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.”

In & out of step with top ed systems

Updated at 2:45 pm, April 2

Andreas Schleicher looks the part of a diplomat. Tall and slim, with thick gray hair, and impeccable English spoken with a European accent. He is also the consummate diplomat when it comes to assessing the United States’ standing in education. In most countries, low results on the Programme for International Student Assessment, known as the PISA exam, led to contemplation and action. In the United States, not so much; at least not initially.

“I don’t think there was really much of an impact in the year 2000 when the results came first,” said Schleicher, who oversees PISA for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD. That year the United States ranked 15th in literacy, retrieving information, and interpreting texts; and 11th in reflecting on texts. The U.S. was behind what have come to be the usual suspects, including Finland, Canada, Korea and Japan, as well as some nations that give the U.S. a collective wince, such as Iceland, Ireland and, mon Dieu, France.

U.S. score on 2000 PISA in Reading. (Source:  PISA) Click to enlarge.
U.S. score on 2000 PISA in Reading. (Source: PISA) Click to enlarge.

Schleicher said the big impact came after the 2006 results. That’s when U.S. 15-year-olds scored 21st in the world in science literacy, 19th in identifying scientific issues, 23rd in explaining phenomena scientifically, and 22nd in using scientific evidence. That got the attention of politicians, which informed the development of Common Core standards and Race to the Top, the competitive $4.35 billion federal program to give states money to improve student achievement through innovative strategies.

“I think the Common Core standards hold a lot of promise. I wouldn’t underrate the potential impact they can have eventually on what happens in classrooms,” Schleicher said. “I think the challenge is to translate that into instructional practices.”

Schleicher discussed these optimistic notes and more during a video interview (click here for part 1 and here for part 2) with Thoughts on Public Education when he was in California for a conference at Stanford University on the Finnish educational system, which we wrote about here.

Valuing teachers

Some of the biggest differences between the United States and the better scoring nations on PISA is in the prestige of the teaching profession. “Pay in the United States is comparatively low,” said Schleicher. Although U.S. teachers may earn more money than those in other countries, the compensation is significantly lower than for other professions. That’s not the case in places like Singapore, where teachers are paid on par with other civil servants, including lawyers.

Salary is one aspect of teacher satisfaction, but it isn’t solely responsible for the high attrition rate among new teachers, which is 30% in the first five years, according to the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future.

In other countries, teachers are given time during the school day to collaborate with their colleagues and to observe master teachers, and they receive high-quality professional development. They also have a career ladder that isn’t just aimed at administration.

“If you tell a person who’s 25 years old, you are in school, you are going to be a math teacher, and 25 years from now you’re still going to be in that school as a math teacher, you’re telling young people that there is no future for them,” explained Schleicher. Other countries have professional progressions that could lead to the principal’s or superintendent’s office, but also include training other teachers, going into curriculum development, and other non-bureaucratic positions. “That way,” said Schleicher, “you’ll retain your best teachers in the profession.”

Factoring for diversity

When asked what three steps the United States should take to propel itself back onto the top of the charts, Schleicher was quick with an answer.

  • Common Core standards:  The U.S. has already begun this process of developing a set of clear goals detailing what good performance looks like.
  • Building capacity for delivering Common Core:  Attracting the best people into the teaching profession and providing the resources, support and professional develop to retain them.
  • Developing an equitable system:  This takes the second step even farther by attracting the best teachers and principals to work in the most challenging classrooms and schools, and ensuring that the money gets where it can make the biggest difference.

Critics of the PISA rankings cite the vast differences between the United States and some of the countries at the top of the list as significant challenges to employing some of these measures.  Singapore and China have powerful central governments.  Finland lacks racial and ethnic diversity, and the entire population of the country could fit into California’s public schools with a million seats left over.

Schleicher said that PISA does consider the environment in comparing countries, including diversity in wealth, language, ethnic background, and religion.  The United States isn’t alone in dealing with diversity, “there are a lot of countries that are a lot more successful than the United States in moderating socio-economic diversity,”  he said. “The context of an education system is a challenge, but the test of truth for an education system is how it moderates that context.”

Low-income schools shortchanged

Being proven right is usually a cause for some self-satisfaction, but U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan was troubled Wednesday when he announced results of a new Department of Education study on Title I and other high-poverty schools.

“Today, we’re releasing key findings that confirm an unfortunate reality in our nation’s education system,” said Duncan during a phone call with journalists. “Many public schools serving low-income children aren’t getting their fair share of state and local funding.” (Read Duncan’s entire statement here.)

Unequal spending on salaries in Title I schools. (Source:  U.S. Dept. of Education). Click to enlarge.
Unequal spending on salaries in Title I schools. (Source: U.S. Dept. of Education). Click to enlarge.

By “many” Duncan means a lot. More than 40 percent of Title I schools spent less per student on salaries than non-Title I schools within the same district, according to the first-of-its-kind study. U.S. Department of Education researchers examined teacher salaries and spending on other resources for more than 13,000 school districts across the country. Schools had to submit the information as a requirement for receiving funds under the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).

