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Supporting teachers is the way to improve schools

Linda Darling-Hammond


This article was first published in SF Gate

All students in California deserve great teaching. The recent Vergara lawsuit suggested that eliminating teachers' due process rights is the best way to achieve this. But if it were that simple, the highest achievement would be in the states where teachers lack these rights, mostly in the South. In fact, the reverse is true. The highest-achieving states in the country—and the highest-achieving countries in the world—have the strongest protections for teachers.

These states and countries realize what parents know: The path to great teaching and good schools lies in recruiting top talent, preparing teachers extremely well, ensuring that they meet high standards for entry, and then providing them with resources, learning opportunities and ongoing feedback that enables them to continuously improve. Ultimately, we cannot fire our way to Finland (one of the world's highest-achieving nations academically). We have to teach our way there.

California ranked 50th

In California, the most important job right now is rebuilding the profession and the public schools after years of debilitating cuts, which is the job Gov. Jerry Brown and California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson have undertaken over the past 3 1/2 years, with extraordinary results.

When this team took office, California schools were in free fall—cutting budgets and laying off teachers by the tens of thousands. Among all states, California was 50th in the numbers of teachers, administrators, librarians and counselors per student.

The turnaround since then has been dramatic. Brown and Torlakson mobilized parents, educators and businesspeople across the state to pass Proposition 30, which stopped the free fall and brought new resources into schools.

They then enacted one of the nation's most progressive school funding systems, which allocates resources according to student needs and puts decisions about education back in the hands of local communities.

Linking college and careers

Working closely with the State Board of Education and the Legislature, they have redesigned state standards for student learning, taken steps to modernize the state testing system, and supported more professional development for educators to learn to teach these high standards to the diverse students in California's schools.

Torlakson has also led the charge to invest in technology in every school and to expand and update career and technical training for high school students, to ensure that every young person leaves school with skills he or she can apply in the real world. He worked with legislators to encourage model career training programs statewide. The new Career Pathways Trust is providing $500 million in competitive grants to help schools prepare students for college, careers and well-paying jobs.

School districts are now hiring new teachers rather than laying them off, strengthening teaching in reading and math, reintroducing science, integrating new technologies into classrooms, and creating stronger links to college and careers. Children and parents are also benefiting from transitional kindergarten and after-school programs that Torlakson launched, as well as greater attention to children's health and fitness.

Student achievement on the rise

The state still has a long way to go, but after years of decline, we're seeing real progress: California's graduation rate now exceeds 80 percent, the highest in our history. Student achievement has grown rapidly, with eighth-graders showing reading and math gains on national assessments from 2011 to 2013 three times greater than the national average.

California was the undisputed leader in education during the 1970s, and is now back on the path to reclaiming that standing by carrying out a clear vision for improvement.

Transforming an education system that serves 6 million students in 10,000 schools is difficult work. But our children get only one chance at an education, and, for them, it is critically important that we sustain the progress Gov. Brown and Superintendent Torlakson have begun, and keep our eye on the prize: a high-quality, well-supported teaching force in a system designed for success.



Linda Darling-Hammond is the Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Education at Stanford University and Chair of the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing.