Judge to rule on teacher evals

A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge has promised to finish up this weekend his decision on whether state law requires school districts to consider student test scores in evaluating teachers.

A landmark ruling on behalf of students and parents suing Los Angeles Unified and the district’s teachers union would give Superintendent John Deasy the muscle of the law to press ahead with adopting growth in student performance as one of several metrics for  teacher evaluations. It would signal to other school districts that they must also do so in some fashion. A ruling against the plaintiffs might not change the status quo, since few school districts currently use student test scores in formal evaluations.

Oral arguments in the case had been scheduled for Tuesday, and Deasy, who’d been subpoenaed to testify, was in court. But after Judge James Chalfant indicated he had nearly completed his tentative ruling, attorneys for both sides agreed to wait until the next hearing, on June 12, to respond to what he has written. Chalfant didn’t preview his position, although he did dispute a characterization by the attorney for the district of the broad issue in the case – possibly a sign which way he’s leaning. He did make clear several times that he was thoroughly versed in the case, had read the record and recognized the case’s importance.

What does Stull Act require?

Sacramento-based nonprofit EdVoice, filing suit for the parents, has forced the issue in Jane Doe et al vs John Deasy. It argues that the four-decade-old Stull Act, the state law laying out procedures for teacher and principal evaluations, requires that evaluations consider “pupil progress as it reasonably relates” to district standards and to state academic standards as measured by the California Standards Tests. Among those agreeing with that position is Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who, when he was speaker of the State Assembly, sponsored a bill that updated the Stull Act.

Los Angeles Unified has extensive data tying student test scores to teachers. It created a system, called Academic Growth over Time (AGT), that uses demographic data on individual students and  their results on past years’ tests to project future results. Teachers are scored on whether students in their classes exceed or fail to meet those expectations.

Deasy has shared AGT scores with individual teachers, though they haven’t counted in evaluations yet. He hasn’t said what percentage of an evaluation AGT would comprise, although he said it would be a minor piece.

The plaintiffs argue that, in failing to incorporate test scores, the district “has relinquished its obligations to the students in order to placate more powerful interests” – in other words, caved to union pressure. As evidence, they point to 600 randomly selected teacher evaluations that they reviewed. While 98 percent of teachers had satisfactory reviews, less than 3 percent made any reference to standards or tests, attorneys said, and the evaluation forms contained no questions requesting information on students’ learning relative to standards. The plaintiffs argue that the failure to evaluate teachers effectively violates students’ civil rights, denying them their constitutional right to an opportunity for a quality education.

Deasy has proven to be the plaintiffs’ star witness. Their brief begins by quoting from his deposition: “We do not currently construct evaluations of teachers by using how students do over time in terms of their academic outcomes.” On Tuesday, after a brief hearing, Deasy told reporters that he looked forward to a ruling that would help clarify the state law and support his effort to use AGT districtwide. He acknowledged that the district and UTA had discussed trying to settle the lawsuit, without success.

Deasy’s statements under oath notwithstanding, the district’s formal position is that it is complying with the law. The AGT model that the district is piloting is proof that the district is linking test scores to teacher evaluations. (This argument glosses over that actual implementation of AGT is at least a year away and will be contested in court by United Teachers Los Angeles.) The district’s teacher evaluation form also contains many questions that relate to student performance, including whether a teacher:

  • Demonstrates knowledge of state standards and student development;
  • Plans and implements classroom procedures that support student learning;
  • Uses the results of multiple assessments to guide instruction.

Lawyers for the parents, however, argue that these areas may examine and support effective teaching, but don’t tell you whether student learning has actually increased.

United Teachers Los Angeles makes a very different argument. Contrary to what EdVoice, Villaraigosa, and the parents claim, UTLA says point blank, “The Stull Act does not prescribe how local school districts must conduct employee performance evaluations.” The criteria for evaluations are left to the school district, and any changes must be collectively bargained. And the district has wide discretion in determining how pupil growth “reasonably relates” to standards of student achievement, the UTLA argues in its brief.

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" (www.TOPed.org), 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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