Of California’s 10,000 or so schools, well over 6,000 receive funds from the federal Title I program to provide additional support for children considered at risk due to poverty. The Department of Education’s report came one day after the U.S. Census Bureau released new figures showing that more than one in five U.S. children live in poverty, an increase of over a million children between 2009 and 2010.

Under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA is the previous and soon to be subsequent name of No Child Left Behind), schools eligible for Title I funding first have to receive state and local funding that’s comparable to the amount given to non-Title I schools. Since about 80 percent of funding goes to salaries, it should be simple to calculate. However, the definition of comparability was compromised by a loophole in Title I language that allows reporting by district-wide salary averages rather than by individual schools.

Here’s the legalese version as written in the law (a note of caution: skip this if you’re prone to dizziness):

(B) Determinations – For the purpose of this subsection, in the determination of expenditures per pupil from State and local funds, or instructional salaries per pupil from State and local funds, staff salary differentials for years of employment shall not be included in such determinations.

The loophole makes it nearly impossible for the U.S. Department of Education to know whether districts are giving Title I schools at least an equal amount of state and local funds as the rest of the schools in the district.

“In far too many places Title I money is filling budget gaps rather than being used to close achievement gaps,” said Duncan.

That would change if the reauthorization of ESEA authored by U.S. Senators Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Mike Enzi (R-Wyoming) makes it through Congress. They’ve inserted language to close the loophole.

California takes the lead

In its usual ambivalent fashion, California is a bit ahead of the rest of the nation in requiring better reporting, but is not doing so well in ensuring that the data is accurate and uniform. In 2005, California passed SB 687, the first law in the country requiring every district to report per-pupil spending annually – including teacher salaries – on a school-by-school basis. The bill, by State Senator Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto), amended the School Accountability Report Card, or SARC: detailed reports containing demographics and other information that every school must complete and make public.

One problem with SARC, said attorney John Affeldt with Public Advocates, is that the State Department of Education has not provided clear guidance on the reporting categories. In a report he co-authored on SB 687, titled “Lifting the Fog of Averages,” one example, said Affeldt, is that while some districts include librarians in the same group as teachers, others put librarians in a different pot. And when counting people who work at more than one school, such as custodians and resource specialists, some districts will divvy up the salary among all the schools, while others make it a district expenditure.

“A key next step for federal and state policy is to move toward having all districts follow the same decision rules in accounting for expenditures,” said Affeldt. “That way, we will finally be able to compare school-level spending across districts and even across states.”

For now, the ambiguity in the law, especially in Title I, allows districts to continue the practice of putting the lowest-paid

Salary gaps can reach nearly $4,000 in districts with large ranges in poverty levels. (Source: Center for American Progress). Click to enlarge.
Salary gaps can reach nearly $4,000 in districts with large ranges in poverty levels. (Source: Center for American Progress). Click to enlarge.

teachers, i.e., the least experienced, to work in the highest-poverty schools.

California Assemblywoman Julia Brownley (D-Santa Monica) is attempting to take SB 687 a step or two further.  Her bill, AB 18, would create a weighted student funding formula that would give schools more money for each low-income child enrolled.  AB 18 is on a two-year track, and should be taken up in the next legislative session.

But Duncan insists that states and districts don’t need to rewrite their funding formulas to abide by the intent of Title I.  Most districts would have to change only 1 to 4 percent of their total school-level expenditures in order to provide comparable funding for their Title I and high-poverty schools, said Duncan.  But that small shift could be huge for Title I schools, bringing an increase in funding of between 4 and 15 percent.

The U.S. Department of Education has put a searchable database on line for educators, parents, policymakers and anyone in the public to see how their local districts stack up in funding high-poverty schools.  From there, Duncan said he hopes to get a national conversation going. Only Congress can change the actual law, said Duncan, but that doesn’t mean that school districts can’t start doing the right thing.

Support for teachers over unions

For all the talk of teacher bashing, a big majority of Californians think highly of public school teachers; most believe they’re underpaid. But they also have issues with their union, a new poll has found.

According to a survey of 1,500 Californians by the USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times Poll, 52 percent said that teachers unions are too powerful, while 36 percent disagreed; 45 percent said unions are resistant to reforms that would improve schools, while 37 percent disagreed. Parents in the survey were the most critical of the unions. (For the full results, go here. )

But at the same time, by a 45-40 split, respondents agreed with the statement “Unions help teachers succeed in a very tough profession,” and in this case, parents, with first-hand knowledge, agreed even more: 49 percent to 37 percent.

Sixty-two percent agreed with the statements that teachers unions had too much influence over policy, compared with 54 percent who said that for-profit organizations cared more about making money than improving education, including those that operate charter schools.

Student test scores for evaluations

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan generally will be pleased and the California Teachers Association disconcerted with the poll results. Nearly seven in 10 (69 percent) of those surveyed say that teachers’ evaluations should be made public; those surveyed say that students’ progress and performance on standardized tests scores should count, on average, for almost half of teachers’ evaluations, with classroom observations and parent feedback included as well.

