California Surrenders The Future

by Dave Welch and Theodore B. Olson
Founder and Legal Counsel, Students Matter

California became a world innovation leader by rewarding ingenuity and valuing exceptional performance.  In a nation renowned for inventiveness and progress, California is home to some of the most creative minds revolutionizing the technology, clean energy, agriculture, aerospace and entertainment industries.  It has constantly pushed the boundaries of what’s possible, refused to accept mediocrity, and reached, quite literally, for the moon.

When it comes to educating the leaders and innovators of tomorrow, however, California ranks behind almost every other state in the union.  At the fourth grade level, California is 46th in the nation in reading and 45th in math, based on the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress.  At the eighth grade level, the situation is even worse, with California ranking 48th in both subjects.  The state that once was known for having the best public education system in the country is now failing its children.  And the sad irony is that California is imposing this tragedy on itself by failing to employ the strategies that have made it so successful.

Instead of demanding results and rewarding achievement, California’s education system is tethered to a handful of statutes that refuse to distinguish between good teachers and bad.  These laws encourage the retention of seriously underperforming teachers, require schools to tolerate failure among their teaching ranks, and devalue talented teachers.  Put simply, these laws are destroying California’s public education system, demoralizing the teaching profession, and robbing California children of their future.

Unlike most other states in the nation, California’s laws ensure permanent employment for virtually every teacher in the state after just 18 months on the job, long before any well-intentioned administrator could possibly evaluate a teacher’s effectiveness.  Once tenure is granted, the state’s laws make it cost-prohibitive and impossibly time consuming to dismiss an ineffective teacher, a process few school districts dare to undertake.  And, under the policy of “Last In First Out” or “LIFO,” the laws require school districts to sacrifice successful younger teachers while retaining stagnant, disinterested and uninspiring teachers with greater seniority.

These laws have nothing to do with providing a quality education.  To the contrary, they guarantee that some children will suffer the lifelong consequences of grossly ineffective teaching.

That’s why in May, Students Matter supported the filing of a lawsuit against the state of California and three California school districts.  The lawsuit (Vergara v. California) aims to strike down these laws, which infringe on our students’ constitutional right to a quality education—a right the California Supreme Court long ago declared to be fundamental to the state’s charter.

Embracing excellence and rejecting proven failure is an absolute imperative, not an option.  Creating an environment that fosters excellence and holds everyone accountable for the outcome of his or her work is the bedrock of American success.  Surely, teaching cannot be the one profession in which outcomes are irrelevant and indeterminable.

In fact, recent research shows that teaching effectiveness is not only measurable, it is the most important determinant of a child’s academic (and future) success—more important than socio-economic status, parent involvement or even per-pupil funding.  The studies show that students assigned to effective teachers for three consecutive years will perform up to 50 percentile points higher than those who experience an ineffective teacher in that period, while students with ineffective teachers for two consecutive years can develop a life-long learning deficit.  Why, then, does California refuse to embrace a system that encourages effective teachers in every classroom?

Other states are responding to the research.  Indiana, New York, Ohio, Florida and 30 other states have already adopted more formal teacher evaluation protocols that take into account student performance measurements.  Michigan, Tennessee, Missouri and Minnesota are among many states that are reforming their tenure systems to base retention on performance, and end LIFO so teachers can be rewarded for their effectiveness, not only for the number of years they’ve served.  Most recently, New Jersey, with support from the teacher’s union, passed a law overhauling the state’s teacher tenure system to include annual evaluations.

These states are large and small, have Republican and Democratic leadership, and represent the varying demographic and socio-economic groups of our country.  They are reflective of a national movement in which education reform is no longer a partisan issue, where legislators, teachers, parents, educators and advocates can reach common agreement to place priority on students’ learning.  Regrettably, California refuses to be part of this movement.  And the ramifications of its failure extend far beyond the state’s borders.  California educates nearly 13 percent of the nation’s K-12 students, so the whole country will suffer the consequences.

The way to reform California’s system is clear—eliminate any and all laws that do not advance the sole goal of public education: teaching children.  California must return to its roots of innovation and refuse to accept anything less than excellence for its students.

Dave Welch is the founder of the non-profit Students Matter and the co-founder and Chief Strategic Officer of Infinera.  As an employer of more than 1,000 workers and a parent, Dave is passionate about education reform and was motivated to found Students Matter because of his growing frustration with the demise of California’s public schools.

Theodore B. Olson, former U.S. Solicitor General, is counsel for Students Matter.  He was raised in California and attended California public schools and the University of California.