responded positively.

Teachers’ unions know that they have to be open to revolutionary ideas if they intend to be anything but an advisory body in the decades ahead. The mid-term election drove home that point (“Teachers Unions Flunked Their Midterms, The Wall Street Journal, Nov. 6). This is an opportune time to see how willing they are to embrace what once was considered unthinkable.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.