Giving test scores that much weight puts Californians in fundamental agreement with the Obama administration, which has made using test scores as a significant factor a condition in the Race to the Top competition and the latest waiver for the No Child Left Behind law. The California Teachers Assn. doesn’t want scores used at all, arguing that the tests weren’t designed for evaluating teachers and are fraught with errors. What respondents overwhelmingly don’t like is the status quo of basing pay on seniority (10 percent agreed with that) or advanced degrees and training (only 13 percent agreed).

Other finds in the poll:

  • Years of budget cuts for schools have gotten to the point where a solid majority of Californians would be willing to pay more school taxes, even if that meant an increase in their own taxes: 64 percent were strongly or somewhat in favor; the percentage didn’t change significantly for those who were told that California ranks 42nd in the nation in per student funding;
  • As for factors that would improve the quality of public schools, the poll found greatest support for reducing class size and increasing parental involvement; two-thirds would support putting more money into economically and socially disadvantaged schools, a percentage that drops to 57 percent when told that doing so would involve taking money from wealthier schools. (Update: Respondents also give high marks to providing aspiring teachers with a one-year apprenticeship under a high-performing teacher.)
  • 52 percent of the 308 parents in the survey said they’d consider enrolling their children in a charter school, compared with 38 percent who said they wouldn’t.

A labor icon’s thoughts on education

On this Labor Day, in lieu of our regular column, we leave you with some words from Albert Shanker, who served as president of the American Federation of Teachers from 1974 to 1997.

Albert Shanker speaking at the 1968 United Federation of Teachers Delegate Assembly, Local 2, AFT.(Courtesty Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University.)
Albert Shanker speaking at the 1968 United Federation of Teachers Delegate Assembly, Local 2, AFT.(Courtesty Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University.)

Professionalization of Teaching: In a speech to the National Press Club on January 29, 1985, Shanker called for a national exam for beginning teachers and a national board to improve the teaching profession.

It would be a group which would spend a period of time studying what is it that a teacher should know before becoming certified, and how do you measure it? And it would seek to have instruments established.

Before someone finally gets the ticket, [there] ought to be an internship program. Teaching is the only profession that I know of where a person begins the first day with the same responsibility that he or she will have the last day – a profession in which practice and performance are certainly as important as intellectual knowledge, but it’s just assumed that you can take someone who’s been to college for four or five years and throw him into a classroom the first day to sink or swim. I know of no major corporation, I know of no law firm – and certainly not the medical profession – that introduces people that way. Any other profession which involves any complexity is quite different.

Unless we make that investment, we will be getting people who don’t know their subject matter. We will be getting people who have no knowledge of what is known in education or how to apply it. And we will not really be giving anyone any help in terms of practical and performance matters. And in a few years we will grant them tenure and they will be with us for a long, long time.

Tuition Tax Credits and Union Power: Shanker spoke against tuition tax credits and explained the necessity of a strong union in his “State of Our Union” address at the August 21, 1978 AFT Convention in Washington, D.C.

Tuition Tax Credits: There is no doubt in my mind that if tuition tax credit passes, it is the end of public education in this country as we know it. Yes, first, it will be the wealthiest children who will take it and move out; and the next year another group will move out. And each year there will be more and more.

When we’re all finished, we will still have some children in the public schools. They will be the difficult to educate. They will be the ones who were not accepted by the private schools. They will be those who were accepted and then were kicked out. So there will always be a public school system, but it will become sort of the “charity ward;” it will become the “clinic, ” it will become the “poor house” of education in the country. It will become a national scandal, as private schools flourish.

Tuition tax credits is not just another bill, it’s not one of those things where, if it doesn’t pass, that’s good, and if it does, well, we don’t like it. It’s not like another $500 million won or lost. Tuition tax credits is the whole ballgame, it’s the whole existence of public education in this country, it’s the existence of the union, it’s the existence of equal opportunity. Do you just count that as one of the pieces of legislation in a long list?

Power of the union: More and more our problems are national, and our problems are political.

And the only way in which we’re going to succeed in defeating the Proposition 13’s, in getting labor law reforms through, in permanently defeating tuition tax credits and vouchers, is to continue making our organization more and more powerful, more and more members within our organization, so that political figures know that when they do something that hurts us or that’s a question to the life or death of public schools, they have a huge group of politically active and sophisticated people who are going to be working against them.

Now, look around this hall. Many of us are from locals that were very small locals five years ago, and 10 and 15 years ago, 20 years ago, very small and struggling. Most of us at one time or another believed that we have joined an organization which was a permanent minority. We belong to the union, and we joined at a time when it was dangerous, and at a time when it was very unpopular. We joined at a time when we were sure that maybe we could have advanced and been promoted in the school system, but joining the union would probably mean that whatever opportunities we had in that direction were considerably reduced if not completely killed.

Most teachers who join the union join because of some little or bit problem that they had in their own pocketbooks or in their own schools. But, you know, the people who founded this union were people who saw beyond that. They had a belief and a dream that some day teachers within our society would not just be fighting for a livelihood at the local level or handling a grievance, but that some day the teachers of this country would be organized and powerful enough to be able to influence national policy and national decisions, because, who knows better than the teachers of this country what’s good for schools?

