Students Talk Back takes on education

The Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics kicked off its first Students Talk Back event for the spring semester in the Ronald Tutor Campus Center on Wednesday afternoon.

The discussion, “Raising the Bar for California Schools: Teacher Evaluations and Student Testing,” focused on policy discourse that could potentially improve the future of the California educational system.

The panel featured Beth Shuster, education editor for the Los Angeles Times; Mike Stryer, vice president of district and union policy for Teach Plus, one of the nation’s largest teacher voice organizations; Jacob Ellenhorn, director of public relations of USC College Republicans; and Kevin Sanchez; former K-12 executive aide of Harlem Children’s Zone.

Co-moderators included Dan Schnur, executive director of the Unruh Institute, and Danni Wang, editorial director of the Daily Trojan.

Schnur fostered discourse among panelists and audience members when he discussed the results for the 2012 Vergara decision. Vergara v. California, is a closed case that included nine public school students who filed a suit against inconsistencies found among California statutes with regard to the educational system. The decision was reached in August 2014 when Judge Rolf M. Treu of the California Superior Court found the evidence to be unconstitutional. Shortly after, the ruling was appealed by California Gov. Jerry Brown.

Stryer discussed how the case produced two opposing groups.

“To me it is a very misunderstood ruling. You saw both sides saying either, ‘This is great because it is ending tenure, use of seniority and due process.’ [And others] saying, ‘Isn’t this terrible? It ends these hard fought protections that are absolutely vital,’” Stryer said.

Wang asked Stryer to explain the recently released Teach Plus poll results, which covered issues such as teacher tenure, layoffs and dismissal.

“At Teach Plus, we are a teacher voice organization really looking to amplify the voice of teachers and policy issues,” he said. “What we set out to do was to really look at what are the views of California teachers around these critical issues.”

Recently, Teach Plus took part in an independent polling study which gathered results from 506 teachers in California to understand issues that directly affect them.

According to Stryer, the poll found that teachers highly valued tenure, but felt it should be an earned professional benchmark. Teachers also believed that classroom performance should be part of layoff decisions when layoffs are necessary, that their struggling colleagues should be better supported. Teachers identified themselves as passionate about having a strong voice in policy development and implementation.

Shuster expressed her concern toward teachers who are unable to express their voice to the community.

“I think what happens sometimes is that the teachers’ union people who have a very strong point of view get their message out and a group like Mike’s teachers that are representing classroom teachers don’t often get their voices out,” Shuster said.

Schnur opened the discussion for school choice and privatization.

“Whether you are talking private schools or school vouchers, there is no shortage of proposals in the mix about how to decide where a person ought to go to school and who ought to make that decision,” Schnur said.

Ellenhorn commented on California’s current educational system.

“What we are looking at right now is a government-run system that basically sets up a monopoly on where you have to send your children — you don’t have a choice,” Ellenhorn said. “If you live in a bad neighborhood, and you can’t afford to go anywhere else, you are stuck at that school.”

Sanchez discussed why increased high school graduation rates cannot account for a more able generation of students moving to the workforce.

“In late April 2014 the state’s superintendent office released a news report stating that California‘s graduation rate was the highest it’s ever been at 80.2 percent and LAUSD had a graduate  rate of 67.9 percent but given that California’s graduation rate is so high, I think it’s interesting to think about what that means … I’m not sure if anyone in this room can say we are doing a fantastic job as a state,” Sanchez said.

Shuster ended the discussion by posing a question to Stryer.

“Should teachers get paid more to work in these schools?” Shuster asked.

“I think that there is a myth out there that our strongest teachers don’t want to teach in the lowest performing schools because it is difficult. That is simply not true,” Stryer said. “When strong teachers are given the support and the opportunities to succeed they absolutely will go into those schools.”

Correction: A previous version of this story stated that Mike Stryer is the executive director of Teach Plus, one of the nation’s largest teacher’s unions. He is actually the vice president of district and union policy for Teach Plus, one of the nation’s largest teacher voice organizations. The Daily Trojan regrets the errors.