Tenure is not the problem: Debunking education reform myths -- and providing a real path forward

There are ways to fix public schools, but too many "reformers" are blinded by ideology. Let's listen to a teacher

Published July 14, 2014 12:30PM (EDT)

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I’ve been a California public high school math teacher for eight years.  I’m not the best teacher in my school or even in my department, but I get consistently positive evaluations, I have been honored by my principal with a local teacher of the year award called the Golden Bell, and I’ve been the chair of my department for three years.  I have my bad days and I’ve had my bad years (notably my first), but all in all I’d give myself a solid A- as an educator.

Last year I was elected by my colleagues to be my school’s representative to our union’s executive council, making me one of two vice-presidents of the San Rafael Federation of Teachers, the local of the California Federation of Teachers that represents the teachers of the two comprehensive high schools and one continuation high school in San Rafael, California.  Our leadership is small and underpaid – our president receives about one hour off per day to do all union business, and the rest of us (vice-presidents, treasurer, secretary, negotiators) receive very modest stipends.  We’re essentially volunteers.  Given that I am taking a leave of absence next near to travel abroad I have resigned as site representative, and I write this with the perspective of a high school teacher, former union officer, and as a product of California public schools.

This piece is a response to the ruling in Vergara v. California.  The suit was brought on behalf of nine California students whose legal fees were paid by David Welch, a wealthy Silicon Valley businessman and engineer with no experience in education policy, through his nonprofit Students Matter (whose name seems to imply that students don’t matter to teachers).  The suit challenged teacher tenure protections as unconstitutionally denying minority students a quality education by protecting bad teachers who tend to be concentrated in schools with high minority populations.  On June 10, 2014, Judge Rolf Treu sided with Welch and his plaintiffs.  Although teacher tenure rules remain in effect while the verdict is appealed by the state’s two largest teachers’ unions, I would bet my teacher pension that within five years tenure protections in California will be gone.

There Is No One Single Problem

The state of California funds schools serving wealthy suburban students at a much higher rate than schools serving impoverished urban and rural students, without any regard to need.  We cram 45 students in high school classes held in poorly ventilated rooms on 100 degree days with no air conditioning and textbooks from the early '90s.  We disparage vocational education and skilled trades while extolling the virtues of a four-year college education for every student.  We teach hungry students whose parents aren’t able to get their kids to school in time for a free breakfast.  And we have some absolutely awful teachers who should never be allowed in front of students, not to mention lazy administrators, dishonest superintendents, and ideologically driven board members. These are all problems, but none of these is the problem.

In this country, and particularly in this state, K-12 education funding simply isn’t a priority.  On a national level data indicate that we do spend more on education than most other developed countries, but there are a couple of big “buts.”  But U.S. education spending data includes teacher pensions, and teachers don’t get Social Security, so our pensions aren’t actually as generous as they seem.  But U.S. education spending data includes healthcare for teachers and their families, which in many other countries is provided by the state to all citizens.  Yes, we spend a lot on education, but we also spend a lot on other things, like the military and prisons.  Simply comparing our spending to other nations doesn’t tell the whole story.

On a state level, California used to have among the best public schools in the nation, but after the 1978 passage of Proposition 13 severely limiting property tax revenue our schools have plummeted to 48th place, and we now have the lowest per-pupil funding and the worst teacher to student ratio in the nation.  As a state we decided it was more important to protect people who already owned homes than it was to educate our kids.

One major corollary of not prioritizing education is not treating teachers like professionals.  Parents randomly drop in on teachers, counselors and administrators, and expect us to give up our lunch hour to meet.  Teachers have to purchase their own supplies because schools can’t afford them or have such cumbersome purchase order procedures that it’s effectively impossible to buy anything.  Good-hearted recent college graduates who join Teach for America are given minimal training and sent into the toughest schools as if they could do the job as well as veteran teachers.  A personal frustration of mine is being thanked for teaching -- do we thank doctors, lawyers, accountants or architects?  Another irritation is being told, “I might teach when I retire,” as if it were a hobby.  Teaching is hard and teaching is stressful – anyone who enters the profession believing otherwise won’t make it two years.