Charter Schools: Albert Shanker didn’t invent the idea of charter schools, but he helped launch the movement in a landmark speech before the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on March 31, 1988.

I would like to make a proposal today. The proposal is based on the notion that we have not moved reform fast enough …

How would this work? The school district and the teacher union would develop a procedure that would encourage any group of six or more teachers to submit a proposal to create a new school. Do not think of a school as a building, and you can see how it works. Consider six or seven or twelve teachers in a school who say, “We’ve got an idea. We’ve got a way of doing something very different. We’ve got a way of reaching the kids that are now not being reached by what the school is doing.” That group of teachers could set up a school within that school which ultimately, if the procedure works and it’s accepted, would be a totally autonomous school within that district.

It’s a way of building by example. It’s a way not of shoving things down people’s throats, but enlisting them in a movement and in a cause. I believe that this proposal will take us from the point where the number of real basic reform efforts can be counted on the fingers of two hands to a point where, if  we meet here again a few years from now, we’ll be able to talk about thousands and thousands of schools in this country where people are building a new type of school that reaches the over-whelming majority of our students.

Standards and Assessment: Shanker was a champion of high standards and rigorous but appropriate assessments and testified for the need to strengthen both on July 21, 1989 before the House of Representative’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations Committee on Economic and Educational Opportunities.

The subject of what students should know and be able to do is about as basic to education policy and practice as one can get. Every one of the advanced industrial democracies with which we compete has grade-by-grade national or regional curriculum frameworks, and in so doing makes clear its expectations for students, school staff, textbooks and other instructional material, and the professional preparation of prospective teachers. We do not. Every one of these nations also administers student tests that are based on its content standards, that complement curriculum and instruction and that students can study for and have strong incentives to do so; their class and test performance during their school careers will determine whether they go to college and whether they get a good job at good wages. We do none of these things.

Many of Albert Shanker’s papers are available online through the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University which houses the AFT archives.

Big changes for better teachers

A report commissioned by the United Way of Greater Los Angeles and civil rights groups is recommending sweeping changes in the way Los Angeles Unified recruits, hires, evaluates, and pays teachers, as well as substantial changes in state laws in areas such as tenure and seniority rights that obstruct teacher effectiveness. The report will prove instructive to other California districts whose union contracts and personnel polices are similar to LAUSD’s.

While reaffirming many recommendations last year of the district’s Teacher Effectiveness Task Force, the 58-page report by the Washington-based National Council on Teacher Quality provides national context for Superintendent John Deasy’s teacher agenda, starting with new evaluations. It is also a message of urgency from those outside the  school system to move forward. (See here for the executive summary and here for a link to the full report.)

“The task force recommendations were very good, but now we are asking for acceleration,” said Alicia Lara, vice president for community investment of the United Way. She said that the partnership with parent and community groups, including the Los Angeles Urban League and the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, will include an advocacy campaign to keep information in the report in the public’s eye.** The coalition will present findings to the LAUSD school board today.

Evaluations as linchpin for change

“Teacher Quality Road Map: Improving Practices and Policies in LAUSD” not only criticizes state laws and terms of the teachers contract but also the district itself for not acting on the flexibility it has had within laws and the contract to make wiser hiring practices and staffing decisions. The report offers two dozen recommendations in five areas: staffing, evaluations, tenure, compensation, and work schedule. But Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, said improvements in many of those areas – policies affecting transfers, pay, layoffs – hinge on more effective evaluations. Deasy recognized that as well, in making a new evaluation system his first priority. United Teachers Los Angeles is seeking an injunction to stop a volunteer pilot test of the program involving 900-plus teachers in 91 schools.

“I hope that we would all see the report (by NCTQ) as an opportunity to reflect on the way to move forward. I am worried that we will become mired in political moves to prevent improvement of teaching,” Deasy told me.

Very few teachers received a negative evaluation last year (click to enlarge).
Very few teachers received a negative evaluation last year (click to enlarge).

One message that was clear from the report, which included a survey of 1,317 teachers and 247 principals, is that everyone wants a different system. More than half of teachers reported they got no feedback or feedback once a year from their principals. Los Angeles Unified is one of a handful of the nation’s largest urban districts that, as required by state law, have a binary evaluation system that labels teachers as meeting or not meeting expectations. Last year, only 2.4 percent of teachers got a negative rating, and 79 percent got a passing rating on every one of 27 criteria used. And yet 68 percent of teachers said there were teachers in their schools who should be dismissed for poor performance. One-third of principals said they didn’t try to dismiss a poorly performing teacher because the process probably wouldn’t lead to a dismissal.

NCTQ has conducted similar studies in a half-dozen large urban districts. Most face similar personnel issues, but in some areas LAUSD’s problems are distinct. “The sheer size of LAUSD is reason enough to view its prospects for reform daunting. Add to that mix the state’s extreme financial turmoil and it becomes even harder to envision a successful turnaround strategy,” the report states. “Yet the resolve to alter the district’s course is strong and genuine, energized by the arrival of a new school superintendent and a community that is determined to move beyond rhetoric to action.”

