San Diego isn’t exceptional in the fact that schools in low-income neighborhoods tend to get teachers with less experience. Now the Obama administration’s lighting a fire under state superintendents to flatten out inequities nationwide.

In a letter released Monday, the Department of Education advised states to get plans together by June to make sure “public schools comply with existing federal law requiring that ‘poor and minority children are not taught at higher rates than other children by inexperienced, unqualified or out-of-field teachers,'” The New York Times reported.

This isn’t the first time: States submitted plans to deal with inequities back in 2006, but data shows they haven’t been entirely effective.

From the Times:

The Education Department will send each state data collected by the department’s Office for Civil Rights showing rates of teacher experience, certification, absenteeism and salary by school as well as student access to taxpayer-funded preschool and advanced courses in math and science.

The administration is also urging states to look at teacher evaluations to determine whether those who receive lower ratings are disproportionately assigned to schools with high proportions of racial minorities and students in poverty.

But the only requirement of states is that they ensure that teachers are equitably distributed based on experience and credentials.

In San Diego, schools in affluent areas, which often benefit from plenty of private school foundation money, on average tend to get teachers with more experience.

Teachers in the Scripps Ranch High cluster, for example, averaged about 17.5 years of experience last year, according to data from California’s Department of Education. That’s three years more than San Diego Unified’s district average, and four years more than the average for the Lincoln cluster, which has a higher rate of low-income students. Here’s what Mario Koran found back in March:

We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

Longer tenures don’t necessarily make for more effective teachers, but test scores indicate experienced teachers are doing something right.

Last year, the Scripps Ranch and La Jolla Clusters – whose teachers have more experience than the district average – earned the district’s two highest API scores, a composite score based on student assessments.

The Crawford and Lincoln clusters, in southeastern San Diego, earned the two lowest. Teachers at those two schools had less experience than the district average.

Having the state consult teacher evaluations for these plans, as the Department of Education suggests, might kick up some dirt in San Diego.

Revamping evaluations has been a major point of contention between San Diego Unified and the teachers union. Currently, the frequency with which teachers are evaluated depends on how long they’ve been with the district: They’re evaluated once a year for their first two years on the job, then every other year and then they may qualify to be evaluated once every five years if they make it to the 10-year mark and pass other benchmarks.

And the reviews themselves can be fairly laid back. The school’s principal visits a classroom to see how its teacher is leading, and fills out an evaluation form to rate performance. That’s if things play out as they should: Last year, four teachers at Lincoln High told us that the principal never showed for their evaluations. They were given “satisfactory” marks without any actual review. (Notably, this doesn’t violate any district rules.)

During contract negotiations in March and April, things came to a head when the district indicated it wanted to rethink the system. At the time, San Diego Education Association’s then-president Bill Freeman sounded spooked.

“That was the biggest disappointment for me,” said Freeman. “Any time you want to implement a system that’s top-down, that’s the quickest way to make something fail.”

Freeman said he was surprised by the sudden focus on teacher evaluations, and that the district has never indicated the current system was problematic.

But Lisa Berlanga, executive director of parent advocacy group UpforEd, said that changes are a long time coming. “I don’t think it’s changed in more than 20 years,” she said. “We’re very pleased to see this.”

The new union president, Lindsay Burningham, made clear when we talked with her in August that she didn’t see much need to change the evaluation process, putting any room for error on the administrator carrying out each review: “We’re not saying that we’re opposed to any changes to the evaluations, but whatever changes are implemented need to be something we decide together,” Burningham said. “It can’t be something that’s handed down by one side.”

The district’s original suggestion included parent and student feedback. Months later, San Diego Unified and the teachers union are back at the negotiating table, but that element was nowhere to be found in the union’s Nov. 4 proposal.

    This article relates to: Education, News, School Performance, Share

    Written by Catherine Green

    Catherine Green is deputy editor at Voice of San Diego. She handles daily operations while helping to plan new long-term projects. You can contact her directly at or 619.550.5668. Follow her on Twitter: @c_s_green.

    John H Borja
    John H Borja subscriber

    The answer is far simpler and has nothing to do with tenure, credentials, highly qualified, language, or age. If there is a class needing a teacher, whomever is "up" or next in line or just hired gets the class.  Teachers already at a school generally stay there.  As time wears on new teacher and older, ok, tenured teachers may change to another school.  And, as a rule, the turnover rate for teachers, in the more "difficult schools", is very high. By turnover rate, I mean these teachers are either not coming back or decide to look for less stressful schools in other school districts or decide on another profession.  Even in the "least" stressful schools the pressure is high to perform at a high level both for the student as the teacher. It takes years to perform at all well as a teacher.  The most enthusiastic and energetic, new , young, and innovative  teachers are not really good until about the 5th year.  So, inequity? It's built into the system nationally.

    Heather Poland
    Heather Poland subscriber

    Test scores correlate to income levels only. La Jolla and Scripps will ALWAYS have the highest test scores because they represent the highest income levels in San Diego. It is unfair and incorrect to say that bad teachers are in low income schools. This is usually the opposite. It is MUCH more difficult to educate children who are homeless, hungry, dealing with insecurity at home, etc. Many experienced teachers do choose to work at low income schools and are dedicated. In a low income school, you have to work against so many obstacles and really work to find ways the kids can learn. Often, there are better teachers at low income schools because they do have experience with all these other factors. Put an educator at La Jolla and the teacher can pretty much come in with any lesson plan, and most kids will agree to do it and most kids will fully understand it. Put that same teacher in a low income school, and many kids will not see the point of the work, and in turn be defiant. Or, they cannot read, so they become defiant. It takes skill to truly teach at low income schools. Don't believe me? Then go ahead, swap out teachers from high and low income schools. You will magically see the teachers from low income schools getting good test scores, and the teachers from high income schools getting lower test scores.

    Bruce Smith
    Bruce Smith subscriber

    The teachers' unions have done a poor job in leading educational change in California; they are, with respect to the state's educational system, the most conservative voice around. Therefore they are subject to, and potentially victimized by, initiatives like this one from the Obama administration. With illegal immigration continuing to spill up from our southern border, inconsistent policy positions (the Obama administration continues to promote Teach For America, whose modus operandi depends upon placing minimally trained and experienced teachers in the neediest schools, precisely contrary to this policy) from Washington, D.C., and uncompetitive Common Core standards being implemented from Sacramento, it will be perfectly understandable if educators and families in San Diego and elsewhere in southern California take refuge outside the state school system -- for example, in private schools, which should be voucher-supported, and which should remain beyond the reach of all these outside forces striving for improvement but failing to take our children where they need to go.

    David Lynn
    David Lynn subscribermember

    Sounds a bit like correlation vs causation: Length of time a teacher has been teaching may be correlated to how qualified they are, but that won't necessarily satisfy the element within the DOE statement of "unqualified".  I'd rather have qualified teachers that have only been around for 5 years than unqualified ones that are still there after 20.  But obviously that's harder (and contentious) to measure.

    francesca subscriber

    This makes a case against Teach for America.  TFA puts college graduates with a few weeks of training into low income areas.  This says more experienced teachers are needed there.