Dismissal bill falters in Assembly

With teachers and organized labor rallying against what they called an unnecessary attack on their rights, a bill that would make it easier to fire teachers and administrators accused of serious sexual and violent offenses against children failed to pass the Assembly Education Committee on Wednesday. Sen. Alex Padilla’s controversial SB 1530 will be dead for the session unless he can persuade one more Democrat to reverse positions within the next week .

The bill had bipartisan support in the Senate, where it passed 33-4, but, in a test of strength by the California Teachers Association, only one Democrat, Education Committee Chairwoman Julia Brownley, and all four Republicans backed it in the crucial committee vote. The other six Democrats either voted buy clomid online against it (Tom Ammiano, San Francisco; Joan Buchanan, San Ramon) or didn’t vote (Betsy Butler, El Segundo; Wilmer Carter, Rialto; Mike Eng, Alhambra; and Das Williams, Santa Barbara).

The bill follows shocking incidents of sexual abuse in Los Angeles Unified and elsewhere, the worst of which involved Mark Berndt, 61, who’s been accused of 23 lewd acts against children at Miramonte Elementary in LAUSD. Padilla, a Democrat from Van Nuys, said SB 1530 responded to complaints from superintendents and school board members that it takes too long and is too expensive to fire teachers facing even the worst of charges. Rather than go through hearings and potential appeals, LAUSD paid Berndt $40,000, including legal fees, to drop the appeal of his firing.

Under current law, dismissal cases against teachers and administrators go before a three-person Commission on Professional Competence, which includes two teachers and buy amoxil online an administrative law judge. Its decision can be appealed in Superior Court.

Narrow band of ‘egregious’ cases

SB 1530 would have carved out a narrow band of exceptions applying to “egregious or serious” offenses by teachers and administrators involving drugs, sex, and violence against children. In those cases, the competence commission would be replaced by a hearing before an administrative law judge whose strictly advisory recommendation would go to the local school board for a final decision, appealable in court.

The bill also would have made admissible evidence of misconduct older than four years. Berndt had prior reports of abuse that had been removed from his file,  because a statute of limitations in the teachers contract in LAUSD prohibited their use.

School boards already have final say over dismissal of school employees other than teachers and administrators, so the bill would extend that to efforts to remove “a very creepy teacher” from the classroom,” as Oakley Union Elementary School District Superintendent Richard Rogers put it. “What is more fundamental than locally elected officials responsible for hiring and dismissal?” he asked.

The bill has the support of the administrators and school boards associations, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and the LAUSD president, Monica Garcia, who described her fellow board members as “seven union-friendly Democrats” who want to “get rid of people who will hurt our children.”

Current law works

But Warren Fletcher, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, countered that “SB 1530 solves nothing, places teachers at unfair risk, and diverts attention from the real accountability issues at LAUSD.” Turning the tables, Fletcher, CTA President Dean Vogel, and others have filed statements with the state Commission on Teacher Credentialing to investigate Superintendent John Deasy’s handling of misconduct allegations in the district.

The argument that current law works resonated with Buchanan, who served two decades on the San Ramon Valley School Board. Calling the bill “intellectually dishonest” because nothing can prevent another Miramonte from happening, she said, “We never had problems dismissing employees.” She acknowledged that the “long, expensive dismissal process” needs to be streamlined, but the bill doesn’t get it right. A teacher at a school in her legislative district was accused of sexual misconduct by a student who got a bad grade. That teacher “deserves due process.”

The two teachers on the Commission on Professional Competence provide professional judgment that’s needed to protect the rights of employees, said Patricia Rucker, a CTA lobbyist who’s also a State Board of Education member. “We do value the right to participate and adjudicate standards for holding teachers accountable,” she said.

Fletcher said that school boards would be subject to parental pressure in emotionally charged cases, and, as a policy body, should not be given judicial power. Assemblyman Ammiano, a former teacher, agreed. “A school board is not the one to make the decision,” he said.