Here are the report’s major findings and recommendations, some requiring contractual changes or legislative action and some inviting independent action by the district itself.

Teacher Placement:

Sacramento: Allow performance to be used as a factor in determining which teachers will be laid off. California is one of only a dozen states mandating layoffs by seniority. Other states allow districts to set their own criteria or make seniority one of several factors.

Sacramento: Expand California’s “lemon law,” which allows principals to refuse  teachers voluntarily seeking a position in a low-performing school, to all teachers involuntarily seeking new jobs because of layoffs.

Sacramento: Permit districts to dismiss displaced teachers who are unable to secure a new assignment after one year (they’d be on the district payroll for that year, however. Under the current financial crisis, districts are likely discouraging paying any teachers to sit out).

Contract: Eliminate the priority placement list based on seniority that forces principals to accept teachers who aren’t a good fit for their schools.

On its own: Move up the June 30 deadline when teachers must notify principals if they are returning. That would give the district a head start on hiring for the fall. As it is now, LAUSD loses good candidates to charter schools and other districts and ends up hiring most new teachers in July and August. Deasy says the district has made progress during the past year, although the report notes that the hiring problem is particularly acute in poor schools.

On its own: Educate principals in low-performing schools that they have some flexibility in rejecting priority-list teachers who won’t be a good match.

On its own: Require prospective teachers to present lesson plans (hard to believe, the district doesn’t).


Research finds no correlation between higher pay based on seniority and academic courses taken. LAUSD’s contract is unusual, enabling teachers to max out in pay by taking up to 98 graduate course credits – the equivalent of three master’s degrees, in subjects unrelated to their content area; 60 percent of teachers do just this, which is why a quarter of the district’s teacher payroll goes to compensate teachers for graduate courses. (They can even take the same courses over again every five years for credit.)

Contract: End salary differentials for earning course credit for new teachers and use the savings to award teachers bonuses for effectiveness.

Contract: Give a big raise to teaches who earn tenure, provided the state law determining tenure is changed.

Contract: Offer higher salaries to top teachers who consistently produce the greatest learning gains. On this point, Deasy told me he disagreed with the report’s recommendation that student academic growth be the preponderant factor. It should be a factor but not the major weight, he said, and there should be additional ways to reward excellence in teaching besides pay, though he would not specify because they are under negotiation.


California decides whether to grant tenure – due process rights – after only two years on the job, with notification on March 15 of the second year – the third shortest date in the nation and not enough time to make an informed judgment in many cases, the report said.

California is one of a handful of states that grant tenure after two years.
California is one of a handful of states to grant tenure after 2 years (click to enlarge.)

Sacramento: Extend probation to four years or, failing that, the right to extend probation beyond two years as an option.

On its own: Only 2.5 percent of probationary teachers receive a bad review, the same as tenured teachers. Therefore, hold a formal review in which principals and teachers present evidence of performance.

Work Schedule

On its own: LAUSD teachers tend to use up all of their sick days, nearly 10 per year (6 percent of the school year). They should be required to report absences to a school-level administrator.

Contract: Create more collaboration time by requiring that the 8-hour contractual day be spent at school (this mainly affects elementary teachers, who can leave earlier to do work at home).


LAUSD, like other districts in California, appears limited by the state’s Stull Act, which sets the two evaluation categories, meeting or not meeting requirements for the job. However, the district could be doing more on its own to give teachers more feedback – and earlier in the year, when suggestions would be useful. Deasy pointed out what the study confirmed: In the last year, there has been a sharp uptick in the number of low-performing teachers who have been let go or counseled out of the profession.

Sacramento: Require annual evaluations for all teachers. The minimum frequency of evaluations under the Stull Act has become standard in most districts, with some veteran teachers being evaluated every five years.

Sacramento: Enable teachers without an administrator’s credential to do peer evaluations. This would enable teachers with subject expertise to participate in classroom observations.

Sacramento: Make the evaluations a management right not subject to negotiation with the union or poor ratings on various criteria the subject of grievances.

On its own: Include student feedback as part of evaluations.

Contract: Make student performance the preponderant criterion on which teachers are evaluated. This could be the most contentious recommendation. The proposed evaluations criteria for LAUSD would make students’ academic growth account for 30 percent of a teacher’s evaluation, although standardized tests might not be the sole measure. Teachers and principals surveyed greatly disagreed, with 60 percent of principals favoring the use of student achievement as the single most important change and nearly the same percentage of teachers surveyed favoring additional classroom observations, including those by teachers with content knowledge. The report mentions a system adopted by New Haven, Conn., in which half of the evaluation is based on observations and half on student growth measurements. A big disparity between the two generates an automatic review by the central office, and teachers who get the lowest or highest rating automatically are reviewed by another evaluator.

Kate Walsh of NCTQ said that two large urban districts, Baltimore and Seattle, altered their teachers contracts significantly after receiving a NCTQ study of their practices, and she is expecting significant changes in Boston as well. In each case, NCTQ was hired by community organizations, like the United Way, and not by districts or unions.

