There is nothing more important to a school’s success than our teachers and principals. If we want to have the best public schools in the country, we need to invest in them. Teachers inspire and engage our children, and help cultivate a love of learning. Principals support our teachers, engage our parents and communities, and shape school culture.
Unfortunately, California has not prioritized its educators and, as a result, we have a massive teacher shortage, and we do not have enough principals who have been developed to be strong instructional leaders. Three-quarters of all school districts in California report having difficulty filling open positions with qualified educators, and the problem is particularly bad in key subjects like math, science, and special education, and in our highest poverty schools4.
We need to attract more people to the teaching profession and retain the best of them by increasing incentives and compensation, and substantially improving the supports we provide to teachers and those aspiring to be teachers. We need to do the same for principals. We need to do more to attract and retain educators serving students with the greatest need. For too long, our state has enabled a system in which poor students have less experienced teachers and principals, and more staff turnover.
With the right policies, we can elevate the teaching profession, and make sure we have great educators in all our public schools.
Better Pay for Our Educators
Teaching is a difficult and important profession and it needs to be compensated as such. While there are other steps we can take to make the profession more attractive, we must increase teacher compensation. In many places in our state, two married teachers can’t afford to buy a house in or near the community in which they teach. This needs to change. In many countries with high performing education systems, educators are better compensated, as compared to other professions5. This isn’t a coincidence.
In California, we need to put in place a clear path over the next decade to increase overall compensation for our educators. In Unified School Districts in California, beginning teacher salaries range from about $41,000 to $49,000 per year6. By comparison, California prison guards receive a starting salary of about $52,000 to $57,000, with a paid training period, and without needing a post-secondary degree7. These are political choices we have made that have deprioritized education and our teachers. We can make better choices. This will not be easy as it will require more funding and real changes, but it is essential if we want to elevate the teaching profession.
Free College for Teachers
While it will take time to increase teacher compensation significantly across the board, one thing that we can do more immediately is make college and credentialing free to all people who commit to teach for at least five years. California should offer no-interest loans to college students who commit to teach for five years. Once a teacher finishes her or his fifth year of teaching, the loans would be forgiven. The teacher shortage in our state makes this an urgent priority. If we are unable to fund the full program immediately, we should start with teachers that commit to teach in high-needs communities and in hard-to-staff subject areas, like special education.
Equity in School Staffing
In addition to increased funding overall for educators, our state should support school districts in their efforts to provide additional compensation to teachers, counselors, and principals who work in high-needs communities and fill our most difficult-to-staff positions.
One of the biggest equity issues in California’s public schools is the fact that our schools serving greater proportions of low-income children tend to have a harder time filling open positions, have higher staff turnover, and have less experienced staffs overall than schools in higher-income neighborhoods8. We will not make meaningful progress on closing the achievement gap if our public school system continues to put our students with greatest need in schools with less experienced educators and higher staff turnover. This is one of the greatest inequities in our public schools, and it has consistently gone unaddressed.
We must increase both compensation and support for our educators working in high-needs schools, to ensure the staffs in these schools are at least as experienced, effective, and consistent as the staffs in schools serving more affluent communities.
Stronger Teacher Training
We can help teachers be even better prepared when they begin their careers if we make improvements to our university teacher training programs.
Much of the coursework that is currently offered in the credentialing year for aspiring teachers should be provided in undergraduate programs so that the credentialing year can serve as a residency, where the teacher-candidate is spending the vast majority of her or his time working in the field, learning from highly effective teachers. Residency programs have been piloted in California and in other states and it is time to make a residency program the norm for the majority of the people coming into the teaching profession. A quality residency program for new teachers can improve the quality of the preparation that they receive before taking on their own classrooms.
Additionally, as our state standards for students, and student demographics have changed, we need to see changes and improvements in many of our university teacher training programs. For instance, we want our students to be engaged in more project-based and experiential learning, so our teachers must be adequately prepared to support students through those experiences. And as the number of English Learners and students living in or near poverty has grown, we need to make sure teachers have the training they need to meet the particular needs of these student populations, including adequate preparation for the social-emotional needs of students.
Finally, we can streamline the process by which people transfer their teaching credentials from other states to California, or make career-changes from other fields into the teaching profession.
A Coach or Mentor for New Teachers
A quality university preparation program cannot be the end of a teachers’ formal development or support. We need to continue to revamp the current Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment (BTSA) Program and create incentives and supports to encourage school districts to provide new teachers with a quality mentor, as more research continues to demonstrate the significant impact of coaching9. The state should work with districts to support their efforts to put in place high quality mentoring and coaching programs for new teachers.
In addition to supporting new teachers, we should support school districts in prioritizing coaching programs that help teachers continue to grow and learn throughout their career. This can be particularly helpful to teachers who are struggling or when school districts introduce new instructional materials or teaching strategies.
Principals that are Instructional Leaders
Principals are a critical piece of our public education system. If you look at high performing schools throughout our state, one consistency is a strong principal. Principals should be responsible for hiring their teams, creating a clear vision for their schools, serving as instructional leaders, bringing resources to campus, building relationships with teachers, students, parents and community, allocating financial resources most efficiently, and participating in teacher evaluations, among other duties. It is an incredibly challenging and rewarding job. Unfortunately, our state and our school districts often overlook our administrators. This needs to change.