Julia  Brownley said that she too was concerned about false charges against teachers but would support the bill, for it “will give districts tools” for rare circumstances. The bill would make the dismissal process more efficient and definitive. And she agreed with Padilla that the bill ensured due process for teachers, who’d be allowed to present their case, with witnesses, before an administrative judge and appeal an adverse decision to Superior Court.

Oakley Superintendent Richards said that the CTA misstated what SB 1530 does and “has taken such an extreme position on this issue that they have lost credibility.” The union’s real fear is that the bill will be “a nose under the camel’s tent” to change the dismissal process for all teachers. And that, he said, is unfounded.

Padilla was to have issued a statement last night on the setback in the committee but didn’t. Update: Padilla issued a statement this morning that reads, in part:  “SB 1530 was narrowly crafted to focus only on cases in which school employees are accused of sex, violence, or drug use with children. It is difficult to understand why anyone would oppose a measure to protect children. It is very disappointing.”

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.

Layoffs by seniority contested

Administrative law judges have ruled that San Francisco Unified and Sacramento City Unified exceeded their authority to protect teachers at high priority, low-performing schools from districtwide layoffs this year.

Both districts have targeted extra resources for teacher training and strategies in hopes of stanching the turnover of teachers and reversing the dismal test scores at some of their most troubled schools. Both districts said they needed three years to build new models – “incubators of innovation,” as Sacramento City called them ­ – so that they could then pass on what works to other schools.

But state law permits few exceptions to layoffs based on seniority, and the administrative law judges ruled that San Francisco Unified had failed to make a persuasive case for bypassing seniority, and that Sacramento City had partially done so, for a majority of teachers ­and not for counselors at only five of seven schools that the district sought to protect.

The San Francisco Unified school board has decided not to contest Administrative Law Judge Melissa Crowell’s decision that the district erred in shielding from layoffs the staff at 14 “Superintendent’s Zone” schools it had targeted for reforms. As a result, dozens of less experienced teachers in the Zone schools will likely lose their jobs, potentially jeopardizing  progress in some of the schools, like George Washington Carver Elementary in the Bayview area of the city, where the San Francisco Chronicle reported Sunday that attendance and scores are up. “It’s hard not to be disappointed and devastated,”  Assistant Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero told the Chronicle. “No one has wanted to work (at those schools) for decades. … Now we’re going to pull the rug out from under them.”

Administrative law judges’ rulings in layoff disputes are advisory to school boards, and Sac City Unified’s board has decided to ignore elements of the latest ruling dealing with the district’s Priority Schools. After a contentious five-hour meeting on Friday, board members voted unanimously to exempt all of the staffs at all seven schools. The board’s resolution said that Administrative Law Judge Ann Elizabeth Sarli had made factual mistakes in deciding who qualified for layoff protections. Last year, a different administrative law judge ruled that the district could exempt staffs at most of the Priority Schools.

Superintendent Jonathan Raymond said that the board made the right call. The “transformative strategies” at the Priority Schools are making a difference, but the staffs “need time and space to stay together,” he said. (An article earlier this year by TOP-Ed colleague Kathy Baron on the success at Oak Ridge Elementary, a Priority School, can be found here.)

The Sacramento Teachers Association, which opposes bypassing seniority, is expected to decide this week whether to fight the issue in court. Update: In a statement released on Monday, the union condemned the board vote, noting, “The decision by the Superintendent to concentrate District funding and attention to seven designated priority schools has created a situation where precious resources, including staffing guarantees, are being funneled away from the many other high needs schools and kids throughout the District.  Especially during this time of unprecedented fiscal crisis, this policy decision must be critically analyzed both to its ethical basis and its compliance with state law, which is what the ALJ (administrative law judge) was duty-bound to consider.”

