Smart policy decisions can only result from involving teachers

As someone who engages in education policy advocacy and development for a living, it’s good to know opportunities abound for me and fellow policymakers to hear the voices of America’s teachers and to apply their perspective in crafting policy solutions to educational challenges. Apart from the traditional participation of teachers unions (American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association), a number of national and state-based initiatives (Accomplished California Teachers, Teach Plus, VIVA Project) have launched to inject the voices of teachers into education policy discussions.

But is anyone listening?

Policymakers attending the annual summit of the State Consortium on Educator Effectiveness (SCEE) last month were listening. While there, I was reminded of the power and wisdom of teachers while hearing 2011 National Teacher of the Year Michelle Shearer deliver the keynote address. She offered four key insights that add depth and complexity to the current policy conversation about effective teaching.

I believe every policymaker focused on education should hear what she had to say.

First, Shearer reminded us that, like students, educators are on a developmental continuum – always getting better. This matches our belief at New Teacher Center that teachers are learners and great teachers are made, not born.

Second, Shearer contended that much of what we want from great teaching – like compassion, caring, and relationships with students – cannot be measured or observed. Such dispositions are critically important but may be in danger of being lost within data-driven evaluation systems.

Third, Shearer shared that while teaching is competitive at times, it also must involve collaboration for the greater good. A group of successful public school teachers in Florida echoed this in What turned our teachers into our favorites?,” an article about some of the common traits that great teachers share.

Lastly, Shearer told participants that effective teachers empower students to hold each other accountable for learning and for the use of classroom time. A teacher might do this by instructing the entire class to work as a group toward a common goal. To an extent, the use of such an instructional strategy is contingent upon a school leader who creates a school environment where teachers have opportunities to share decision-making and the freedom to teach outside the box.

This view of teaching is largely antithetical to the behavior-focused accountability systems created by federal and state policies that assume and penalize underperformance. Shearer’s conception involves a teacher-driven spirit of collective responsibility built around a shared vision for learning. Effective teaching grows from cooperation rather than top-down control.

So how can we think systemically and unleash the power and wisdom of teacher leaders as we develop policy initiatives aimed at improving teaching and learning?

* Consider the implications of proposed education reforms on the complexities of teaching, including the work of Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson’s Educator Excellence Task Force. Teachers should be given a seat at the table to develop and implement policy. The Task Force has done this.

* Create an environment that empowers teachers and enables great teaching. The heads of eight influential policy organizations (U.S. Department of Education, American Federation of Teachers, National Education Association, Council of Chief State School Officers, American Association of School Administrators, National School Boards Association, Council of Great City Schools, and the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Services) took a step in the right direction on this recently by signing a shared vision for the future of the teaching profession. They set common goals and agreed on what it will take to meet them, including “Conditions for Successful Teaching and Learning.” The statement rightly acknowledges that “high-functioning systems can amplify the accomplishments of their educators, but a dysfunctional school or district can undermine the impact of even the best teachers.” We are working with a number of state partners to build such district and school climates.

* Establish a policy framework that provides for individualized professional development for beginning and veteran educators and regular opportunities for teachers to collaborate, reflect, and learn. The state of Colorado’s comprehensive effort deserves attention. According to the state’s website, “the promise of educator effectiveness requires much more than evaluation.” Colorado employs five strategies for optimizing educator effectiveness: (1) hiring excellent candidates, (2) boosting teaching effectiveness through evaluation and targeted professional development, (3) retaining and leveraging top teaching talent, (4) prioritizing effective educators for high-need students, and (5) improving or dismissing less effective educators.

* Involve teachers in key decisions around the development and selection of frameworks, curricula, and instructional tools associated with Common Core State Standards implementation. Doing so would help teachers understand and embrace the new standards and would contribute to the desired impact on classroom instruction.

And, more simply, let’s listen to teachers.

Liam Goldrick is Director of Policy at New Teacher Center, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to improving student learning by accelerating the effectiveness of teachers and school leaders. Liam leads a range of initiatives designed to strengthen new educator induction and mentoring policies at the state and national levels. Most recently, he served as project lead on the NTC Review of State Policies on Teacher Induction, which includes a policy paper and individual policy summaries for all 50 states.

Student scores in evaluations

In a decision with statewide implications, a Superior Court judge ruled that Los Angeles Unified must include measures of student progress, including scores on state standardized tests, when evaluating teachers and principals.

But Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge James Chalfant will leave it to the district, in negotiations with its teachers union and administrators union, to determine what other measures of student performance might also be included, how much weight to give them in an evaluation, and how exactly test scores and other measures should be used.

Chalfant’s decision would appear to strengthen Superintendent John Deasy’s push to move forward with a complex value-added system of measuring individual students’ progress on state standardized tests, called Academic Growth over Time. Deasy wants to introduce AGT on a test basis in a pilot evaluation program next year. But the unions remain adamantly opposed to AGT; Chalfant said the use of AGT as a measure of student progress is not his call to make; and today, hours before Chalfant is to meet again with parties in the lawsuit over evaluations, Los Angeles Unified school board member Steve Zimmer will propose barring AGT from staff evaluations. The school board will vote on his motion later this month.

Chalfant released his tentative decision on Monday. (Update: On Tuesday, after a hearing with all parties, he made the ruling final.) But the carefully crafted, 25-page ruling is not likely to change much, if at all, and may become final today, after the school district and unions get a final chance to make their case at a hearing.

The ruling is a victory for Sacramento-based EdVoice, which filed suit on behalf of a half-dozen unnamed Los Angeles Unified students and their parents and guardians. EdVoice’s lawsuit claimed that the Stull Act, the 40-year-old state law laying out procedures for teacher and administrator evaluations, requires school districts to factor in student progress on district standards, however they decide to measure it, as well as scores on the California Standards Tests (CST) in evaluations and that Los Angeles Unified was ignoring the requirement – as do most school districts.

Chalfant agreed and, in his decision, quoted Deasy, who, in testimony, acknowledged the district doesn’t look at how students do academically when evaluating teachers.  On Monday, Deasy praised the tentative decision, and called for  the district, his employer, to move quickly to act on it. “The district has waited far too long to comply with the law,” Deasy said. “This is why LAUSD has created its own evaluation system, and has begun to use it. The system was developed with the input of teachers and administrators.”

Next step: negotiating compliance

Chalfant’s tentative ruling proposed that attorneys for EdVoice and the parents propose a plan for compliance and that they and the district try to negotiate specifics over the next month. Whatever they agree to would still likely have to be negotiated with United Teachers Los Angeles and Associated Administrators Los Angeles.

Bill Lucia, president and CEO of EdVoice, praised Chalfant’s decision. While acknowledging that the emphasis given to student progress could become a sticking point in negotiations between the district and teachers, he said the ruling makes clear “there is no status quo going forward.”

“It won’t be OK to sit on their hands,” Lucia said. “The district must come up with something different that passes the laugh test and makes a sincere effort to honor the statute requiring that evaluations look at whether kids are learning.”

EdVoice took no position on whether the AGT should be the tool by which to measure student performance in Los Angeles. But, Lucia said, the district must consider other measures ­– whether student portfolios or other district tests ­ – in the evaluations of teachers of courses in which CSTs aren’t given, such as first grade, art and seventh grade science.

Signal to other districts

Chalfant’s ruling would apply only to Los Angeles Unified, although other Superior Courts could cite the ruling. Nonetheless, Lucia said that the message to other districts is that “a district cannot omit the progress of kids in job performance of adults.” The goal, he said, “should be a better determination of effectiveness that allows limited resources to be targeted to those teachers needing the most improvement.”

Attorneys for UTLA and the district could not be reached for comment on Monday.

UTLA argued in its brief that a dispute over requirements in the Stull Act belonged before the Public Employee Relations Board, not a court, and that any requirement for the use of test scores or other measures must be negotiated.  But Chalfant wrote that first and foremost, the district must comply with state law, regardless of the contract it reached with the unions.

The position of the district, on behalf of the school board, was confusing. Last year, in defending the  pilot program using AGT, the district  said it had the authority to impose the terms of evaluations without union negotiations. Even though Deasy testified that test scores and student progress weren’t part of staff evaluations, the district fought the EdVoice lawsuit.

In its brief, the district asserted that the use of AGT in the pilot satisfied the law’s requirement to use state standardized test scores – even though they have yet to be applied, with consequences, to any teacher. The district also asserted that it uses results on district and state tests and other student measures to set goals for teacher instruction and measure improvements in the classroom.

But Chalfant ruled that that’s not sufficient. “There must be a nexus between pupil progress and the evaluations. No such nexus currently exists.”

“This does not mean that there must be a box on a form which directly addresses pupil progress,” he wrote. “It does mean that pupil progress must be reflected in some factor on a written teacher evaluation.”

Whether pupil progress – AGT alone or in combination with other student growth measures ­ – counts 20 percent or 30 percent of an evaluation, as Deasy has advocated, must be decided through negotiations, unless the district asserts a right to impose AGT unilaterally.

Villaraigosa’s Stull Act amendment

In 1999, when he was state Assembly speaker, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa sponsored an amendment updating the Stull Act  to require the use of CST scores in teacher evaluations. Villaraigosa submitted a brief supporting this position.

Chalfant incorporated some of Villaraigosa’s points in explaining the rationale for his decision. In 2009-10, 99.3 percent of teachers evaluated received the highest evaluation rating, with 79 percent meeting all 27 measures of performance. This despite that the district “has one of the lowest high school graduation rates in the State, and an even lower percentage of students are college ready.”

“These failures cannot be laid solely at the feet of the District’s teachers,” Chalfant cointinued. “Students must want to learn in order to do so, and some students can never be motivated to learn. But the District has an obligation to look at any and all means available to help improve the dismal results of its student population. One means of improving student education is to evaluate teachers and administrators based on the overall progress of their students.”

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.

LA groups want test scores part of evaluations

Two Los Angeles education groups have offered separate teacher evaluation frameworks that they hope will help break the impasse between Los Angeles Unified and its teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles.

“There is frustration that, even after years of discussion, there still is no new system in Los Angeles,” Mike Stryer, a former Los Angeles Unified teacher who helped create the plan for Our Schools,  Our Voice Coalition, said at a news briefing Thursday.