Our failure to view teachers as professionals is built into the very structure of our educational system.  Teachers get raises based on education and experience and regardless of job performance, have no opportunity for promotion, and are nearly impossible to fire.  We have almost no professional incentive to get better at our jobs, implying that the expectation is that the satisfaction of teaching is enough to keep us motivated.  It is for some of us, but there are close to 4 million public school teachers in the U.S.  That means one in 40 working adults is a public school teacher.  One in 40 Americans are not highly qualified to teach and willing to work hard and stay motivated for decades when their only reward is their own personal satisfaction.  The problem is worse in many hard-to-staff disciplines such as math, science and special education, and in schools in underserved communities.

There Is No One Single Solution

There is no silver bullet to fixing education in this country or this state, and there is no one group whose perspective gives them all the answers, teachers included.  Each of the suggestions below has been held up by one group or another as the solution to the problem.  If executed on their own, each of these ideas would be ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst.

Don't abolish tenure

David Welch’s solution is to get rid of tenure, so the bad teachers can get fired and replaced.  The unspoken assumption is that there is a backlog of thousands of talented, selfless, devoted teachers willing to work for low pay, no opportunity to advance, and no tenure protections, an assumption that is demonstrably false, as any principal knows.  When Chicago made it easier to fire teachers, 40 percent of principals fired no one at all, knowing they’d be unable to replace them with anyone better. In California, enrollment in teacher credential programs has dropped by two-thirds in the last decade, a sign of fewer and fewer people entering the profession.

Every terrible teacher was hired by a principal, and was not fired during their two-year probationary period before earning tenure.  That means either they were always bad at teaching but their school was so desperate it had no choice but to keep them, or they got worse as their career went on.  If the former, then removing tenure, a commodity most teachers consider to be worth tens of thousands of dollars a year, will make teaching substantially less attractive as a career, exacerbating the teacher shortage.  If the latter, then the real issue is an educational structure that does nothing to encourage teachers to improve themselves.  Having the ability to fire an employee only makes them work just hard enough not to get fired.

There are also real reasons why tenure makes more sense for teachers than it does for most employees.  Teaching follows a very cyclical hiring cycle.  If a teacher loses their job they’ll either find another one right away or they’ll be out of work for a solid year.  Teachers are also subject to the whims of a board elected by local voters, meaning they can come under fire for teaching curriculum that is out of line with widely held beliefs, such as evolution, or that homosexuals are not evil, vaccines are not toxic, and the Earth is a lot older than 6,000 years.  As an example consider Oakland’s Bishop O’Dowd High School, a private Catholic school where teachers have no tenure protections.  This year the school required teachers to sign a “Morality Pledge” agreeing to act according to church teachings in their private lives even if they are not Catholic.  Three teachers were dismissed for refusing to sign. I’m reminded of a friend who taught a few years in rural Pennsylvania, and was reprimanded by her principal because several local parents complained that she wasn’t setting a good example for her community.  She had been seen on the weekend buying alcohol.

If a principal is able to fire effective teachers because of pressure from judgmental or closed-minded parents it is the students who will suffer.  As long as the principal remains on good terms with the school board there will be nothing to prevent him or her from systematically firing every teacher who stands up to them.  In private industry such behavior by a supervisor would result in losing business to better managed rivals, but when a public school fails no other school takes its place.

Don't pay based on merit

If we pay good teachers more and bad teachers less, it would appear that we would be encouraging teachers to work harder and be better at their jobs, a tactic merit pay proponents claim would make the teaching profession more closely resemble the private sector.  Firstly, I roundly reject that claim.  If a private sector employee is more effective than her coworkers she generally doesn’t get paid more to do the same job.  She may get promoted and given more responsibilities for which she will earn more money, but most merit pay proposals involve bonuses for individual teachers or schools based on standardized test scores or some other allegedly objective measure of teacher performance.  Secondly, standardized tests are notorious for measuring students’ socioeconomic status, test taking skills, and motivation vastly better than the quality of their most recent year of education.

Most importantly, merit pay can discourage collaboration.  If I’m competing against my colleagues for a bonus I’m not going to share my lesson plans and assessments with them, invite them into my classroom to watch my lessons, or talk through a tough classroom management situation with them.  If the bonuses are structured such that all teachers whose students excel earn a bonus, then teachers and schools will be focused on attracting the best students while shunning students whose demographics suggest they are less likely to be successful on formal standardized tests.  Students from historically underserved communities may find it extremely difficult to obtain a transfer to a school that will better serve their needs.

