The recent ruling on Vergara v. California, in which a Los Angeles Superior Court judge struck down state laws governing the hiring, dismissal, and job security of teachers, generated a flood of responses. Some called the decision historic and have said it will pave the way to get effective teachers in all classrooms. Others say the case and the decision will make it more difficult to attract and retain good teachers and was no more than an attempt to undermine the profession and teacher unions in particular. As the California Teachers Association wrote, the ruling stripped “teachers of their professional rights” and “hurts our students and our schools.”
But much of the debate about the verdict misses the point. The more important implication of the case and the ruling is that effective teaching matters. The court ruled that educational equity is not just about school funding alone, but about equal access to effective teaching.
As part of the Vergara case, the student plaintiffs claimed teacher-employment laws blocked them from receiving the education guaranteed to them by the state constitution. Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu agreed, writing that the laws protected ineffective teachers who were disproportionately assigned to schools serving poor children and children of color. The most pressing issue highlighted by the Vergara decision is making sure that all teachers are effective.
A growing body of research finds that the quality of teaching is the most significant in-school factor affecting greater student learning. While it is true that many aspects of a child’s life influences school success—household income, parents’ educational attainment, and adequate school funding, for example—there is no doubt that high-quality instruction can and does affect student learning.
Vergara v. California is one of several legal efforts highlighting the role of effective teaching in educational equity. A group of students in Michigan has filed a class-action lawsuit against the state and the Highland Park school district in which they argue that they have been denied access to the quality of teaching necessary to read on grade level at the end of the fourth grade. Sixty-five percent of fourth graders in the Highland Park district are not reading on grade level, although state law requires that every child should be able to do so. A court-ordered report in which classroom teaching was observed concluded that these students were not failing to learn; rather, Michigan and the Highland Park schools were failing to teach students effectively. Both the state and the school district have filed an appeal, claiming that they have already made necessary enhancements to the education system.
In Florida, the legislature has taken action to support equal access to high-quality instruction. State lawmakers passed legislation in 2012 that mandates an additional hour of reading instruction in the state’s 100 lowest-performing elementary schools. But the law required more than just extra time; it also specified the quality of teaching that the students should receive, requiring students be taught by a teacher “effective in teaching reading.”
These legal and legislative efforts serve to underscore the importance of equitable access to effective teaching. Now equity advocates and policymakers alike must focus on the key challenge at hand: increasing the number of great teachers so that all students have access to effective teaching.
This effort should start at the very beginning—when teacher candidates enter training programs. Teacher preparation in the United States has, according to a recent review of programs, become an “industry of mediocrity”. New teachers entering the profession begin their jobs without the skills to manage a classroom, lead students in understanding subject matter, and bring about greater student learning. That must change. Teacher-preparation programs should be rigorous and focused on the skills and knowledge that teachers need in order to help students achieve.
Once teachers are on the job, they need the kind of workplace that fosters continuous professional improvement. This means discarding the sort of professional development offerings that are meaningless, such as one-day workshop sessions that are disconnected from the daily work of teaching. Instead, teachers need ongoing coaching, the opportunity to observe and collaborate with colleagues, and the chance to demonstrate their growing professional expertise. Activities that are long-term, directly tied to professional practice, and subject-matter specific have been shown to improve teaching.
Likewise, workplace conditions, including compensation and career opportunities for excellent teachers who stay in the classroom, are also critical to improve teaching. Collective bargaining can be a tool for protecting employees and also can be used to create effective learning environments. Some school districts are already taking steps to improve working conditions and learning environments. For example, a newly approved teacher contract in New York City includes opportunities for teachers to assume leadership roles or work in challenging schools, which, in turn, provide extra compensation. We can have strong unions with rules that place excellent teachers with the students who need them most.
Vergara shines a bright light on a systemic problem in public education: There simply are not enough highly qualified, well-trained, and strongly supported teachers in the U.S. educational system. Yet the burden is not on teachers themselves. Teacher-preparation programs, schools, districts, and states need to take important steps to ensure that all students have access to excellent teaching and that all teachers are competent and fully prepared to teach upon their first day in the classroom. It is imperative that schools and districts have policies in place to ensure that teachers are capable and have evidence-based opportunities to improve their practice.
Having access to a great education should not be determined by a child’s ZIP code, race, or income. Every child should receive high-quality instruction. The Vergara verdict appropriately spotlights the role of effective teaching in educational equity. Great teaching matters, and every student should have access to it: a basic truth on which all teachers, parents, stakeholders can agree.
Jenny DeMonte is the Associate Director for Education Research at the Center for American Progress. Kaitlin Pennington is a Policy Analyst on the Education Policy team at the Center.
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Associate Director, Education Research