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The Learning Curve is a weekly column that answers questions about schools using plain language. Have a question about how your local schools work? Write me at Mario.Koran@voiceofsandiego.org.

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Earlier this week, we published a list of the 20 schools in San Diego Unified where the most teachers are facing layoffs. And as has happened in previous years, the schools facing the most layoffs next year are overwhelmingly poor.

At 16 of the 20 schools in San Diego Unified facing the most layoff notices, at least 75 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch – a rough measure of a school’s poverty level.

Nine schools that made the list are located in southeastern neighborhoods, one of the most economically disadvantaged areas of San Diego.

The reason poor schools are facing an overwhelming share of the layoff burden has a lot to do with a last in, first out policy, based in state education code, which requires that school districts use seniority as the key factor for determining which employees to layoff. That is, the last teachers to be hired are first to be fired when it comes time for layoffs.

And because more senior teachers migrate toward more affluent schools with better test scores, the system has a detrimental impact on poor schools.

These facts are generally accepted as true, both by those who want to preserve the seniority system and those who want to dismantle it.

But even though opposing sides agree on this point, it does nothing to explain why teachers leave poor schools in the first place – or what it would take to keep them there.

Last in, first out – along with rules that establish how long it take teachers to earn tenure and how hard it is to remove ineffective educators – was the focal point of the Vergara v. California case in 2014. A Superior Court judge in Los Angeles sided with students arguing that the state’s teacher protections denied poor students their right to an equal education. But two years later, an appeals court overturned the decision, leaving the teacher protections in place.

Even before that case wrapped up, though, some questioned whether overturning long-held teacher protections did enough to solve the real problem: finding teachers willing to stay at low-income schools.

Dana Goldstein laid out some of the challenges in The Atlantic:

“The lesson here is that California’s tenure policies may be insensible, but they aren’t the only, or even the primary, driver of the teacher-quality gap between the state’s middle-class and low-income schools. The larger problem is that too few of the best teachers are willing to work long-term in the country’s most racially isolated and poorest neighborhoods. There are lots of reasons why, ranging from plain old racism and classism to the higher principal turnover that turns poor schools into chaotic workplaces that mature teachers avoid. The schools with the most poverty are also more likely to focus on standardized test prep, which teachers dislike. Plus, teachers tend to live in middle-class neighborhoods and may not want a long commute.”

One of the first solutions observers float whenever this question comes up usually involves offering a financial incentive, or “combat pay,” for teachers who stay at high-poverty schools.

If it’s true that low-income schools are more demanding places to work, a little financial boost might sweeten the deal, the thinking goes.

But in 2014, when Lindsay Burningham first stepped into her role as president of the local teachers union, she expressed skepticism about financial incentives. Teachers, she said, aren’t motivated by money:

“It’s not just the pay that attracts teachers or keeps them in the profession. It’s the respect and resources they have at the schools they teach … If salary is what attracts people to the teaching profession, those are the ones who leave after a few years and contribute to the high turnover rate. There’s so much more to it when it comes to retaining teachers, things like low class sizes.”

There may be something to Burningham’s argument. Evidence suggests financial incentives haven’t led to great results elsewhere. Here’s Goldstein again:

“From 2009 to 2011, the federal government offered 1,500 effective teachers in 10 major cities—including Los Angeles—a $20,000 bonus to transfer to an open job at a higher poverty school with lower test scores. In the world of public education, $20,000 is a major financial incentive. All these teachers were already employed by urban districts with diverse student populations; they weren’t scared of working with poor, non-white children. Yet less than a quarter of the eligible teachers chose to apply for the bonuses. Most did not want to teach in the schools that were the most deeply segregated by race and class and faced major pressure to raise test scores.”

Goldstein laid out several reasons why teachers leave. But what’s the solution?

A few years ago, it looked like certain high-poverty schools in San Diego Unified had cracked the code.

Every year, teachers with more seniority seek assignments in more affluent schools. That is, poor schools experience more teacher turnover even when layoffs aren’t part of the picture.

But certain schools – like Balboa Elementary and Central Elementary, where Superintendent Cindy Marten used to be principal – were able to slow that revolving door and hang onto more of their senior teachers.