What state law permits

State law is emphatic that teacher layoffs should be by seniority. However, there are two exceptions, one narrow and one broad: The specific exception permits teachers with special training and experience to teach specific courses or courses of study when there are no senior teachers with the requisite training and experience. The other allows deviating from seniority in order in order to protect students’ fundamental constitutional right to equal educational opportunity.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge William Highberger cited the latter exception last year when he issued a landmark decision that permitted Los Angeles Unified to protect 45 of the district’s lowest-performing schools, which had experienced a chronically high turnover of teachers, from layoffs. Such a churn of staff had violated students’ rights and hindered the district’s efforts to turn the schools around, Highberger ruled.

LAUSD is about to enter the third year of shielding 45 schools, some of which have been replaced because they’ve shown improved scores and teacher stability. But Highberger’s decision has limited jurisdiction, and administrative law judges and other courts won’t have guidance on the equal protection issue until an appeals court rules on it, said Catherine Lhamon, an attorney with Public Counsel Law Center that brought the lawsuit on behalf of students in threeLAUSD schools with the highest turnover of teachers as a result of seniority-based layoffs.

San Francisco Unified didn’t cite the equal protection argument in making its case to Judge Crowell, even though the 14 Zone schools have been facing sanctions as low-performing schools for more than six years and are receiving multimillion-dollar, three-year federal School Improvement Grants that stress the need for a well-trained, stable school staff.

But Crowell ruled that the Zone schools don’t qualify as a course of study, in part because all San Francisco schools have the same core curriculums; the district failed to show that other schools in the district didn’t have the same level of teacher training as in Zone schools; and it didn’t establish that more veteran teachers couldn’t fill the jobs of teachers who’d otherwise be laid off.

Bypassing seniority isn’t allowed, Crowell wrote, “even if the district believes that skipping junior certificated employees is in the best interest of the district and of its students.”

Sac City did make the equal protection argument in arguments before Sarli, but she dismissed it. She said that many schools in the district are facing similar sanctions for low performance and also have high rates of poverty; they’d be disadvantaged by disproportionate layoffs if the Priority Schools were protected, she wrote.

The district argued that teachers and counselors in the Priority Schools have formed special bonds with the students and families; breaking those relationships would be detrimental to students. It also said that a stable teaching staff was important to assess the effectiveness of the new programs at Priority Schools. These intangibles and the ability to create what Raymond calls “a collective esprit de corps” may be why Priority Schools are showing positive results.

But these and other reasons aren’t grounds under state law to bypass seniority procedures, Sarli said. It all comes down to whether the teachers in Priority Schools received specialized training that teachers in other schools didn’t get. On this point, Sarli and the district partially disagreed. Sarli said that counselors, first-year teachers at Priority Schools and all staff at a first-year Priority School (Rosa Parks Middle School) and at Hiram Johnson High School didn’t receive enough specialized training to qualify for an exception. The district testified that they did. Sarli and the district agreed that the remaining teachers at five Priority Schools, all elementaries, were entitled to an exception.

I understand that at the hearing on Friday, parents and teachers at Priority Schools stressed how the restructured schools were having a huge impact on students’ lives. Teachers from non-Priority Schools stressed that they too are working hard, collaborating, getting extra training, to meet the needs of these same diverse children.

What’s clear is that whether at a Priority School or not, layoffs are destabilizing all schools and demoralizing teachers. Until they stop, some districts will turn to triage on behalf of the most besieged students.

Losing experience in teacher layoffs

California school districts should not be bound by seniority when budget cuts force them to lay off teachers, according to far-reaching report released yesterday by the state Legislative Analyst’s Office.

A Review of the Teacher Layoff Process in California also recommends changing the deadline for notifying teachers they may be laid off from March 15 to June 1, eliminating the teachers’ right to a formal hearing and giving more authority to local districts and bargaining units to determine the layoff process.

The LAO based its recommendations on responses to a survey from 230 out of about 950 school districts, although the Analyst’s Office said those responses included eight of the state’s ten largest districts.

Nearly three-quarters of layoff notices are rescinded. (Source: CA Legislative Analyst). Click to enlarge.
Nearly three-quarters of layoff notices are rescinded. (Source: CA Legislative Analyst). Click to enlarge.