Our Schools, Our Voice Coalition wants teacher observations to comprise  60 percent  of  a teacher's evaluations score, followed by student test scores at 25 percent. Source: Our Schools, Our Voice (click to enlarge).
Our Schools, Our Voice Coalition wants teacher observations to comprise 60 percent of a teacher's evaluation score, followed by student test scores at 25 percent. Source: Our Schools, Our Voice. (Click to enlarge)

The biggest barrier – at this point seemingly uncrossable – is disagreement over the inclusion of student standardized test scores in the evaluation. The district uses a method, Academic Growth over Time, that measures a teacher’s impact on student test results. Superintendent John Deasy wants to include the AGT score in the evaluation, although he has not said how much weight it and other factors would have. UTLA remains adamantly opposed, ­and devoted considerable space in a 53-page evaluation proposal released in March to argue why, as unsuitable and inaccurate measures, “standardized test scores should play no part in high stakes decisions leading to dismissal.”

Both Our Schools, Our Voice Coalition – with parents, education advocates, and some Los Angeles teachers – and Teach Plus, a national network of teachers with a chapter in Los Angeles, support phasing in AGT, but with conditions. Among requirements under the Our Schools, Our Voice Coalition plan, AGT wouldn’t count unless a course’s curriculum matched the standardized tests and there was a statistically significant sample size. AGT wouldn’t count for probationary teachers. And all test results would remain confidential, inaccessible to the public and the press (no more providing data for publishing in the Los Angeles Times). Use of test scores would be phased in, counting 10 percent the first year, reaching a maximum 25 percent after three years. Teach Plus also advocates starting at 10 percent, working up to a third of a teacher’s evaluation, if benchmarks for test integrity and reliability are met, said John Lee, executive director of Teach Plus Los Angeles.

What the union, the district, and the two outside groups all agree on is that classroom observations should constitute the biggest piece of an evaluation: 60 percent under Our Schools, Our Voice’s plan and at least half, Deasy has indicated, under the district’s. The district is currently training principals in uniform observation rubrics and piloting observations in 100 schools involving 700 teachers. Teach Plus wants teachers to help evaluate their peers in areas requiring content expertise but in a capacity of providing classroom guidance, separate from a formal evaluation with consequences. UTLA favors an expanded use of Peer Assistance and Review, a panel of teachers who counsel teachers needing improvement and recommend dismissal for those who “have been given a real chance to improve but are unable to meet clearly defined standards.” Under the Our Schools, Our Voice recommendations, a mentor will be assigned to a teacher identified as needing intensive support for at least a full year.

Like the district’s eventual plan, Our Schools, Our Voice proposes student surveys (beginning in the third grade), parent surveys, and a measure of contributions to the community – each counting 5 percent. And Our Schools, Our Voice includes a new, intriguing element: a way to identify and reward, with up to a bonus 10 percent score, those teachers who help close the achievement gap for Hispanic students, African American students, and English learners in the bottom quarter who  make marked progress.

The release of both organizations’ recommendations is intended to prod UTLA and the district to start talking. But at this point, leverage is more likely to come from the courts or the Legislature.

On Tuesday, in Los Angeles County Superior Court, there will be arguments in a suit brought by the nonprofit EdVoice on behalf of Los Angeles Unified and UTLA over the failure to include standardized tests in evaluations. EdVoice makes a good case that the Stull Act, the 40-year-old state law on teacher evaluations, requires test-score use, but districts like Los Angeles Unified have ignored the provision. A victory by EdVoice – and indirectly for Los Angeles Unified, though named as a defendant – might force UTLA to back off its unqualified opposition to the use of test scores.

Until now, Los Angeles Unified has argued that it has the exclusive right to determine the requirements for an evaluation. It exercised that right in setting up the pilot evaluations, despite the opposition of UTLA. But later this summer, the Senate will likely take up AB 5, sponsored by Democratic San Fernando Valley Assemblymember Felipe Fuentes, which would replace the Stull Act. As currently written, most aspects of an evaluation process would have to be negotiated with unions, which could stretch out adoption of a new system for months, if not years.

Race to the Top opens up to districts

California school districts will finally be able to seek Race to the Top money without interference and resistance from Gov. Jerry Brown and state officials.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on Tuesday announced much anticipated draft criteria for a $400 million competition open to individual districts or groups of districts nationwide. That’s enough money to fund a projected 20 proposals for grants of $15 million to $25 million, Duncan said.

For districts and qualifying schools in California, this will be the last opportunity to pursue innovative ideas and school models they have not been able to develop in cash-strapped times. The three previous Race to the Top rounds have been open only to states, and California has been shut, although it was one of nine finalists in the second cycle and was all but guaranteed at least $49 million in round three. However, Brown declined to sign the application on behalf of seven districts that put it together, because he believed it would have obligated the state to enact statewide reforms he opposed. As a result, Duncan rejected the state’s application out of hand.

That hasn’t discouraged John Deasy, superintendent for Los Angeles Unified, one of the lead districts in the aborted last round. Deasy said Tuesday that the nation’s second largest district certainly will be applying for $25 million. LAUSD’s pilot schools, its new teacher evaluation system, and experiments in other schools are the kinds of reforms that Race to the Top is encouraging, he said.

Applications will be due in July; the awards will be announced in October, and money for the grants disbursed in December.

LAUSD and the other six Race to the Top districts formed the California Office to Reform Education, or CORE, to continue their work implementing Common Core and teacher evaluation. They also have been encouraging federal education officials to open up Race to the Top to districts. Hilary McLean, director of communications for CORE, said that the superintendents remain intrigued at the possibility and will examine the criteria for applying either singly, as LAUSD intends to do, or collectively.

