What will really fix California’s schools?

Within the past two weeks, a specially appointed commission came out with a report on the state of public education in California. As is his tendency to the dramatic and simplistic, Governor Schwarzenegger called for reform that focuses primarily on getting rid of the bad teacher. While many of us still remember the bad teacher we came across during our K-12 experience, I suspect we far better remember the teacher who inspired and enthralled us to learn more and do better.
Our own Speak Out California board member and former Assemblymember Jackie Goldberg spent many years as a classroom teacher and School Board member for the LA Unified School District. She also chaired the Assembly Committee on Education for the past four years in Sacramento. Very few people have such a wide-range of experience and insights on this issue so we asked her to share her thoughts on this report and the state of K-12 education in California
today. Her three-part analysis starts today and will continue throughout the week on our blog.
We invite your comments and opinions in hopes that we can generate an open and wide-ranging discussion on this extremely complex and wide-reaching challenge facing California today-and how it bodes for the future of our state.

Teacher quality is a critical component to raising student achievement. We all know that, and the recent research agrees thoroughly with conventional wisdom on this matter.
Unfortunately, the short-sighted and far too simplistic approach follows what the majority of the pundits want to do which is to be able to more easily fire “incompetent” and “low-performing teachers.”
If we all agree that teacher quality is critical, why do some (including me)resist easing the rules for firing teachers? The answer is not very complicated. We tend to define “poor teaching” as that which is done by a teacher whose students don’t perform well on standardized tests. But if students are from affluent families and thus come to school already knowing many of the skills that are tested, does that make their teachers “better” than those who work with low-income kids who come to school with practically no literacy skills? I don’t think so.
Well, then, maybe an incompetent teacher is one whose students perform worse on standardized tests than other similar students in the same school or in a similar school. Here again, this is too simple an explanation. In many schools, counselors place students who are far behind and are struggling to catch up with what they believe are the very best teachers. That might mean that those students with the lowest standardized scores may be placed in the “best” teachers’ classrooms, and so the standardized test scores would not explain how difficult it was to make the progress that was made.
Do we call teachers “excellent” when they inspire students to read more, and to be critical thinkers even if test scores do not go up as fast as they might with “drill and kill exercises? No, we don’t. Do we call a teacher “incompetent” when scores rise faster than for similar students, but are still not at the state standard? Sometimes we do.
Quality teaching is hard to describe using test scores. Yet we can all remember teachers who moved us to work harder, think critically, and most of all to love learning. None of this is scored too heavily on standardized tests.
Class size also dramatically affects the quality of teaching. A teacher is a better teacher with 20 students than with 38 students in their classroom. And before I would start firing teachers, I would certainly put them in classrooms with fewer students, and then evaluate them. Two or three emotionally difficult students will “steal” teaching time from all the other students, and do so repeatedly in a class of 38 students. But those same two young people are able to be directed towards academic goals in a room of 20 students.
Pundits of all types want to blame the teachers. And it is so easy to say, ” Fire the bad ones and everything will get better.” But very few people go into teaching for the money, and none do it for the prestige. People go into teaching because ” they want to make a difference ” for young people. We need to expend resources (money, time, professional development) on providing excellent teaching conditions, in clean and safe schools, with modern technology, and a very wide range of print media available from which to choose texts, and then and only then, should we figure out how to more quickly fire those we deem to be “low-performing” teachers. And test scores on standardized tests should NEVER be used as the sole or even the principle criteria for determining the quality of teaching performance.