One the main concerns was the huge number of “overnotifications,” or sending pink slips to far more teachers than necessary. According to the LAO, for every ten teachers given preliminary layoff notices last March, about 75 percent of them ended up keeping their jobs.

The problem lies in the timeline, which forces school districts to make budgetary decisions before the governor releases the May Revise, which contains the most current information on projected state revenues. To be on the safe side, districts issue layoff notices based on the worst-case scenario.

The report notes that lowering the number of initial layoff notices “would reduce the time and cost invested in conducting the layoff process, result in fewer teachers unnecessarily concerned about losing their job, and minimize the loss of morale in the school communities affected by layoff notices.”

Union leaders criticized that logic as overly simplistic. Shannon Brown, California’s 2011 Teacher of the Year and president of the San Juan Teachers Association, said moving the deadline for layoff notices may make sense from a fiscal perspective, but would have devastating consequences for laid-off teachers, giving them just a few weeks to find a new job.  That’s what contributes to low teacher morale, said Brown.  That and  the entire crisis in education funding in California that’s led to increasing class sizes, dwindling resources, teacher bashing, and the loss of some 32,000 teaching positions in the last four years. “The layoff notices only add insult to injury,” she said.

The high price of layoffs

It costs districts about $700 for each teacher who’s pink-slipped in the spring. Sacramento City Unified School District, which sent notices to more than 460 teachers last week, estimates the cost at $670 per teacher. That’s $308,000 for a district that’s been cut by $90 million over the past three years. Statewide, California school districts spent about $14 million last year in

Each pink-slipped teacher costs the district about $700.  (Source: CA Legislative Analyst) Click to enlarge.
Each pink-slipped teacher costs the district about $700. (Source: CA Legislative Analyst) Click to enlarge.

administrative and legal expenses, plus the costs of postage and paying for substitutes for teachers who challenged their notices before an administrative law judge.

Typically teachers will ask for a hearing if they believe the district made a mistake in their hiring date or the type of credential they hold; both factors that count when determining who gets laid off. But the LAO concluded that the hearings do not “add substantial value” to the process, and recommended that they be eliminated and replaced with a less formal review process.

San Juan’s Brown countered that the hearings in her district uncover mistakes nearly every year that result in people getting their jobs back. “If hearings were not held,” said Brown, “there would be people wrongfully terminated.”

Asked about the report at the Capitol yesterday morning, State Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said although he hadn’t had a chance to review it detail, he sympathized with the financial dilemma facing school districts and noted that unless the Governor’s ballot initiative to raise taxes passes in November, the fiscal crisis will become even more severe.  At that point, some of the LAO’s recommendations will have to be on the table.  “We need to consider an array of options moving forward,” said Steinberg.

That worries the California Teachers Association.  Spokesman Mike Myslinski said the LAO’s plan is a misguided effort that fails to address the underlying problem of the state’s inability to balance the budget.  “The bottom line,” said Myslinski, “is that the state really is in extraordinary times now, and we want lawmakers to be cautious of using these current dire circumstances to make permanent policy decisions that impact student learning.”

San Francisco Unified blazes civil rights path for California districts to follow

As an education civil rights organization, we are far more accustomed to seeing school districts violate the rights of underserved students to a quality education than protect them from harm. But sometimes a school district’s leadership takes such a strong and courageous stance on behalf of their most vulnerable students that it takes your breath away. This was the type of courage shown by Superintendent Carlos Garcia and five members of the San Francisco Unified School Board when they voted to protect 14 of their highest-poverty schools from teacher layoffs in the coming year.

Last year The Education Trust-West published a report, Victims of the Churn, that revealed that high-poverty schools in California were far more likely to experience teacher layoffs. Because layoffs are typically based on seniority, the least senior teachers are “bumped” out of their positions by teachers with more experience. And because high-poverty schools tend to be staffed with younger teachers, they turn out to be the biggest losers in this process. The victims of this arbitrary and bureaucratic system are teachers and the vulnerable students and communities they serve.