There will be a new twist. The top priority will be, Duncan said, “personalized student-focused learning” ­– approaches and programs directed to meeting individual student needs within and outside of the classroom. The Department of Education describes these on the Race to the Top website as “collaborative, data-based strategies and 21st century tools to deliver instruction and supports tailored to the needs and goals of each student, with the goal of enabling all students to graduate college- and career-ready.”

21st century technologies

One obvious applicant pool would be districts and charter schools with a widespread use of online and blended learning; the latter is a hybrid that combines classroom instruction and online learning. California has leaders in blended learning: Palo Alto-based Rocketship Education, along with districts (Los Altos School District) and charters (Summit Public Schools) working closely with Mountain View-based Khan Academy on technologies that track individual students’ progress and allow them to learn at their own pace.

Among large districts, Riverside Unified, with 43,000 students, is the farthest along in piloting online and blended learning. It also operates the Riverside Virtual School for 12,000 students in and outside the district. Principal David Haglund said that a Race to the Top grant would enable Riverside to take its individualized learning commitment to scale.

But Duncan said that new technologies are only one approach to break the “one size fits all mold.” Pointing to the Promise Neighborhoods model of community involvement in schools, Duncan said this could be done by bringing adult tutors into the schools and establishing partnerships with community groups, colleges, and health services to meet the academic, physical, and emotional needs of students. Oakland Unified’s ambitious Community Schools, Thriving Students initiative, which has established partnerships for school health clinics in some schools, with plans for a community STEM concentration in West Oakland, is one effort that could be taken to scale. Deasy said that pilot schools with home visitations and extended-day programs are examples of what the district might choose to expand with a grant. LAUSD hasn’t decided whether to target certain schools or concentrate on select grades.

Some of the proposed criteria and stipulations may disqualify some districts and give others pause:

  • District applications must serve at least 2,500 students (too large for some rural districts and charter school organizations but not in a consortia with others), with at least 40 percent of students eligible for free or reduced lunch subsidies;
  • Applicants must agree to priorities of previous rounds of Race to the Top. These include having a data system that links teachers to students and a commitment to employ a teacher evaluation system by 2014-15 that gives significant attention to growth in student achievement;
  • The superintendent, president of the school board, and head of the teachers union all must sign the application. In previous rounds, union leaders’ consent was not required but helped a state’s score.

United Teachers Los Angeles didn’t sign off on LAUSD’s previous applications. Deasy said he assumes that the union would not stand in the way of pursuing $25 million for the district.

Full-scale assault on dismissal laws

A nonprofit founded by a Silicon Valley entrepreneur has filed a sweeping, high-stakes lawsuit challenging state teacher protection laws. A victory would overturn a tenure, dismissal, and layoff system that critics blame for the hiring and retention of ineffective teachers. A loss in court could produce bad case law, impeding more targeted efforts to achieve some of the same goals.

Students Matter is the creation of David Welch, co-founder of Infinera, a manufacturer of optical telecommunications systems in Sunnyvale. The new nonprofit filed its lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court on Monday on behalf of eight students who attend four school districts. A spokesperson for the organization told the Los Angeles Times that Los Angeles philanthropist Eli Broad and a few other individuals are underwriting the lawsuit. They have hired two top-gun attorneys to lead the case: Ted Boutrous, a partner in the Los Angeles law firm of  Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, and Ted Olsen, former solicitor general for President George W. Bush.

The lawsuit asserts that five “outdated statutes” prevent administrators from making employment decisions in students’ interest. The tenure statute forces districts to decide after teachers are on the job only 18 months whether to grant them permanent job status. Once granted tenure, they gain due-process rights that make it expensive and difficult to fire them even if they’re “grossly ineffective.” And then, when an economic downturn comes – witness the last four years – a Last In/First Out (LIFO) requirement leads to layoffs based strictly on seniority, not competency.

The protection of ineffective teachers “creates arbitrary and unjustifiable inequality among students,” especially low-income children in low-performing schools, where less experienced teachers are hired and inept veteran teachers are shunted off, under a familiar “dance of the lemons” since they cant be fired. Because education is a “fundamental interest” under the state Constitution, the five statutes that “dictate this unequal, arbitrary result violate the equal protection provisions of the California Constitution” and should be overturned.  The lawsuit doesn’t prescribe a solution.

Incremental versus global approach

Students Matter’s wholesale assault on the laws contrasts with fact-specific, narrowly tailored lawsuits brought by attorneys for the ACLU of Southern California and Public Counsel Law Center. Two years ago, they won a landmark victory in Reed v. the State of California when Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge William Highberger found that the heavy churn of teachers due to LIFO at three Los Angeles Unified middle schools violated students’ right to an equal educational opportunity. That decision led to a settlement between the district, the mayor’s office, and the attorneys that has protected the staffs of 45 low-performing schools from layoffs for the past three years. The strength of that case lay in its ability to tie specific harm to students to the layoff law, which explicitly permits exceptions to seniority layoffs to protect students’ fundamental constitutional rights. LAUSD had not exercised that exception. (United Teachers Los Angeles has appealed; arguments will be heard June 28.)

Earlier this year, the Sacramento-based nonprofit EdVoice brought suit against Los Angeles Unified over the pro forma way it conducts teacher evaluations. But here, the suit isn’t seeking to overturn the Stull Act, which defines how evaluations are done; it says that the district (along with nearly every other one) has chosen to ignore the law’s requirement that student performance be included in teacher evaluations.