** The report was partially supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Experiments in evaluating teachers

Teachers of Lucia Mar Unified, near Pismo Beach, are a crack in the wall of resistance to overhauling how teachers are evaluated and rewarded for their performance. This year, teachers in seven of the district’s 17 schools voted overwhelmingly to begin using an evaluation system that combines individual and school test scores and multiple classroom evaluations by teachers and administrators, along with regular discussions about teacher effectiveness.

The system they’ll be using, TAP: The System for Teacher and Student Advancement, was developed in Santa Monica a dozen years ago by  Lowell Milken and the Milken Family Foundation* and has been expanded in a number of states and districts nationwide through funding from the federal Teacher Incentive Fund. But it has never been tried in California, until now. What turned the heads of Lucia Mar teachers was traveling to where it’s in place in Texas and Louisiana, Assistant Superintendent Michelle Ellis said, and seeing that their apprehensions – animosity over unequal bonuses and unfair judgments by unqualified observers – didn’t materialize.

In Sacramento, bills to clear away obstacles to identifying effective teachers and dealing with ineffective ones are facing uncertainty this year. Republican Sen. Bob Huff’s SB 355 failed to get more than two votes in the Senate Education Committee last month. It would have given districts the option of evaluating teachers and principals by multiple measures, as long as standardized test results comprised at least 30 percent of the evaluation. It also would have allowed districts to do layoffs based on performance, not seniority.

Democratic Assemblymember  Felipe Fuentes’ AB 5 would repeal the current system, under the Stull Act, and require evaluating teachers using evidence of effectiveness based on professional standards, test results (not necessarily California  Standards Tests alone), and classroom observations. It’s been merged with AB 48, by Assembly Speaker John Perez, which would delay more frequent state-mandated evaluations until billions owed to the schools under Prop 98 are paid off.

Regardless of what happens at the state level, interest is stirring in a handful of districts, and there are signs that some teachers, if not union leaders, are ready for change.

  • More than 900 teachers in 91 Los Angeles Unified schools have volunteered to pilot the evaluation method developed by the district’s Teacher Effectiveness Task Force. The evaluations would include feedback based on classroom observations and a teacher’s impact on student test scores (value-added measures rechristened for better branding as Academic Growth over Time data). But United Teachers Los Angeles  is seeking an injunction to stop the program even though results of the pilot next year wouldn’t count.
  • As I reported yesterday, LAUSD is one of seven districts in CORE (California Office to Reform Education) that plan to seek $50 million or more from Race to the Top to create, among other projects, new teacher evaluations and performance tools.
  • San Juan Unified is among districts that remain committed to Peer Assistance and Review, a promising program the state no longer funds, in which teachers and administrators serve on a review panel that evaluates and prescribes assistance for underperforming teachers. San Juan teachers hope to expand PAR into a broader evaluation system, based on multiple measures.
  • Five charter organizations in Los Angeles (Aspire, ICEF, Alliance for College-Ready Schools, Green Dot, and Partnership to Uplift Communities, or PUC) covering 90 schools are in year two of a seven-year Gates Foundation grant to evaluate and reward high-performing teachers (higher pay, new pay levels). Writing the rubric on which to base observations is among the first steps of the $80 million grant, called The College Ready Promise.
  • Change, although glacial, may even be coming to the California Teaches Assn. Dean Vogel, the incoming president of the CTA, cochaired the National Education Association committee whose policy paper recommends a comprehensive evaluation method. It would measure teacher practices and teacher collaboration and involvement in the betterment of the school, along with student academic growth, including “reliable, high quality standardized tests.” This position, which still must be ratified by NEA delegates this summer, marks a shift in NEA’s position. It’s a sign that national leaders recognize that they’d better engage in change or have state legislatures thrust on them evaluations based predominately on standardized test results, as has happened this year in Florida, Indiana, Wisconsin, and elsewhere.

(Note: Speakers from TAP, LAUSD’s Teacher Effectiveness Task Force,  and The College Ready Promise gave presentations at a conference last month sponsored by the Education Trust-West. You can download all of the presentations here. And tomorrow, EdSource will release a study on teacher evaluations that looks at California laws governing them and districts that are trying alternatives.)

No Dispute: It’s not working now

Effective and trustworthy teacher evaluation systems will undermine the rationale for a tenure system that protects jobs based on seniority and a step-and-column pay system that ties raises to longevity. There is an emerging generational divide on these issues.

But all teachers and administrators should agree on the overriding issue: The current system, based largely on cursory classroom observations, is neither weeding out the minority of bad teachers nor helping other teachers improve. Under the 40-year-old Stull Act, some veteran teachers may be reviewed once every five years; only teachers with unsatisfactory reviews are reviewed annually – between 1 and 3 percent in Los Angeles Unified, for example.

How much to weigh test scores?