Don't follow all suggestions of the union

Unions are not the ones to listen to when it comes to major reform of the system, and that applies to every unionized profession, not just teaching.  The role of a union is very specific - to improve the salary, benefits, and working conditions of all its members.   By definition any union is fighting for the majority of its membership, not just the most effective employees.  This doesn’t make teachers unions inherently bad, or put them at odds with students’ interests, but it is a helpful to keep in mind when interpreting their perspective.  They are fighting get teachers more pay, better benefits, and better working conditions, all of which are making teaching a more attractive profession, but a union will always prioritize protecting its current members over recruiting new ones.

Expecting teachers’ unions to reform education is like expecting doctors to cut costs of medical treatment, or asking lawyers to streamline the legal system.  Teachers care about their students, doctors their patients, and lawyers their clients, but reforming education, health care, or the law solely on the advice of those groups won’t create efficient systems that work for everyone.

Don't open more charter schools

The movement for charter schools has gained so much steam that Walden Media has released two major motion pictures glorifying and promoting charter schools (Waiting for Superman, a documentary, and Won’t Back Down, a drama).  Although there are many charter schools doing amazing work with some tremendously underprivileged students, there are many others that are implementing untested instructional practices, failing to serve students with special needs, breaking the law with their admissions practices, squandering money, and even committing outright fraud.

For example, the American Indian charter school in Oakland had among the best test scores in the state, but lost its charter in 2013.  Ben Chavis, the principal since 2001, had to step down after he went on an expletive-infused racist rant against a visiting graduate student.  He had also been refusing to provide any information on the school’s application process and paying himself to lease his own property to the school. Test scores don’t always tell the entire story.

Charter schools are not inherently better than public schools.  That said, there are two key structural advantages to new charter schools: they hire mostly new teachers who are lower on the salary schedule and thus less expensive, and they only serve students whose families have chosen to send them to the school.  Giving students and families agency can have tremendous effects on the way they approach their education, and leaves behind those students whose families are too disenfranchised to apply.  Neither of these advantages has anything to do with the schools having a special mission or model, and should not be conflated with success.

Charter schools have a role.  A charter school allows experimentation with new models of education, and they should continue to exist for that purpose.  But after a school has been open for five years it should be clear if their model is working, and thus should be adopted by the system at large, or it is failing, and thus should be abandoned – either way the experiment is over.  We should take what charter schools are doing that’s working well and apply it to all public schools, rather than taking the success of a few as evidence that we need more charter schools.

Re-Structuring Education

Our education system was designed over a century ago to meet the needs of a very different economy, and the time has come to fundamentally rebuild it.  Some of the changes we need to make relate only to funding, others will transform the underlying structure of our schools.  Most importantly, we can’t make just one change, as by themselves each of these suggestions would be ineffective or unfeasible.  If implemented together, I believe these ideas could make our state’s schools among the best in the nation, and our nation’s schools among the best in the world.

Fund schools based on need, not local wealth

Public education is not something parents provide to their kids, it’s something the state provides to all kids, and we have to stop providing a superior education to kids lucky enough to have wealthy parents.  We need to come up with a funding formula that reflects the actual costs of running each school district and distribute funds appropriately.  Factors like the local cost of living for staff, the percentage of students with special needs, and the difficulty of recruiting qualified teachers should dictate school funding, not local property tax revenue.

California’s current funding formula has two categories for schools – revenue limit and basic aid.  Revenue limit districts are districts whose local property taxes are insufficient to support a school district, so they receive additional money from the state up to a set total.    Basic aid districts are districts whose local property tax revenue exceeds that total, and they get to keep the leftover funds.  If we added no new funding to education then what I’m proposing would be a transfer of money from basic aid districts to revenue limit districts.