Screen Shot 2012-05-17 at 12.09.04 AMThere’s no shortage of critics of the tenure, dismissal, and layoff laws, which teachers unions have lobbied hard to preserve. California is one of few states that have not lengthened the probationary period for teachers. More than two dozen states have strengthened their evaluation systems in the past several years. California’s dismissal law, with its 10-step process laden with due process, can cost districts hundreds of thousands of dollars to fire a teacher on the grounds of unsatisfactory performance, which is why districts often work around it by paying teachers to retire or pushing them from one school to another.

Persuading a judge that the practical problems and the effects of the laws rise to the level of a constitutional violation is another matter. (In an analogous case, California is among the nation’s bottom spenders on K-12 education; it has tough standards and a challenging student population. But attorneys last year failed to convince a Superior Court judge in Robles-Wong v. California and Campaign for Quality Education v. California that adequate education funding is a constitutional right.)

Tough burden of proof

The tenure law may be particularly challenging. As the suit points out, something like 98 percent of probationary teachers have gotten tenure. The two-year probationary period (actually 18 months, since teachers must be notified by March of their second year) is not long enough. Too often evaluations have been slapdash. But the law itself doesn’t require a district even to cite a cause in denying tenure; the power of dismissal lies with the employer.

Students named in the lawsuit are from Los Angles Unified, Pasadena Unified, Sequoia Union High School District, and Alum Rock Union Elementary District, although only Los Angeles Unified and Alum Rock, which serves 11,000 students in San Jose, are specifically cited as defendants, along with  Gov. Brown, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, the State Board of Education, the state, and the State Department of Education.

The only specific reference to Alum Rock was in the identification of plaintiff Daniella Martinez, 10, whom the lawsuit says chose to transfer to a public charter school because “of the substantial risk that she would be assigned to a grossly ineffective teacher who impedes her equal access to the opportunity to receive a meaningful education.” The initial filing doesn’t cite evidence of  specific teachers who negatively affected Daniella or the other seven defendants. It refers to studies by such groups as the National Council On Teacher Quality, which issued a blunt assessment of the tenure and dismissal practices of Los Angeles Unified, and on research by Hoover Institution author Eric Hanushek, who concludes that just by dismissing 6 to 10 percent of weakest teachers, students’ academic achievement and long-term earnings as adults would increase significantly.

Los Angeles, as the state’s largest district, may have been named as a defendant because its superintendent, John Deasy, has been outspoken about the need to change labor laws. United Teachers Los Angeles has also  sued over a comprehensive teacher evaluation system that Deasy has put in place.

Deasy would appear to be a friendly witness for the plaintiffs. In a statement, he said he supports lengthening the probationary period, quickening the dismissal process, and reforming the state’s layoff law. “To my dismay, we have lost thousands of our best and hardest-working classroom instructors through the last hired, first fired rule. When forced to reduce our teaching staff through budget cuts, we are compelled through state law and union rules to base these difficult decisions primarily on seniority,” Deasy said.

But when questioned, Deasy will be pressed to acknowledge that it may not be the laws but the implementation that counts. Since joining the district, first as deputy superintendent, then superintendent, Deasy has pushed administrators to apply more scrutiny in granting tenure and more perseverance in dismissing bad teachers. Last year the district terminated 853 teachers. Furthermore, the number of probationary teachers denied tenure rose significantly last year: from 89 in 2009-10 (10 percent of those eligible) to 120 teachers in their first year and 30 in their second year. Other superintendents would agree that well-trained, persistent principals can document the case for teacher dismissals, notwithstanding cumbersome, excessively burdensome requirements.

Don’t skip this step: Designing evaluations of teachers starts with trust

Where do teachers fit into the current landscape of education reform? The results of the recent Met Life survey should surprise no one: Teachers’ morale is at an all-time low. The causes are not hard to see, and include a combination of budget cuts and layoffs along with a decade of NCLB-inspired scripted curricula and a steady diet of union bashing in the education press.

It is ironic that all of this comes at a time when the mantra of “good teaching matters” is on everyone’s lips. Is there a way to reform education, survive budget cuts, and also re-inspire teachers and reinvigorate the teaching profession? The answer is not clear, but the stakes could hardly be higher. The future of California depends on ensuring that about 280,000 people continue to love teaching. Most of them are already at work in classrooms. Do any of the reforms currently being tested have the potential to capture the imagination and channel the creative energy of this key group? Does anyone working on these reforms even have this goal in mind?


Here’s the problem as well as the opportunity: An unlikely but effective laugh line that works with both teachers and administrators is to ask them whether their current teacher evaluation process communicates a vision of excellence that inspires teachers. Some people don’t just laugh, they guffaw.

That’s the point: If we began the redesign of teacher evaluation with the goal of creating a shared vision of what excellent teaching looks like and how teachers will be supported to achieve it, we can take a step toward re-inspiring teachers. Of course, that is not the approach to this topic that gets the attention of the media (where the focus is on firing incompetent teachers) or of most policymakers (who keep worrying about the role of test scores). But, as is often the case, there are school districts that are taking a more innovative approach. These are largely smaller districts with a collaborative culture whose leaders from both labor and management are convinced that what they have been doing needs an overhaul. Several such districts have made the choice to retool their teacher evaluation process and to do so ahead of any policy mandate. Policymakers would do well to take the time to understand both the goals of such efforts and the lessons that are emerging, since the wrong set of mandates can easily stifle the emergence of promising practices.

