Tenure Is Not the Problem in Our Public Schools. Segregation Is.

Getting schooled.
June 13 2014 10:59 AM

Tenure Is Not the Problem

Teacher protections are not why poor schools are failing. Segregation is.

Racial segregation continues to bedevil American society and schools.

Courtesy of Shutterstock

On Tuesday, a California court struck down state teacher tenure and seniority protections as a violation of the rights of poor and minority students to an equal education. The decision, which will make it easier to fire bad teachers, who are disproportionately found in high-poverty schools, is being hailed as a great triumph for civil rights. Bruce Reed, president of the Broad Foundation and a former Democratic staffer, suggested the ruling was “another big victory” for students of color, in the tradition of Brown v. Board of Education.

But modifying teacher tenure rules is not the new Brown. The decision in Vergara v. California  won’t do much to help poor kids and is a diversion from the real source of inequality identified in Brown itself: the segregation of our public schools.

Racial segregation continues to bedevil American society and is closely coupled with rising income segregation. Concentrations of poverty have much more to do with why poor and minority students often end up with the worst teachers than do tenure laws. If the plaintiffs were genuinely concerned about connecting great teachers with poor and minority kids, they would go after that problem, not the due process rights of teachers.


So why do high-poverty schools have a hard time attracting strong teachers? Because they often provide poor working conditions. When you pack poor kids into environments separate from more affluent students, the schools generally have high rates of discipline problems. Low-income students, who often don’t see much first-hand evidence of the payoff of education, act out more often on average than middle-class students. Low-income parents, who are stressed and may work several jobs, are not in a position to help teachers out by volunteering in class, as middle-class parents often do. And in high poverty schools, students often have inadequate health care and nutrition, which hinders their performance on academic tests. In such an environment,  teachers can feel overwhelmed by the challenge of helping large numbers of students overcome the odds. Accountability measures, under which schools with low test scores can be closed, add to the pressure on teachers. As a result, strong educators in high-poverty schools who have options for being hired elsewhere often flee for middle-class schools at the first opportunity. The flight of top-notch faculty colleagues becomes another reason to leave. Younger teachers, seeking to perfect their craft, want to be mentored by outstanding colleagues and know that is more likely occur in middle-class schools.

Reforming (or gutting) tenure laws might make it easier to weed out bad teachers, but it does nothing to address the underlying ability of segregated schools to attract and retain strong teachers. As a result, even if tenure reform is successful, there is little reason to think new teachers hired in high-poverty schools will be much better.

Efforts have been made to get around segregation by offering educators financial bribes to teach in high-poverty schools. But polling finds that teachers care more about working conditions than salary, which is why financial incentive programs fail with most teachers. A 2013 study of the federal Talent Transfer Initiative, which offered a $20,000 bonus to effective elementary school teachers who agreed to move to a low-achieving school within the same district, had few takers.  Almost eight in 10 teachers didn’t even fill out an application. As Dana Goldstein explained in her Slate piece, this is because money isn’t the No. 1 priority to a teacher: a school’s “working climate” is.   

So how can policymakers connect poor kids and great teachers? The most obvious way is by creating mixed-income schools. Rather than a district automatically assigning children to schools that mirror neighborhood segregation, students should be given an opportunity to choose among a menu of school options, and districts should honor choices with an eye to promoting economic integration. In places like Raleigh, North Carolina, for example, policies promote socioeconomic school integration largely through magnet school programs that attract middle-class students to attend schools with urban students. As a result, there are high quality National Board Certified Teachers spread throughout the district. Likewise, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, families choose from a variety of public magnet schools, each with a distinctive feature, and the district seeks to balance the number of students in each school who are eligible for subsidized lunch.



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