Why the Vergara Decision Isn’t Enough

A California court struck down laws that put adults before kids in public schools. But that won’t close the achievement gap.

San Jose, CA - FEBRUARY 18: Principal Andrew Elliot-Chandler asks two students to hold the American flag as the entire student body at Rocketship SI Se Puede charter, public elementary school, prepare to say the pledge of allegiance during 'launch,' the all-school morning program, on February 18, 2014 in San Jose, California. The children also sing songs, dance and get ready for their day. The school includes grades K through 5 and uses a blended learning method of teaching. 
Christian Science Monitor/Getty
Ronald Brownstein
June 18, 2014, 4 p.m.

Edu­ca­tion re­form, which once united the parties, in­creas­ingly traps them in the cycle of po­lar­iz­a­tion and para­lys­is that’s crip­pling pro­gress on al­most everything else.

In Wash­ing­ton, the two sides are so di­vided that neither is ser­i­ously at­tempt­ing to reau­thor­ize the core fed­er­al edu­ca­tion stat­ute that lapsed in 2007. The seem­ing con­sensus around rig­or­ous “Com­mon Core” cur­riculum stand­ards is col­lapsing as a stam­pede of Re­pub­lic­an state lead­ers (joined by some Demo­crats) has re­nounced them.

So it was a throw­back to an earli­er gen­er­a­tion of bi­par­tis­an edu­ca­tion­al col­lab­or­a­tion when a chor­us of left- and right-lean­ing re­formers last week uni­formly cheered a Cali­for­nia court de­cision in­val­id­at­ing the state’s laws for hir­ing, fir­ing, and as­sign­ing teach­ers.

The Ver­gara v. Cali­for­nia de­cision from a Los Angeles County Su­per­i­or Court judge was a genu­ine earth­quake that is likely to prompt lit­ig­a­tion tar­get­ing laws in oth­er states that make it too hard to fire un­der-per­form­ing teach­ers — and too likely that stu­dents who need help most are as­signed the teach­ers least qual­i­fied to provide it. But it’s a mis­take to ex­pect that elim­in­at­ing those laws alone will close the achieve­ment gaps still im­ped­ing low-in­come and minor­ity stu­dents. The de­cision, in fact, should prompt great­er de­bate about wheth­er we are re­ly­ing too heav­ily on schools to over­come so­cial in­equal­ity.

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.

This in­tensi­fy­ing isol­a­tion is re­quir­ing schools and teach­ers to over­come deep­er in­equit­ies in com­munity and fam­ily re­sources. Re­search from a re­cent Uni­versity of South­ern Cali­for­nia con­fer­ence on con­cen­trated poverty found that the read­ing, math, and be­ha­vi­or­al gaps between low- and high­er-in­come stu­dents evid­ent in eighth grade are al­most fully ap­par­ent when they start first grade. And chil­dren whose par­ents hold col­lege de­grees re­main much more likely to at­tend preschool than those whose par­ents don’t.

These trends send the clear mes­sage that truly ex­pand­ing op­por­tun­ity for lower-in­come kids re­quires a com­pre­hens­ive re­sponse that ex­tends well bey­ond school re­form. But that aware­ness doesn’t ab­solve school sys­tems from tak­ing every pos­sible step to max­im­ize their ef­fect­ive­ness with­in the classroom. And that means sub­ject­ing more work rules that fa­vor the sys­tem’s adults over its kids to the ex­act­ing scru­tiny that pro­duced the power­ful Ver­gara de­cision.

“If you want to achieve true equal­ity of op­por­tun­ity, there’s only so much that gov­ern­ment, even at its best, can do,” ac­know­ledges Bruce Reed, formerly the chief do­mest­ic policy ad­viser to Pres­id­ent Clin­ton and now pres­id­ent of the Broad Found­a­tion, which funds school-re­form ef­forts. “But we are not any­where close to where gov­ern­ment is hold­ing up its end of the bar­gain, and we shouldn’t throw up our hands and say, ‘This is just too hard.’ “

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