The California rules that Vergara swept away show how public education, at its worst, prioritizes the needs of adults over children. California law allowed teachers to obtain tenure after only one and a half years at work, which one witness likened to requiring a marriage decision after one and a half dates. The statute requiring rote reliance on seniority in layoffs meant that better-performing younger teachers were regularly sacrificed to protect less-effective elders. Because of these and related policies, students in high-poverty Los Angeles schools were two-thirds more likely than their more-affluent counterparts to experience a teacher layoff, and 40 percent less likely to be assigned an English teacher rated as highly effective, according to studies by the Education Trust"‘West, which advocates for low-income students.
No single remedy can close the entrenched achievement gaps confronting low-income and minority students. (Getty Images)So no one who cares about expanding opportunity should mourn the laws Vergara overturned (at least pending appeal). Valerie Cuevas, Education Trust"‘West's interim executive director, correctly says that more cities should learn from districts like North Carolina's Charlotte-Mecklenburg, which sends its strongest teachers "to teach the toughest of the toughest." Under its "strategic staffing" initiative, that district has combined financial incentives and public acclaim to recruit its highest-rated principals and teachers to 27 of its previously most-troubled schools. "Taking on tough assignments is very affirmed in our district," says Ann Clark, Charlotte's deputy superintendent.
But Clark quickly acknowledges that even this innovative system hasn't eliminated the district's achievement gaps. And in California, Education Trust's studies have found that "sizable percentages" of students taught by the highest-rated teachers don't improve their academic performance.
Those are but two of the many reminders that no single remedy can close the entrenched achievement gaps confronting low-income and minority students. Despite ceaseless waves of reform since the early 1990s, the white-black gap in eighth-grade reading has narrowed by only about one-seventh; Hispanics still significantly trail whites too. Low-income 9-year-olds lag slightly further behind more-affluent classmates in reading today than they did in 2004.
If anything, larger economic and social trends are compounding this challenge. Childhood poverty is both deepening (with 22 percent of kids living in poor families) and concentrating. Nearly half of public-school students now attend schools where a majority of their classmates qualify as low-income; in 2000, only 28 percent did so. Lopsided majorities of African-American and Hispanic students today attend majority-poor schools.