At the time, principals at those schools attributed the trend to the fact they were able to create a more collaborative environment – where teachers shared strategies for what works in the classroom – and provide services that made teachers want to stick around. Marten, for example, created a daycare at Central so teachers could keep their children close to them.

School board president Richard Barrera was so taken by Marten’s story he made it a central part of his argument when he testified in the Vergara trial. He pointed to Central Elementary as an example of what can happen when schools prioritize collaboration.

And in fact, many teachers say they choose schools based on which principals they’d be working with. When a well-liked principal leaves a school, it’s not uncommon for a handful of teachers to follow that principal to his or her next assignment.

So it appears that slowing teacher turnover has a lot to do with principals. If the district chose good principals and supported them on the job, there’d be less teacher movement, it seems.

But there’s one bug to this approach. Principal turnover is at least as big of a problem as teacher turnover. And principals leave high-poverty schools for many of the same reasons teachers do.

Even when principals do a good job and are committed to the school and community, they’re often promoted to larger schools or management positions. Other principals are fired or removed from their posts for mysterious “personnel” matters.

Soon after she cracked the code at Central Elementary, Marten was promoted to superintendent. Fabiola Bagula, former principal of Balboa, was promoted to area superintendent.

And this year, neither school is immune to layoffs. At Central, at least seven of 31 teachers are facing layoffs. At Balboa, it’s 7 out of 19.

And so I turn to you, teachers, parents, readers. What do you think it would take to help low-income schools hang onto more of their teachers?

Weber Still Pushing to Reform Teacher Tenure

The Vergara case came to a close last year when an appeals court reversed a lower court ruling to overturn teacher protections. But one lawmaker hasn’t given up attempts to reform the way California teachers earn permanent status, or tenure.

This week, Assemblywoman Shirley Weber introduced AB 1220, a bill that would increase the time it takes teachers to earn tenure – from 18 months to three years – and provide additional mentoring to teachers who need more support.

That would align California with the time it takes teachers to earn tenure in most other states. It takes teachers in 42 other states three to five years to earn tenure.

Even the majority of educators think teachers should be given more time to earn tenure. In a 2015 survey of 506 teachers, 85 percent of teachers said tenure decisions should be made after at least three years.

No Term Limits for San Diego Unified Board

In a 5-4 vote along party lines, the San Diego City Council rejected a proposal earlier this week to limit San Diego Unified school board members to two four-year terms.

Despite the fact neither the mayor nor City Council has much involvement with San Diego city schools, the rules that outline school board elections are laid out in the City Charter. So any change to the school board’s election process would require an amendment to the City Charter.

The proposed change would have made school board elections consistent with the way races for City Council, the state Legislature and Congress are held, where candidates are selected solely by members of their district.

Recognizing it would make them more competitive in city races, unions and the local Democratic Party strongly supported such a change in November, when voters approved a measure that made it impossible to win a mayoral or City Council race outright in the June primary.

This time around, however, members of those same groups opposed changes to the school board elections they’ve had no problem winning in recent years.

Councilman Chris Ward said it was better to leave school board governance issues to San Diego Unified.

“We got out of the business of governing school boards 50 years ago,” Ward said.

That means school board members will continue to serve as long as voters will have them. School board president Richard Barrera has been elected to the board three times. All three times he ran unopposed.

There’s good reason to believe the current system gives the advantage to labor-backed candidates.

Last year, when I talked to Vlad Kogan, political science professor at The Ohio State University, he named a few ways the current system gives the advantage to labor-backed candidates.

School board elections tend to be low-profile contests, he said. If voters haven’t done much independent research, an endorsement by the teachers union signals that a candidate has been vetted. And candidates who secure an endorsement from the teachers union benefit from union resources and a motivated group of voters.

LaShae Collins, who ran for school board last year, beat her opponent, Sharon Whitehurst-Payne in the June primary. But she was bested by Whitehurst-Payne in November when the vote went citywide.

Steph Groce, who lost a school board race last year to John Lee Evans, said citywide elections dilute the voices of voters in the areas trustees represent. And without big coffers, anyone without a union endorsement is unlikely to win a citywide race.

“The current system stifles candidates and disenfranchises people who don’t have the endorsement from the teachers union. The [school board election system] change would have benefited parents, teachers and leaders in our city who have great ideas and want to run for school board, but are discouraged by the huge amount of money it would take to run a race citywide,” he said.

Mario Koran

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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