The extent, if any, to which student test scores are used will be one source of contention. TAP, The College Ready Promise, and Los Angeles Unified are using or intend to use value-added models or similar methods designed to predict student outcomes while controlling for students’ demographic characteristics. But a number of recent studies have criticized the reliability of value-added models for factors out of a teacher’s control and cautioned against heavy weighting of standardized tests, which are a narrow indication of a teacher’s effectiveness. At the same time, test results are an objective measure and can be a good diagnostic tool, telling a teacher which types of students are learning the fastest, and which teachers in a school are having the most success.

Under TAP, schoolwide value-added student test scores count for 20 percent of a teacher’s evaluation; the teacher’s individual students’ scores count for 30 percent and  observations of classroom management, organization, and preparation, for the other half. Under The College Ready Promise, observations by the principal, peer critiques, and parent and student feedback count for 60 percent of an evaluation, with schoolwide, team, and student growth measures counting for 40 percent. Under the Teacher Effectiveness Task Force’s recommendations, 70 percent of evaluations in Los Angeles would be based on classroom observations, teachers’ contributions to the school community, and student and parent surveys, with 30 percent based on standardized test scores and other assessments.

Different ratios aside, those involved with the systems emphasize that the goal is not punishment but self-examination and candid examination of classroom practices and techniques – integral to being treated as professionals.

Foundations and the federal government, through three-year Teacher Incentive Fund grants – a program begun by President Bush and expanded by President Obama – are funding most of the experiments in California, including bonuses and new pay scales for master and mentor teachers under the TAP model. So sustainability long-term will be an issue.

Effective evaluations will require additional training and professional development and demand additional time by administrators and mentor teachers – this in a state that already had one of the lowest administrator/student ratios in the nation before the recession. It’s easy to criticize the current system of lax, non-demanding evaluations protected by due process rights. If the public and legislators want a comprehensive system to replace it, they should stand ready to pay for it.

* TAP is now operated by the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching.

Imagine teachers as free agents before adopting pay for performance

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and a raft of supporters in the foundation world fervently want to replace the tried-and-true teacher salary schedule with pay-for-performance schemes. They should be careful what they wish for.

The idea seems straightforward: Replace raises conditioned on years of service and education beyond the minimum required for a teaching license with conspicuous rewards for good teaching measured, at least in part, by student test scores. Unsuccessful teachers would see the lack of salary advancement as a sign that they should seek another line of work. Successful teachers would be incentivized, take home tangible rewards, and encourage other teachers to follow in their wake. A circle of virtue would ensue.

Hardly anyone would disagree that high-performing teachers deserve rewards and recognition, but the policy mavens seem not to anticipate that departing from the single salary schedule might cost a lot of money and change teaching in unanticipated ways. It’s about Talent. Not talent, as in singing or dancing well, but Talent as a commodity that can be bought or sold.

The switch from considering teachers as economically interchangeable widgets to scarce and valuable Talent would have profound effects, increase the overall wage bill for education, and give teachers unions their greatest organizing opportunity in half a century. Talent, once identified, will demand to be paid.

The cautionary tale about rewarding performance comes from Malcolm Gladwell. In a New Yorker article published in October 2010, the always-provocative Gladwell tells the story of Talent’s rise to economic royalty starting in 1966, when Marvin Miller took over the Baseball Players Association. Talking to the San Francisco Giants player Bobby Bonds, Miller said, “If we can get rid of the system as we know it, then Bobby Bonds’s son … will make more in one year than Bobby will make in his whole career.” In fact, in 2005 Bobby’s little boy Barry was paid $22 million, more than his father and all his teammates made in their entire careers.

Miller’s insight was that labor organizing could be applied to valuable and scarce abilities known collectively as Talent, and that Talent could make huge demands on Capital. Labor relations was no longer to be a contest between Capital and interchangeable worker Labor, but Capital’s capitulation to highly valuable Talent. Goodbye reserve clause. Welcome to the world of seven- and eight-figure sports salaries, billion dollar bonuses for investment bankers, and outsized salaries for executives.

It is hard to imagine such galloping salaries in schools where teachers are economically treated as interchangeable parts. But before Marvin Miller, it was hard to imagine baseball players as other than big kids under the paternalistic control of club owners. The history of categories suggests that once a category is created, economic value follows. One of the most recent examples is in the creation of Board Certified Teachers, which was followed shortly thereafter by salary differentials for them. We should expect the same from Talented Teachers, those with proven track records of lifting student achievement. Indeed, this is what Secretary Duncan and others desire.

But what if the Talent of these teachers was recognized and promoted by their schools? Colleges and universities already do this and offer large salary premiums to their stars. Increasingly, they also offer insecure part-time employment to those who teach many of their core undergraduate courses. Some charter school organizations are built around conspicuous displays of Talent. Some traditional school districts also poach Talent from other places with promises of favorable salary scale placement and other work life enhancements: a lab of technological goodies or a schedule with plenty of time to teach the things Talent wants to teach. If these things can exist in the current teacher-as-widget salary schedule, imagine what might happen if Talent recognized its worth and conspicuously organized around its protection and advancement?