I live in San Francisco (revenue limit) and teach in San Rafael (basic aid), and due to those different classifications a 10-year veteran teacher makes over $20,000 less in San Francisco than they do in San Rafael.  San Rafael has lower cost of living for teachers and should not be better funded solely because property tax revenues are higher.  Schools in impoverished, racially segregated neighborhoods that have historically had trouble recruiting teachers should be the best funded and highest paying schools in the state.13

Pay teachers more

The real buying power of teachers’ salaries has actually decreased 2.8% from 2001 to 2011.  Instead of effectively being paid less and less, teachers should be elevated to the same regard as doctors and lawyers.  When I tell people I’m a teacher, I don’t want them to thank me for my selfless sacrifice, I want them to look at me with respect because I was able to get into such a competitive profession.  There’s just no way to recruit doctor/lawyer level talent without commensurate pay.

The best metric to set teacher salaries is the free market.  When school districts have to settle for sub-par teachers because there are no qualified applicants then salaries are too low, and if highly qualified teachers are unable to find work then salaries are too high.  What’s relevant is not whether salaries seem fair; it’s whether they are sufficient to recruit qualified staff.

Pay administrators more

The CEO’s of the smallest 10% of publicly traded U.S. companies earned an average of $878,000 in 2011, and they are managing employees they have the power to promote or fire.   The CEO’s of tiny privately held companies with under 25 employees earn on average between $130,000 and $175,000, depending on their industry.  Principals make between $80,000 and $150,000 a year, and manage dozens to hundreds of employees they cannot promote or fire.  The job is made even more difficult by the simple fact that teachers, as managers themselves, are notoriously hard to manage.  The level of talent needed to run a school well is at least as high as the level needed to run a small company, and the pay should be more comparable.

Provide opportunity for promotion

In every district, in every school, in every discipline there are classes that are more or less desirable to teach.  Often these are remedial classes, large classes, or classes for English learners.  Invariably, the least desirable classes are the ones where the strongest teachers are most needed.  In current practice many schools have a culture of rewarding senior teachers by giving them the easiest schedule, forcing new teachers to work with the toughest students, and packing the most students into the classrooms with the strongest teachers.

Instead, attach a stipend to each of the least desirable classes and to each student above a certain number in each class.  Let the principal promote the strongest teachers by giving them harder classes, more students, and more pay.  Teachers would then have an incentive to volunteer for the toughest assignments in the school and to improve their teaching practice in order to earn those assignments.  For example, in a high school math department a highly talented teacher with four sections of remedial Algebra, one section of AP Calculus, and 175 total students could be earning double what a brand new teacher with five sections of geometry and 100 total students is earning.

This brings up one of the same problems as merit pay – how exactly would promotions be determined?  I propose that like the private sector, they’d be determined subjectively by the (highly qualified and well paid) principal.  I trust a good principal’s subjective measure of teacher quality over objective standardized test scores.  Yes, some less effective teachers will earn promotions for ingratiating themselves with the principal, and some talented but outspoken teachers will be denied promotions for standing up for their students, but I believe those problems a small price to pay to provide teachers with the incentive to improve their practice and take on the most challenging classes.

Make teacher credentials free and meaningful

A major impediment for many college graduates entering teaching is the prospect of another year in school and incurring more student loan debt only to enter a famously underpaid profession.  Public universities should offer a limited number of free spaces in credential programs, and that number should be set based on projected need for teachers.  By providing aspiring teachers with a free education and perhaps even a stipend for living expenses credential programs would become a highly attractive option for college graduates, and thus a highly competitive one as well.   Currently three out of four teacher credential programs in the U.S. are recruiting many of their students from the bottom half of college graduates, while higher performing nations’ teacher credential programs recruit solely from the top third of college graduates.

Most importantly, credential programs need to be completely re-worked so they teach the skill of teaching, not the academic subject of education.  To draw an analogy, if we taught pilots the way we do teachers we’d require courses in the physics of aeronautics, the history of the airline industry, and cockpit design, but never actually show them how to fly a plane.  In my credential program I had no classes on classroom management or methods of math instruction, but I did have a class on curriculum design with an instructor who’d never taught below a college level, and I had a one-day technology seminar that taught me how to use PowerPoint (which I already knew).  Less than a quarter of teacher credential programs in the U.S. include any training at all in classroom management. Brand new teachers need to learn how to speak in public, manage challenging students, interact with parents, collaborate with colleagues, and write lessons and tests, not design curriculum.

