At its heart, the landmark June 11 Vergara ruling in California superior court was a decision in support of the notion that every child has a constitutional right to an excellent teacher.
In finding California’s teacher tenure laws and “last in/first out” seniority rules unconstitutional, the judge found that such provisions create inequities in our schools that often leave our most vulnerable students with the least effective teachers.
But these are also policies that don’t serve the modern teaching profession very well. A system that gives advantages to educators based solely on the time they’ve put in and not on their performance leaves little room, or incentive, for teachers to grow in their classrooms.
That’s why California educators and others across the country should seize this moment as the blank slate opportunity it is — a chance to recreate policies that support students in their learning and teachers in their own professional growth.
On the one hand, this means rethinking how we make tenure a meaningful milestone and how we institute fair, effective evaluation policies so that schools can objectively make personnel decisions based on effectiveness.
But another key piece of this conversation should focus on the roles we think teachers can and should play in their schools in leading their peers to better student outcomes. For too long, teaching has been a solo sport, conducted behind closed classroom doors where some naturally excel but where most work day in and day out with untapped potential. In order to realize the more equitable school system called for in the Vergara ruling, we need schools where great teachers are given the incentive to stay and where their talents can be replicated across many more classrooms. After all, high poverty schools aren’t just losing great teachers to “last in/first out” policies. They’re losing them to frustration and more attractive opportunities.
Creating new avenues for advancement, along with additional training in the management skills required of effective leadership, can help reverse this trend.
Districts should commit to creating leadership paths for teachers that keep them in their classrooms but provide them additional responsibilities and compensation that serve their schools at large. Studies have shown that many teachers who left the profession early in their careers would have stayed had they seen some upward mobility. There is no better way to ensure a more equitable distribution of talent than to retain our best teachers and help support others in the realization of their potential.
Right now, the only professional milestone for most teachers, particularly those who want to stay in the classroom, is tenure. Teachers should have the opportunities to embark on careers where they are recognized for and able to leverage their impact. Their success in these roles, ensured by strategic investment in their skill-development, will shift the focus from whether or not we’re able to fire ineffective teachers to whether we’re doing everything we can to keep our best. The courts have given us a chance to do better and we should take full advantage.
Jonas Chartock is the chief executive officer of Leading Educators, a New Orleans-based nonprofit that works with districts and schools to train classroom teachers in leadership and management skills.