Imagine teachers as free agents, teachers with agents, teachers unions as agents. Imagine school districts demanding salary caps, and lawsuits demanding that salaries be corralled into something like a civil service salary schedule so that schools in less wealthy areas could compete. Imagine the division of teaching into conspicuous rewards for Talent and slim pickings for the rest. Imagine brutal competition among Talent.

And maybe Talent drags up the salaries of everyone. Between 1985 and 2007 the average baseball player salary increased tenfold, not counting inflation. Over the same years the average teacher salary increased less than 2.4 times, from $20,694 to $50,478, barely keeping up with inflation, according to the Digest of Education Statistics.

One suspects that the advocates of conspicuously rewarding Talent haven’t reckoned the wages that Talent demands.

Charles Taylor Kerchner is Research Professor in the School of Educational Studies at Claremont Graduate University, and a specialist in educational organizations, educational policy, and teachers unions. In 2008, he and his colleagues completed a four-year study of education reform of the Los Angeles Unified School District. The results of that research can be found in The Transformation of Great American School Districts and in Learning from L.A.: Institutional Change in American Public Education, published by Harvard Education Press.

The piece also appeared in Conditions of Education in California, the blog of the PACE, Policy Analysis for California Education.

Frustrated Los Angeles teachers now have a progressive voice, NewTLA

Like parents and our community, teachers in Los Angeles are frustrated with the current state of education. Frustrated by budget cuts, furloughs, large class sizes, excessive standardized testing, shifting priorities of Los Angeles Unified, and large numbers of layoffs/displacements at virtually every school site.  We are also frustrated by something well within our control: our union, UTLA.  The positive side of this frustration has been the birth of a fresh, clear voice of Los Angeles teachers both committed to quality education and open to desperately needed reform.

Despite the paramount importance of having a strong teachers’ union committed to excellence in education, most teachers in Los Angeles remain uninvolved in the union and broader educational issues, choosing to focus on their classrooms.  Perhaps this is because much of the UTLA leadership appears stuck in a narrowly-focused, oppositional type of unionism more appropriate for the 1950’s.  Modernization of our union is critical.

There are at least two major areas where UTLA could play a far more progressive and constructive role:

First, UTLA needs to revisit the outdated notion of using seniority as the sole means of determining layoffs and displacements.  The antiquated notion of “first-in, last out” has resulted in thousands of highly qualified younger teachers involuntarily leaving teaching (or not even wanting to enter the profession).  The full cost of this flawed policy will become painfully evident over the next several years when large numbers of veteran teachers retire, again leaving us with a massive shortage of qualified teachers.

Second, UTLA needs to broaden its current focus from contractual issues to critical educational issues. As the second largest teachers’ union in the U.S., UTLA needs to be on the forefront of pushing for proven, educational reform.  UTLA needs to play a visible, active role in formulation of state educational policies.  UTLA needs to play a watchdog role in ensuring that the district’s limited resources are focused on critical classroom needs. Key to all of this is the ability to collaborate with diverse educationally-related entities, including the district, the mayor, and other organizations.

Instead of addressing these key issues, UTLA  often either defends the failed status quo or tackles issues completely unrelated to education in Los Angeles.  At its June, 2010 meeting, the House of Representatives (UTLA’s official governing body) passed motions that included support for the Iraqi teachers union in its struggle against an Iraqi government takeover and support for the CNTE teachers union in Mexico. At a time of unprecedented educational challenges here in Los Angeles, UTLA appears to be the only union that actively pursues its own foreign policy.

Fortunately, there is a growing voice of teachers looking for new direction within the union.  Late last year, more than 50 teachers dedicated to progressive policies and reform were elected to UTLA’s House of Representatives.  This group – NewTLA – offers an alternative within our union.  NewTLA encourages openness to innovation, while looking to broaden participation to all teachers in Los Angeles. NewTLA recognizes that teachers’ ability to secure and retain competitive  conditions depends on our ability to meet educational needs of students, parents, and the community;

Specifically, NewTLA’s priorities include the following:

  • Inclusion of agreed-upon teacher quality measures, in addition to seniority, in reduction-in-force and displacement decisions;
  • Initiation of a teacher evaluation system with multiple measures that better capture a teacher’s actual contribution to educating students;
  • Design and implementation of relevant professional development that further enhances professionalism of teachers;
  • Collaborative work with the district and other entities to ensure appropriate, focused spending on critical instructional and classroom needs

For too long, teachers in Los Angeles have lacked an alternative to UTLA’s mainstream approach.  At this critical juncture, NewTLA offers all teachers in Los Angeles the opportunity to play a progressive, supportive role in bringing needed reform to our educational system.  We are ready and excited.

Mike Stryer has taught Social Studies at Fairfax High School in Los Angeles for eight years, serving as the school’s Lead Teacher and United Teachers Los Angeles chapter chair. Before teaching, he worked in international business, heading international divisions of several U.S. consumer products companies, including Applause and Variflex. He has a bachelor’s degree from Stanford in Political Science and master’s degrees  from Yale in International Relations, and from Pepperdine in Education. A version of this piece also ran in the Los Angeles Daily News.