Teacher tenure an issue

Last week the news media was full of talk about the teacher tenure law suit in California. Hoping to get a different perspective on this issue from a British magazine, I decided to see what The Economist had to say. The title of the article was “Teacher tenure: Brown v Board, the sequel: A stunning defeat for teachers unions in California,” with a Chicago and Los Angeles byline in the June 14 issue.

This title clearly refers to the Supreme Court decision that ended school segregation in the 1950s. The authors seem to think that the current decision will lead to significant change in the way schools operate in the United States. The lawsuit was issued on behalf of nine schoolchildren in California, and it focused on three state laws: teacher tenure, dismissal procedures, and seniority rules.

The lawsuit was brought by an advocacy group named Students Matter, supported by David Welch, a millionaire in telecommunications. The plaintiffs claimed that California laws allowed grossly ineffective teachers to remain in their jobs, and that more of these poor teachers were to be found in economically deprived, nonwhite schools. Judge Roll struck down five California laws saying that they violated the right to equal education guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

Seeing teacher tenure as a Civil Rights issue is a new turn in the continuing battle over what can be done to improve teacher quality. The Economist quoted Bill Gates: if every child had math teachers as good as those in the top quartile, the achievement gap between America and Asia would vanish in two years.

There can be no doubt that teacher quality is the most important single factor in determining student success. Nevertheless, one wonders if all this legal posturing is addressing the real reasons that teachers are not performing as well in poor neighborhoods as they do where the children have more opportunities.

Of course, it s easy to see why good teachers may not want to teach in the poorest neighborhoods. What incentive will be made available to make teaching in the toughest schools more desirable to the best teachers?