The organization I lead, Pivot Learning Partners, is a nonprofit whose mission includes working with districts to develop and implement promising new approaches to improving teaching and learning. We have partnered with a growing group of districts working on redesigning teacher and, sometimes, principal evaluation systems. Here is some of what we are noticing about the work these districts are doing:

  • They understand that effective evaluation systems rely on high levels of trust, and as a result they design a collaborative process that includes both teachers and administrators and that has trust-building as an explicit goal. Such a process will likely look different in different districts. Any new policy should support – but not constrain – such a collaborative process.
  • They begin not with the question of how to measure teaching excellence, but rather with the far more fundamental and engaging question of what is being measured. What are the dimensions of good teaching? What does it look like in practice? Importantly for policymakers, tools like the California Standards for the Teaching Profession inform, but do not short circuit, this discussion. One teacher’s comment at the end of a highly collaborative process of exploring these issues was “That was some of the best professional development I’ve ever experienced.” That’s also a big step in the right direction. On the basis of what we’ve seen, policymakers should not mandate any tool – including the state Standards for the Teaching Profession – that encourages locals to think they can skip these sometimes difficult conversations.
  • They treat the shift from the old to a new system as something that needs to happen over a period of time. Policymakers: Deadlines help, but unrealistic deadlines are deadly.
  • Finally, these discussions do get to the issue of evidence of student learning, but teachers’ skepticism of test scores is profound, as is the damage done to trust by steps taken in high-profile districts such as publishing teachers’ names and rankings on value-added measures in the newspaper. Policymakers need to put the onus on locals to design systems that include evidence of student learning that reflects the vision of excellent teaching that is at the center of the process. Nothing else matters as much as this.

I believe that some of the reforms being debated today have the potential to address the problem of plummeting teacher morale. Redesigning teacher evaluation in particular has the potential to communicate an inspiring vision of teaching. But reforms will not have this kind of impact unless they are designed with this goal in mind.

Merrill Vargo is both an experienced academic and a practical expert in the field of school reform. Before founding Pivot Learning Partners (then known as the Bay Area Reform Collaborative, or BASRC) in 1995, Dr. Vargo spent nine years teaching English in a variety of settings, managed her own consulting firm, and served as executive director of the California Institute for School Improvement, a Sacramento-based nonprofit that provides staff development and policy analysis for educators. She served as Director of Regional Programs and Special Projects for the California Department of Education. She is also a member of Full Circle Fund.

Faster firings in ‘egregious’ cases

Kathy Baron provided reporting from Sacramento for this post.

The Senate Education Committee voted unanimously Wednesday to make it quicker and cheaper to suspend and fire teachers facing a narrow range of “egregious” misconduct charges that include sex, drugs, and violence. In doing so, they disregarded calls from the mayor of Los Angeles and superintendents of Fresno and Los Angeles Unified to go further, by also making it easier to dismiss incompetent teachers.

“It matters that this state put a stake in the ground” on the issue, said Los Angeles Unified Superintendent John Deasy, in supporting SB 1059, sponsored by Senate minority leader Bob Huff of Diamond Bar, giving school boards the final say over all dismissals. Deasy and Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson called for eliminating the Commission on Professional Competence – a three-member appeals board that contains two teachers – which they said adds an expensive and unnecessary bureaucratic hurdle to firing teachers who behave badly and perform poorly. The Commission would be replaced with an administrative law judge, giving only advisory opinions to the local school board.

But Sen. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach), who chairs the Education Committee, said it was “premature” to change the piece of the dismissal law dealing with unsatisfactory performance, because the Legislature has yet to create a teacher evaluation bill that defines satisfactory performance, with support systems to help teachers meet that standard.

Instead, Lowenthal and other members backed a more restrictive bill, SB 1530, by Democratic Sen. Alex Padilla of Los Angeles. It too would replace the appeals board with an administrative judge, but only in those cases involving sexual misconduct, drugs, and violence by teachers against children. (Huff, in a comparison of the two bills, claims that Padilla’s would prevent dealing expeditiously with some recent incidents of abuse: using racial epithets, locking children in a closet and taping a child’s mouth shut for talking too much).

Padilla’s and Huff’s bills were partly a response to community outrage following criminal charges of sexual abuse against students by three former teachers at Miramonte Elementary in Los Angeles Unified. In two of the cases, the district failed to document and follow up on earlier investigations of suspected illegal acts.

Padilla’s bill would make it easier to suspend a teacher facing “serious and egregious” charges without pay; it would remove the ban in current law against filing dismissal charges during the summer, and it would remove the current prohibition on using evidence of similar violations that’s more than four years old against a teacher. In the Miramonte case of the worst alleged molester, the district paid Mark Berndt $40,000, including legal fees, to get him to drop the appeal of his firing. Berndt is facing 23 counts of lewd acts against children ages 7 to 10.

Saying that the average teacher dismissal case (not just for alleged misconduct) costs Los Angeles Unified $300,000, Deasy called Padilla’s bill “about-time legislation” to enable the district to deal quickly with teachers “who violate sacred trust.”

Los Angeles Unified board member Nury Martinez said the bill would fix an “antiquated” part of the education code that “ties our hands when we need to reassure parents with decisive action.”

“This is about extreme cases where a trusted employee has engaged in unspeakable behavior involving a child and we have to act,” she said.

The California Teachers Association and other unions, however, denied that any changes in law were needed, called both the Huff and Padilla bills assaults on teachers’ rights and little more than grandstanding.