The model with perhaps the most potential for teacher’s credential programs is that used to train doctors – teaching hospitals.  Each university offering credentials could be paired with a local school, allowing aspiring teachers to work more directly with students from the start of their training and allowing credential instructors to teach a section or two to keep their skills sharp and relevant.  Keeping professors in the classroom would also allow them to test out their ideas in a real classroom setting, much like how research on new medical procedures takes place in teaching hospitals.

Reduce breadth, increase depth

A common and accurate criticism of our education system is that it is a mile wide and an inch deep.  For example, in Algebra 1 we are expected to review eight years of basic arithmetic and teach students how to solve linear equations and inequalities, graph and analyze linear functions, perform operations on exponents, solve systems of equations, manipulate polynomials, solve and graph quadratic equations and functions, manipulate radicals, perform algebraic operations on rational expressions, solve radical equations, and solve rational equations.  Algebra 1 is a ninth-grade class and a graduation requirement, so students need to be able to do all that in just 10 months if they want a diploma.

We need to drastically reduce the amount of material students are expected to learn and dramatically increase the depth of knowledge they’re expected to have.  By the time I’m done with linear functions I want my students to see linear relationships everywhere they look – in the speedometer of their car, on the menu at a pizza place, in their cell phone bill, in the rise and run of the stairs to their front door, and hopefully in their future career – so they’ll actually retain their understanding of linear functions and be able to generalize and apply the concepts to novel situations.  But I can’t teach them to do that in a three week unit, and it’s worth giving up conic sections, matrix operations, and rational expressions to give essential topics the time they deserve.

Have teachers teach fewer hours of the day and collaborate more

If I ever worked as little as 40 hours a week, instead of my more typical 45 or longer, I’d be spending 25 of those hours actively teaching my students, about three hours in meetings, and only 12 hours doing everything else.  For every hour I spent teaching I’d have less than 30 minutes to prepare the lesson, grade the work, communicate with families, and discuss ideas with my colleagues.  This is why nearly every teacher in the country works well over 40 hours a week.  We arrive early, stay late, take work home, work through lunch, or all of the above.

In France and Italy teachers spend only around 18 hours a week teaching, giving them about twice as much time per class to plan, grade, and collaborate. That’s enough time for a teacher to plan a deep, meaningful lesson, differentiate it to meet the needs of struggling and excelling students, discuss that plan with their colleagues both before and after instruction, and carefully assess student work.

Shrink and specialize high schools

Consider a reasonably typical community of 30,000 to 60,000 residents.  This could be a moderate sized town, a collection of small towns in the same geographic area, or one neighborhood in a major city.  Such a community would likely have around 1,200 to 2,500 high school students, and only one or two high schools.  Instead, high schools could be split into smaller schools of around 450 students each.  When Oakland Unified began its small schools initiative in 2000, it found that smaller high schools were more productive than traditional high schools as long as they had a healthy mix of new and experienced faculty and impassioned, mission-driven principals.

Multiple schools could share a campus (and facilities like the gym, athletic fields, and library), but there are a lot of advantages to smaller high schools.  With fewer students it would be harder for students to fall through the cracks because the adults on campus all know a higher proportion of them.  Schools could specialize in disciplines like arts, humanities, or math and science, or could focus on meeting the needs of students who are in danger of not graduating.  Some schools could be highly structured and meet from 8am to 5pm with no homework, others could meet for a few hours every other day to allow students to be self-directed learners.

Students and families would be given the choice of attending whatever school they want.  If no one were choosing to go to a particular school it would be a clear sign that something at that school wasn’t working.  That school could close for a year and re-open under different leadership and with a different mission.  If a school were being wildly successful and attracting more students than it could handle it could replicate its model on multiple campuses.  Finally, more schools means more opportunities for talented but unappreciated teachers to find a job where they are valued.

Expand vocational education for all students

Recently an elementary school in Elwood, New York, canceled its annual kindergarten play.  The reason given to parents was that the school was “responsible for preparing students for college and career with valuable lifelong skills.” “College and career readiness” is the new buzzword in education, but when you hear people describe what that actually looks like it’s a lot of college and not a lot of career.  At Novato High School where I began my teaching career, a giant banner announces to everyone driving by that “Every student, every day is college bound,” which I imagine is profoundly offensive to the school’s many hard-working and intelligent employees who did not attend college.

