New life for old law on evaluations

The Stull Act, the 40-year-old teacher evaluation law that school reformers had dismissed as useless, may have a second wind.

In a suit with statewide implications, parents backed by an advocacy group are suing Los Angeles Unified and its teachers union, claiming that state law requires that statewide standardized tests must be used in the evaluation of teachers. That law is the Stull Act.

The suit, filed Tuesday in Los Angeles County Superior Court by a half-dozen unnamed parents backed by Sacramento-based EdVoice, seeks an order requiring the district to immediately start using measures of student performance in evaluating teachers and administrators. “Forty years of deliberate and calculated non-compliance with such a key State requirement is enough,” it says.

Plaintiffs want an injunction preventing the district from negotiating a contract that delays applying the law universally. That would include a three-year pilot program for a new evaluation system that Superintendent John Deasy has been prodding United Teachers Los Angeles to accept. An initial hearing on the lawsuit is scheduled for Nov. 21.

Dozens of states have revised teacher evaluation laws over the past two years, and a similar effort is shaping up to be one of the more contentious and involved efforts of the Legislature in 2012. The primary bill in play is AB 5, authored by Assemblymember Felipe Fuentes, D-San Fernando, whose current draft scraps the Stull Act and starts from scratch.

The LAUSD suit implies that may not be necessary. The problem is not with the law, but the collective failure, by the state’s 1,000 plus districts, facing union opposition to using test scores in evaluations, to enforce it over four decades. A victory by the plaintiffs might embolden districts to be more assertive in negotiating new contracts.

Although the lawsuit names Deasy, the LAUSD school board, the district’s teachers and administrators unions, and the state Public Employment Relations Board as defendants, the suit could provide leverage for Deasy in his dealings with UTLA, which has challenged the district’s authority to make any changes in evaluations that aren’t negotiated.

Deasy’s pilot evaluation system, involving volunteer teachers, includes using valued-added standardized test scores as one component. They are supposed to measure a teacher’s impact on student learning; Deasy wants valued-added scores to count as much as 30 percent of an evaluation.

Matter of local control

Bill Lucia, CEO of EdVoice, says the intent of the lawsuit is not to prescribe any particular methodology for using test scores or weight in applying them. State test scores could complement other local assessments or be one component, along with with observations.  That, consistent with the Stull Act, would be left for local districts to determine, he said.

The suit details the history of the Stull Act – and circumvention of it. As passed in 1971, the Stull Act required every school board to create standards of student achievement for each subject in every grade and also to evaluate teachers’ performances relative to students’ progress toward meeting locally determined standards. The State Board of Education fleshed it out with guidelines authorizing school boards to identify teachers who have weaknesses in performance, with ways to help them improve, and those who should be fired. In 1995, the suit says, the Legislature amended the law to explicitly permit dismissal for unsatisfactory performance. In 1999, the Legislature added the key component:  including in evaluations student progress toward meeting state academic content standards as measured by state adopted criterion-referenced assessments, the California Standardized Tests.

But the suit says that unions stonewalled the new law, and, over decades, “in collusion” with superintendents and school trustees, “have made it impossible” to effectively evaluate teachers and to take corrective action based on evidence of a lack of student learning.

“As a result, the adults’ collective employment and political interests are turning the children’s opportunity to learn and their fundamental right to basic educational equality in the public schools on its head,” the suit said.

The suit says that the Commission on State Mandates Commission has allowed reimbursements for the Stull Act; more than 700 districts that at least report including student test scores in evaluations have filed $20 million in annual claims. Based on that, it would seem that districts could also seek repayment for more extensive evaluation costs, including mentoring, additional training and other actions that were recommended to teachers needing improvement.

The mandate of what districts must do is clear, the suit says; it’s just that they have ignored it.

Author: John Fensterwald - Educated Guess

John Fensterwald, a journalist at the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, edits and co-writes "Thoughts on Public Education in California" (, one of the leading sources of California education policy reporting and opinion, which he founded in 2009. For 11 years before that, John wrote editorials for the Mercury News in San Jose, with a focus on education. He worked as a reporter, news editor and opinion editor for three newspapers in New Hampshire for two decades before receiving a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University in 1997 and heading West shortly thereafter. His wife is an elementary school teacher and his daughter attends the University California at Davis.

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