First, principals need to be given the flexibility to address the varying needs of their schools; this should be their focus, rather than tending to compliance and bureaucracy. School districts also need to further invest in developing our principals’ capacity to be strong instructional leaders, as supporting the practice of their teachers should be a top priority. Research has shown that one of the top reasons teachers leave the profession is a lack of sufficient support from their principal10. This is especially problematic today in the face of our state’s teacher shortage crisis. A strong instructional leader with the time to support teachers can help curb this trend. We can build principal capacity by encouraging districts to pair their new school leaders with more experienced school leaders, and by improving administrative preparation programs in our universities. The state can also help school districts share best practices around developing a strong pipeline of leadership talent through the development of promising lead teachers and assistant principals.
Cultures of Continual Learning
Our schools should provide- and our state should support- working conditions that excite, motivate, and retain educators and other employees. One important aspect of this is being an organization that is always growing and learning. This requires more time for adult professional development, leveraging the most effective educators to train their peers, having a strong system for evaluations and data gathering at all levels, and deliberately creating opportunities for professional and career growth. This will look different in different districts based on size, location, and demographics. But the state should support local efforts to continuously support the growth of employees that are aligned around a shared vision for student success.
We need to help schools and school districts rethink staffing, resource allocation, and time, so they can maximize professional learning for school employees. This can aid schools in their effort to better leverage the expertise of site-based educators; too often professional development for educators is designed, led, and executed by those who have not practiced in a great deal of time, or at all. Opportunities for learning and growth should also extend to non-instructional staff, such as office managers, parent coordinators, district staff, and others.
Locally-designed, meaningful evaluations play an important role in continual learning, too. The state should support district and school efforts to build evaluations that articulate thoughtful professional goals, a plan and resources for meeting them, and a process for reviewing both formative and summative progress towards meeting those goals.
Finally, our schools should provide career advancement options for educators. Growth and leadership opportunities for school staff can increase retention and further cultivate a shared ownership over the vision and work of the school.
21st Century Work Rules
Our schools face a few work rules that don’t align well with the realities of a 21st century school system, and which can cause difficulties for educators and students alike. These rules are worth reexamining—not to eliminate entirely, but to rework for a modern school system. Among these are rules governing tenure, teacher layoffs, and dismissals.
With regards to tenure, our schools currently must decide to grant tenure or dismiss a teacher after less than two years of service. This is simply not enough time for a teacher to receive the support necessary to demonstrate her or his full potential, or for a principal and school district to decide if a teacher should receive tenure. We need to give our teachers and schools more time before making such consequential decisions. Neither the teacher nor the student is served by having to make such a high-stakes decision after such a short period of time. Again, our most vulnerable students are most impacted by the errors that are inevitably made from time-to-time under such difficult circumstances. Tenure at our colleges and universities allows for a lengthier period during which this milestone can be earned and it is a rigorous process. A recent bill by Assemblymember Dr. Shirley Weber was introduced to provide additional time for teachers to earn tenure. This bill (AB 1220) originally proposed extending the pre-tenure probationary period to three years for all new teachers, and giving school districts the flexibility to extend that period to four or five years, to provide that teacher with additional support and time before having to make the high-stakes decision of tenure or dismissal. Commonsense improvements such as these will better serve our students and, over time, will help uplift the teaching profession.
Currently, school boards must base teacher layoffs solely on seniority rather than on classroom effectiveness or other factors. While seniority should remain a significant factor, keeping it as the sole factor for layoffs can be problematic, especially for our children-of-color, and those living in poverty, who attend schools with a disproportionate share of more junior teachers. We should aim to fund our schools such that layoffs are a rarity, but if layoffs do occur, school districts should be given the flexibility to address them in a much more equitable way where seniority is one factor used in determining layoffs, but not the only factor.
Finally, we must reform our state’s teacher dismissal process, under which it is uniquely difficult for local school districts to dismiss teachers for consistently poor performance or misconduct. The current laws around dismissal also have a disproportionate impact on our highest-need students. Reasonable protections against arbitrary dismissals- such as the protections afforded other public employees- are important. But the current process is extremely rigid, very expensive, and generally ineffective.
4Podolsky, A. and Sutcher, L. (2016). California Teacher Shortages: A Persistent Problem (brief). Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute.
5Education Indicators in Focus— OECD. vol. 21, OECD, 2014, Education Indicators in Focus— OECD.
6“Average Salaries & Expenditure Percentage - CalEdFacts.” Average Salaries & Expenditure Percentage - CalEdFacts (CA Dept. of Education), California Department of Education, www.cde.ca.gov/fg/fr/sa/cefavgsalaries.asp.
7“CA Dept. of Corrections & Rehabilitation Pay & Benefits.” Pay and Benefits, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, www.cdcr.ca.gov/career_opportunities/por/pay.html.
8Teachers College Record Volume 117 Number 3, 2015, p. 1-36 http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17810.
9Kraft MA, Blazar D, Hogan D. The Effect of Teacher Coaching on Instruction and Achievement: A Meta-Analysis of the Causal Evidence. Working Paper.
10“The Irreplaceables.” The Irreplaceables | TNTP, The New Teacher Project, tntp.org/publications/view/the-irreplaceables-understanding-the-real-retention-crisis.