In an Op Ed in the Los Angeles Times today, LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said that “the crisis in Los Angeles public schools — where only about half of the students graduate from high school and fewer than 30% of those who do are college-ready — can't be solved until we make excellent teaching a top priority.” His solution is to do away with seniority, weaken tenure protections, and tie teacher evaluations to student test scores.
The first problem with Villaraigosa’s assessment is that there is no crisis. A crisis is a discreet event, whereas low graduation rates are the historical norm, a constant since the earliest days of the American education system. In the 19th century, only 2% of U.S. children graduated from high school, according to Education Week. While graduation rates steadily rose in the early to middle 20th century, they remained low for minority and especially lower income students. In the 1950s and 60s, for example, high school dropout rates for Latin Americans were a whopping 75%, according to Time. Considering that the graduation rate for Latinos in LAUSD in 2008 was around 30%, one could argue that considerable progress has been made (see UCLA IDEA). The U.S. high school graduation rate peaked at 77% in 1969, with nearly one in four children not graduating from high school—clearly, many children were being left behind, even during this “golden age” of public education.
Crisis or not, a 50% graduation rate is troubling and we ought to be able to do better. However, the problem has nothing to do with an epidemic of bad teachers, as Villaraigosa would have us believe. The vast majority of teachers are perfectly good at their jobs. Yet, if we assume that there are large numbers of bad teachers and equal numbers of great teachers waiting to take their places, how would this transformation help a child who comes to school so hungry, sick, in pain or stressed out by the financial insecurity at home that she cannot concentrate or study?
Overwhelmingly, the most significant cause of low graduation rates, test scores and college readiness is student poverty. Poverty contributes to a host of physical and cognitive problems that can diminish academic achievement. Poor children are more likely to suffer low birth weights and malnutrition, which can lead to learning disabilities. Iron-deficiency anemia, which impairs cognitive ability, is twice as common among poor children. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 10% of poor students have dangerous levels of lead in their blood, which can lead to decreased intelligence. Lack of healthcare causes poor children to be absent as much as 40% more often than middle class kids, according to education researcher Richard Rothstein. In a study of Baltimore school children, high school drop-outs averaged 27.6 absences per year, while graduates averaged only 11.8. Poor children move more due to financial insecurity. According to the Educational Testing Service, 41% of students who changed schools frequently were below grade level in reading and 33% were below grade level in math, compared to 26% and 17%, respectively, for those who remained at the same schools.
Lower income families also suffer more stress and higher rates of stress-related illness as a result. They are more likely to worry about financial insecurity, but they are also more likely to have jobs and social circumstances in which they have very little personal control, one of the most stressful situations one can experience. Bosses, for example, have the most control over their personal and workplace circumstances. They make the workplace rules and no one is going to berate them if they come in late or take a day off. Middle managers, of course, have much less personal control on the job, while clerical and custodial workers have very little control and they often must answer to numerous managers and bosses. Furthermore, the lower one’s income, the less control they have over their ability to enjoy rest and relaxation, or to obtain medical care, nutrition, or extracurricular activities for their children. This chronic stress leads to the overproduction of cortisol, which increases the chances of having heart disease, hypertension, diabetes and cancer. It also impairs memory and learning, which can have a significant impact on poor children’s ability to benefit from excellent teachers.
Additionally, class can have an enormous impact on how we raise our children and influence school readiness. Hart and Risely found dramatic class differences in the number and complexity of words spoken to young children. By the time they have reached kindergarten, children from families on welfare may have heard 32 million fewer words than children from professional families. As a result, a class-based achievement gap is already firmly in place before children have even started school. Burkam and Lee examined average cognitive scores of children entering kindergarten and found that kids in the highest income group scored 60% higher than those in the lowest income group. Hart and Risely found similar class-based differences in language development and IQ among children as young as three.
If the goal is to improve educational outcomes, then the most expedient solution is to end poverty. This means that job security and wages need to improve for the vast majority of Americans, including teachers. Not only do teachers have children who suffer when they are laid off, furloughed or racked with work-related stress, but wages in related fields and neighboring regions tend to influence each other. Thus, if teachers are making a decent, secure living, it drives up wages and benefits for other members of the community, helping their children, too.
Villaraigosa, in contrast, wants to decrease job security for teachers by eliminating tenure and seniority-based layoffs, ostensibly to make room for the army of excellent teachers waiting in line for their jobs. The problem is that there is no line of excellent teachers in waiting. Rather, there is a shortage of well-trained teachers and, with the barrage of teaching bashing occurring today, it is becoming harder to attract good people to the profession. There is, however, an army of unemployed people desperate for work of any kind, including a lot of recent college graduates who might be enticed to go into teaching through Teach for America (TFA). These would not necessarily be excellent teachers, however, as they would be inexperienced and poorly trained, and they might not stay long enough to become good teachers, since half of the TFA teachers quit within three years. But they would start at entry level wages, possibly replacing excellent veteran teachers who lost their jobs due to the abolition of tenure and seniority, thus saving districts considerable personnel costs, but at what cost to students? Abolishing tenure and seniority does not improve the quality of teachers. It merely makes it easier to get rid of teachers for any reason, like replacing higher paid veteran teachers with lower paid novices, or getting rid of vocal advocates for kids who are sometimes perceived as trouble makers, even when fighting for the needs and interests of their students.