Susan Ellenberg, Alison Eliott and John Glover: California laws need to encourage the best teachers

Great teachers change lives. Many of us recall one teacher who sparked our interest in a subject or changed the way we thought about the world. Parents want to see their children come home from school excited about learning.

On a broader level, research validates these individual experiences. Studies show the quality of a teacher has a significant impact on student learning, greater than family income, class size or school location.

Given this, one might expect California to prioritize placing an outstanding teacher in every classroom. But instead of supporting a drive for excellence, current laws obstruct local efforts to build a high-quality teaching force.

In particular, state-mandated teacher tenure and dismissal restrictions, many of which have been in place for decades, create barriers to developing a highly effective cadre of professionals. Because state laws make it both expensive and time consuming to replace ineffective teachers, many students in those classrooms lose a year or more of learning.

Laws which favor senior teachers over newcomers mean many talented teachers receive pink slips because of their age. Existing laws even limit the ability of districts and unions to work together to foster teacher quality.

Fortunately, these long-standing practices are being challenged, most publicly in the courts. In Vergara v. California, the lower court judge held that California laws governing teacher tenure and dismissal infringe on students’ constitutional rights to an equitable education. The court found that current laws led to potentially weaker teachers in classrooms of disadvantaged and minority students.

While this case moves through the legal process, it should be a wake-up call for state legislators to reevaluate and change laws that don’t benefit students. Across California, educators are asking for changes to strengthen the link between high quality teachers and student achievement.

With greater flexibility around employment practices, some charter schools have raised student academic performance, notably in low-income, traditionally disadvantaged neighborhoods.

San Jose Unified School District has a contract that unites the district and teachers’ union around changes in teacher evaluation processes which further professional growth and reward outstanding teaching. It makes no sense that agreements such as this should be trumped by outdated law.

To build a world-class teaching force, legislators need to revise existing laws to allow districts and unions more flexibility to negotiate employment practices that support excellent teaching. At a minimum, laws should be changed so that districts and unions can shape creative agreements around tenure and dismissal. Other revisions which can strengthen teacher quality include:


  • Extend the probationary period of a new teacher. Currently tenure decisions are made after two years of teaching, although research shows mastery of the profession takes three to five years.
  • Modify the Last In, First Out termination rule to allow districts to retain the highest performers, regardless of when they entered the system.
  • Allow unions and districts to collaborate on creating inclusive, robust evaluation practices that don’t prioritize tenure.
  • Reduce the burden of terminating teachers who have not responded to efforts to improve their professional work.


Community groups can help assure we employ high quality teachers by offering grants that let districts provide differentiated salaries in high-need areas such as special education, bilingual education and math. Philanthropists could help districts gain time to build new funding structures into their budgets.

The voices of influential foundations, chambers of commerce, charter management organizations, universities and other education advocates can help increase the likelihood that current teacher employment laws are updated to better serve our students.

There is no more urgent issue than the education of our children. Now is the time to act.

Susan Ellenberg is a San Jose Unified School District trustee, John Glover is CEO of Alpha Public Schools and Alison Elliott is a Silicon Valley Social Venture Fund board member

All are American Leadership Forum Education Innovation Network senior fellows. They wrote this for the Mercury News.

View the original article HERE.