California students sue state over ineffective teachers

EFFECTIVE: California students are suing the state, hoping to have more effective teachers in the classroom.
Part 44 of 44 in the series Educating America

By Mary C. Tillotson |

California‘s laws surrounding teacher tenure, dismissal, and layoffs violate the state’s constitution — specifically, students’ right to an equal opportunity to access quality education — say nine students suing the state. The trial is set to begin Jan. 27.

If they win, the effects could ripple across the country.

EFFECTIVE: California students are suing the state, hoping to have more effective teachers in the classroom.

“I think any time that you see a genuine reform in California, you empower reformers everywhere in the country who realize if you can actually fix something like that in California, you can fix it anywhere,” said Ed Ring, executive director of the California Public Policy Center.

Plaintiffs argue that minority and poor students are most in need of effective teachers and least likely, in California, to be taught by them.

“Research has shown that inside the school building, nothing matters more than the quality of the teachers,” said Sandi Jacobs, vice president for National Council on Teacher Quality. “An effective teacher and a highly effective teacher make a really significant difference in the trajectory of their students, and the same is true in the negative capacity for an ineffective teacher.”

Other factors, like parents’ level of education, are also correlated with student performance, but as far as factors schools can control, teacher quality matters more than any other variable, she said.

“Ineffective teachers are entrenched in California’s public school system,” according to a press release issued by Students Matter, which is sponsoring the case. “The superintendents of many school districts affirm that their districts are beleaguered by grossly ineffective teachers and attribute the continued employment of these teachers to the challenged statutes.”

California Teachers Association, a teachers union, has intervened in the lawsuit, hoping the state’s laws will be upheld.

Many relatively new teachers are granted “permanent employment” status after 18 months — long before the school district can determine whether the teacher is effective, plaintiffs argue. CTA argues this is enough time to evaluate a teacher, and if it isn’t being done, school officials may need more resources, said spokesman Frank Wells.

The dismissal process for ineffective teachers is long and cumbersome, preventing principals from firing ineffective teachers, plaintiffs argue.

“The principals I’ve known would like that power [to dismiss ineffective teachers] because they know a bad teacher when they see one, and they know a good teacher when they see one, and they’re hamstrung by the rules,” said Larry Sands, a retired California teacher of 24 years and president of California Teachers Empowerment Network.

The dismissal process should be streamlined, Wells said, but CTA supports using the lawmaking process, not the court system, to implement the best system. In addition, he said, ineffective teachers are quietly “counseled out” of teaching more often than they are dismissed.

When teachers are laid off, the least effective should be the first to go, plaintiffs argue, challenging the current system of laying off teachers with the least seniority.

“The Last-In, First-Out Statute requires school districts to leave grossly ineffective teachers in the classroom while laying off exceptional teachers,” according to Students Matter.

Wells said rating each teacher in the district against other teachers based on effectiveness is impractical, and if schools had more resources, layoffs wouldn’t be needed.

Teacher evaluations, when done right, can provide valuable insight for administrators to tailor professional development to teachers needing support in specific skills, and can help districts make good hiring decisions, Jacobs said.

For teachers who are not improving, even with professional development, administrators need the ability to dismiss them, she said.

“There’s a lot of room for debate over how you determine what constitutes a failed teacher and what constitutes a successful teacher, but at the end of the day, if and when you determine a teacher is failing, you have to let them go, and you can’t in California,” Ring said. “In a practical sense, it’s impossible.”

Contact Mary C. Tillotson at

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