“There are already very clear, very strict guidelines in the education code that give districts immediate authority to protect students and ensure that teachers who engage in that kind of serious sexual misconduct or immoral conduct are immediately removed from the classroom,” said CTA lobbyist Patricia Rucker.

But the Stull Act, which Gov. Ronald Reagan signed in 1971, also protects teachers with due process rights that should not be taken lightly, she said. What’s more, Rucker said the Padilla bill could backfire. Before the Stull Act created an objective commission, peer reviews would sustain slightly more than one third of dismissal decisions by school boards, she said. Since then, with the weight of the commission behind dismissals, Superior Courts uphold seven out of nine firings, she said.

Hanson and Deasy, however, indicated that those statistics are misleading, because most cases involving misconduct charges fall by the wayside – and not for lack of merit. Deasy said that since 2003, 667 cases involving charges of serious misconduct were brought forward  in California; of those only 129 went to a hearing, with 82 resulting in dismissal.   “This does not pass a reasonable smell test.”

Assault on due process

Ken Tray, political director of United Educators of San Francisco and a spokesman for the California Federation of Teachers, called SB 1530 “an attack on educators of California.”

“Sometimes politicians have to stand up for what is truthful, what is right, and what is good. Teachers are under attack,” Tray said.  “And one of the ways to defend the people, the over overwhelming number of my colleagues who are the most highly moral and conscientious of California’s public servants is to defend their due process, so that justice is served.”

Padilla disputed that  the bill would deny teachers due process. They could still request a hearing by an independent arbiter and present their own defense with an attorney and witnesses and the right of disclosure. It would not make teachers “at-will employees,” as the unions claimed. Teachers would retain their right to appeal decisions in Superior Court.

The bill is needed, he said, because appeals can be lengthy and onerous.

Hours after the Senate Education Committee acted, members of the Assembly Education Committee were even less included to change the current law. They stripped a parallel version of the Huff bill, AB 2028, sponsored Republican Steve Knight of the Antelope Valley, of all but two provisions. As amended,  it would remove the four-year limitation for using evidence of prior allegations, and it allow the dismissal process to begin during summer.

That didn’t discourage Knight from proclaiming victory in a press release. “Parents and students across the state are cheering today’s bipartisan vote to enact these important reforms to protect our kids from classroom predators,” he said.  “This is just the first of many steps that must be taken to enact these much-needed reforms and prevent a Miramonte-like tragedy from ever happening again.”

An overdue recognition that teachers must be partners in education reform

This much we know. Never before has there been so much attention focused on teachers and teaching. And, according to the latest MetLife Survey of the American Teacher report, teachers’ satisfaction with their profession is down. Way down. These findings are particularly worrying given that there is a need to recruit two million new teachers into the profession over the next 10 years, and attracting talented people to the teaching profession in sufficient numbers has become difficult in California.

Yet, I am more hopeful than ever before about the future of the teaching profession and the direction of education reform. Why such optimism?

I’ve seen a renewed focus on capturing the voices of educators and making sure their experience and expertise helps shape education policy and school improvement. And there is greater acknowledgment that teacher evaluation must be viewed as one facet of comprehensive talent management systems that need to also focus equally on hiring, supporting,  and advancing teachers.

Let me explain.

On Feb. 15, I was encouraged to hear U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan invite teachers and principals across the country into a national conversation focused not on one silver bullet solution but on fixing many systemic issues in education. In his remarks about the RESPECT Project (Recognizing Educational Success, Professional Excellence and Collaborative Teaching), Duncan said, “As we fight to strengthen our nation economically, as we fight for greater social justice through strong and genuine educational opportunity, the voice of teachers has never been more important.”

I couldn’t agree more. At New Teacher Center, we have surveyed more than one million educators about their perceptions of teaching and learning conditions in their schools and districts. This is part of our Teaching and Learning Conditions Initiative, which captures the voices of educators as a means to provide policymakers at the state, district, and school level with broad and detailed insight into teaching and learning conditions – as well as the data and tools for data-driven decisions on policy and practice. Education leaders in Massachusetts, North Carolina, Metro Nashville, Tennessee, New York, Rhode Island, Ohio, and Indiana are working with us this spring to launch six Teaching and Learning Conditions Initiative surveys to document and analyze the teaching and learning environments in schools, supporting the development of data-driven improvement plans aimed at advancing student learning.

Through this work, we learned that conditions for teaching and learning are key to increasing student achievement and creating a more stable teaching force, but that considerable gaps exist between the perceptions of teachers and administrators regarding whether key teaching conditions, like sufficient planning time and availability of resources, are present. Administrators are likely to view teaching and learning conditions in their schools more positively than the teachers in those same schools. It is critically important for policymakers and education leaders to actively seek teachers’ perspectives, and to initiate conversations that lead to meaningful change.

So I was thrilled when Duncan described a goal to engage directly with teachers and principals all across America to develop pioneering innovations in the way we recruit, select, prepare, credential, support, advance, and compensate teachers and school leaders. “We need mentor teachers, master teachers, and teacher leaders supporting younger colleagues, and driving school decisions around curriculum, scheduling, and staffing,” he said, making it clear that supporting new teachers is a critical piece of the RESPECT Project. I hope that, as we progress into a presidential election and explore reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), Congress and the president allocate funding to support this powerful idea.