Everyone would agree that the determining factor in whether or not a student goes to college shouldn’t be whether or not their parents went to college.  That said, we need to respect the dignity, honor, and challenge of skilled trades.  Many of our students from all backgrounds, myself included, would be well served if they graduated high school knowing how to weld, fix a car, build a cabinet, wire a circuit, and run industrial machinery.

In the German model of education, students have the option of spending their last few years in high school being trained for careers that exist right in their community.  Some spend their final years of high school learning how to build cars, and graduate with a job already lined up with Volkswagen.  These students aren’t considered “failures,” they are respected for taking a different and equally essential path.

Hire math specialists in elementary school

Many elementary school teachers will readily tell you (and their students) that math is their worst subject, and some have full blown math anxiety that they pass on to their students. I’d wager very few elementary school teachers could actually explain how or why the algorithms for long multiplication and long division actually work.  When students spend their formative years learning math from people who dislike it, don’t understand it, and may even disparage it, it’s no surprise that they get to middle and high school without basic skills.  I’ve had to teach multiplication tables and basic subtraction to ninth-graders and fraction operations to college-bound seniors who think that the correct method of adding fractions is to add the numerators and denominators.  These students were never held accountable for knowing essential and basic skills.

Elementary school math specialists would have the subject matter knowledge to design activities, not just implement activities from a book.  When students struggle, math specialists would know how to explain and demonstrate concepts in multiple ways, and would understand the importance of not letting the student move on until they have mastered essential skills.  Math specialists would bring enthusiasm and energy to a subject many elementary teachers dislike.  Perhaps most importantly, math specialists can train their fellow teachers who have struggled with math throughout their lives, and hopefully turn around attitudes about math at the primary level.

How to Pay For It

Although some of the changes listed above are cheap, free, or even offer potential savings, it would be naive to think we could build a world-class K-12 school system in California with our current education budget.  Although I do believe that much of the funding for education can be found in the current budgets for prisons, the military, and tax expenditures, here are two suggestions that will generate considerable savings and revenue, respectively.

Move from guaranteed benefits pensions to guaranteed contributions retirement plans

Teachers’ pensions are a major liability for the state, and can be an incentive for burned out teachers to stick it out a couple more years.  Instead of adding more people to the pension system, all new teachers should receive employer-matched 403(b) or 457(b) plans (like a 401(k) but for public employees).  Especially if teachers are paid well from the start of their career and can afford to make large retirement contributions when they’re young, this will dramatically reduce long-term financial liabilities for the state while bringing teacher retirement plans in line with the private sector.  Coupled with higher pay and meaningful training, these changes would not discourage new teachers from entering the profession.

Repeal proposition 13

We need more money for education in this state, we need to stop slowing our housing market by discouraging sales and major remodels, and we need to stop regressively taxing new home owners more than those who have owned their homes for decades.  Repealing proposition 13 would raise substantial revenue for schools, encourage home sales, and relieve some of the burden of buying a first home.

The Last Step

Once teachers are equipped with good training and no debt when they enter the profession, put under the supervision of a highly qualified principal, paid handsomely so they can rapidly accumulate enough savings to get through a year of unemployment, and given the opportunity to advance their career and earn promotions, then tenure will be obsolete.  Only once everything else is in place will it be time to remove the cumbersome and expensive bureaucratic hurdles to firing ineffective teachers.  Teachers should still have the right to a hearing before their board, but they would no longer have a right to years of appeals while their students continue to learn nothing in their classes.

If I were to return from my year or two abroad to find I had lost my tenure protections without gaining anything in return, I’d be very hesitant to write a piece like this in the future.  If I returned to my position as union representative it would be difficult to confront the administration even when they were in clear violation of the contract, and I might not voice my objections if my administration made instructional changes I felt weren’t in the best interests of my students.  I’d have to spend less of my income paying off my house and saving for retirement and put more into liquid accounts in case I lost my job.

On the other hand, if I were to return to an increased paycheck, an administrator with the talent to run a small company, the opportunity to earn a promotion, a more manageable curriculum, fewer hours in the classroom, and many more schools to potentially work at, then I’d gladly sacrifice my tenure protections.  I might lose some of my freedom to speak out against my administration, but that would be a small price to pay to work in one of the best school systems in the world.

Getting rid of tenure is the last step in fixing public education, not the first.




By Morgan Agnew

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