Just a week after the RESPECT Project launched, Bill Gates had an op-ed in the New York Times that decried publishing teachers’ individual performance assessments and emphasized instead the use of evaluations as a means for teachers to get specific feedback or training to help them improve. He highlighted the need for collaboration and for school leaders and teachers to work together to get better. Two Massachusetts teachers made the same case earlier this year on the Impatient Optimist blog in a post entitled “Teachers Want to Learn, Too: Evaluations We Believe In.”

I was happy to see New Teacher Center’s partnership with Hillsborough County Public Schools (HCPS) to build a comprehensive talent management system (which was recently validated with funding from a federal SEED grant) referenced in this great Gates op-ed that concludes, “Developing a systematic way to help teachers get better is the most powerful idea in education today. Let’s focus on creating a personnel system that truly helps teachers improve.”

It is so encouraging to think we may finally have turned a corner and put behind us oversimplistic ideas on how to improve education. So many others are now advocating for what New Teacher Center – and so many teacher leaders across the country — have long held to be true: We must focus on developing effective teachers in addition to recruiting, hiring, and evaluating them.

What makes you optimistic about the future of education?

Ellen Moir is founder and chief executive officer of the New Teacher Center, a national nonprofit organization that she created in 1998 to improve student learning by accelerating the effectiveness of teachers and school leaders, especially in underserved areas. Today this organization has a staff of over 150 who work closely with educators and policymakers across the country to ensure that the nation’s low-income, minority, and English language learners – those students most often taught by inexperienced teachers – have the opportunity to receive an excellent education.

Suit: Eval law requires student data

Two briefs filed this week in Los Angeles County Superior Court argue that Los Angeles Unified is violating a state law requiring that student progress, including results of standardized test scores, be included in teacher evaluations.

“By failing to assess teachers and administrators based on the progress of pupils and including that assessment as part of the annual evaluation, the LAUSD annually fails its statutory obligations to hundreds of thousands of children, their parents and guardians, taxpayers and the community it is responsible to serve,” states a brief bought by lawyers hired on behalf of seven unnamed parents of LAUSD students.

The suit, filed last year by the Sacramento-based nonprofit EdVoice against LAUSD Supt. John Deasy and school board members, and due to go to trial in June, comes amid debate in the Legislature whether to rewrite and strengthen the state’s 40-year-old teacher and principal evaluation law. Meanwhile, Deasy and United Teachers Los Angeles are battling over using value-added student test scores in evaluations that the district has been collecting for several years. The district is in the midst of a pilot project using test scores, though they don’t count toward actual evaluations.

The thrust of the EdVoice suit is that the current law, known as the Stull Act, though not perfect, is stronger than legislators and educators think; it’s just been ignored – and neutered – by contracts that LAUSD and most districts have agreed to with their teachers unions.

“Indeed, UTLA’s manifesto on the Stull Act states that its position is that ‘standardized test scores should play no part in high stakes decisions such as dismissal,’” the plaintiffs’ brief states. The district’s response is not due until May 1.

The Stull Act specifically requires that evaluations factor in “the progress of pupils” toward the standards of expected achievement at each grade level in each subject area that districts establish. In the late ’90s, when he was speaker of the state Assembly, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa sponsored an amendment to the Stull Act to reflect the adoption of state K-12 standards and California Standardized Tests. It said that teacher evaluations should take into consideration, among other factors, “progress of pupils toward state adopted academic content standards as measured by state adopted criterion referenced tests” – the CSTs.

In a friend-of-the-court brief filed this week on his behalf, Villaraigosa’s lawyers state, “Possibly the most acute omission in LAUSD’s teacher evaluations policies is the absence of student achievement data. Of the 27 indicators of teacher performance in the LAUSD evaluation, not one asks whether students are making gains toward standards.”

Villaraigosa runs the mayor’s partnership schools within LAUSD and says he wants to improve teacher evaluations, but his schools are bound by the UTLA contract. Two years ago, 99.3 percent of LAUSD teachers got satisfactory evaluations, with all 27 indicators checked off on 79 percent of the evaluations, indicating no need for improvement.

Complying with the Stull Act is a state mandate, yet the EdVoice suit notes that LAUSD has not filed for compensation for teacher and principal evaluations for five years ­– an indication that the district’s records are sloppy, that the evaluations are perfunctory, or perhaps that they’re not being done for many tenured teachers.

The suit seeks to require that the district be required to incorporate measures of student progress, including, in applicable subjects, standardized test scores, and that the new evaluations be given to all teachers. For those teachers rated unsatisfactory, the suit asks that they be given specific recommendations for improvement.

One problem with the Stull Act is that it’s binary: teachers are either rated satisfactory or unsatisfactory. An effective system would include several ratings, so that it becomes a development tool for good teachers to get better. That’s the ultimate goal, said EdVoice President and CEO Bill Lucia.

Lucia said the suit isn’t intended to dictate how much standardized tests or other quantitative measures – local assessments, portfolios of student work, papers – should count toward an evaluation. That’s for local districts to determine, he said, among multiple measures.

But districts, until now, he said, have been “egregiously out of compliance.”

Lawyers for EdVoice quote several times from a deposition of Deasy that would appear to strengthen their case. “We do not currently construct evaluation of teachers by using how students do over time in terms of academic outcomes,” Deasy said at one point.

“It’s not used,” Deasy replied, when asked about using student academic outcomes in the teachers’ year-end performance evaluation.

At this point, the district and EdVoice are not in out-of-court settlement talks, and the district has been contesting plaintiffs’ request for documents needed in the case, Lucia said.