For years it has been clear that this “churn” was disproportionally damaging high-poverty schools that were trying to improve, but few leaders were willing to risk the political damage of taking an alternative approach. Fortunately, advocates for low-income students began to see that this system was inequitable and had to change.

In Los Angeles Unified, an outcry from teachers and students in the district’s highest-poverty schools prompted the American Civil Liberties Union and Public Counsel to file a groundbreaking lawsuit to protect students from the disproportionate impact of layoffs. In these schools, students faced a constant revolving door of instructors. Teachers who designed plans for school improvement were laid off before their plans could be implemented. Students saw their dreams of college shattered as critical courses disappeared. The resulting settlement (known as “Reed”) protected dozens of schools from the impact of layoffs and has been supported by a broad range of civil rights groups.

Similarly, last year in Sacramento Unified, the superintendent and board protected five of their highest-poverty schools from the impact of layoffs. Each of these schools had a history of low performance and made extensive plans for school improvement. All of them would have been devastated by the normal layoff process with significant collateral damage to their students and communities.

These examples cracked open the door for districts around the state to take an alternative approach. With its move, San Francisco has pushed the door open. To Superintendent Garcia and the board’s credit, they did not make this decision arbitrarily. They looked at schools with a history of low performance and high turnover. They focused on schools where they had invested significant school improvement efforts, teacher training, and funding to increase student performance and close achievement gaps. These are schools that have shown improvement over the course of the past several years, where teachers and communities deserve the chance to build on their good work.

The critics of this approach argue that it will force layoffs onto other schools. These same critics often like to point out that the real problem with student and school performance is poverty. Well, if poverty is the problem, then what could be more important than creating stable learning environments for our highest-poverty students? And wouldn’t we want to make sure, in the name of equity, that we gave our low-income students every advantage they needed to beat the odds, close achievement gaps, and succeed?

For me, this is not an academic exercise disconnected from the day-to-day reality of schools. I taught in one of these protected schools. I know what it means to the students and community to shield them from further harm. As an administrator in San Diego Unified School District, I participated in the implementation of multiple layoff processes that devastated our district’s poorest schools. The process made me sick and I wished at that time that we could have done something different. Over the last several years, I have watched states such as Colorado pass laws to change their layoff processes to require districts to consider the “best interests” of students. Sadly, I know that there’s little hope of our leaders in Sacramento having the courage to make similar changes.

By taking this bold step to shield their highest-need schools from layoffs, San Francisco’s leadership prioritized the interests of their most vulnerable students. They have shown the leaders of every school district in California from Oakland to San Diego that there is another way. Let’s hope their courage is infectious.

Arun Ramanathan is executive director of The Education Trust-West, a statewide education advocacy organization. He has served as a district administrator, research director, teacher, paraprofessional, and VISTA volunteer in California, New England, and Appalachia. He has a doctorate in educational administration and policy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His wife is a teacher and reading specialist and they have two children in a Spanish immersion elementary school in Oakland Unified.

Building teachers to last

The biggest challenge facing legislators as they pursue rewriting the state’s teacher evaluation law this year is not how to weed out the worst teachers but how to retain the best. The key to the latter won’t be found in rubrics and value-added test scores but in deeper training for novice teachers and more career options for veteran teachers.

A baker’s dozen young and mid-career teachers make an articulate case for the latter in a new report, “Many Ways Up, No Reason To Move Out,” the product of the Bay Area New Millennium Initiative, a project affiliated with the North Carolina-based Center for Teaching Quality (go here to download it). The report serves as a reminder to lawmakers to keep in mind “To what end?” as they consider what elements should comprise a teacher evaluation.

The teachers call for three-year apprenticeships for new teachers and a career ladder that offers accomplished teachers leadership opportunities to entice them to stay in the classroom – instead of quitting the profession, as more than half do by the fifth year of teaching in some districts, or pursuing a job as an administrator, in part to make more money.

“Basically it’s like this:  If you’re competent and ambitious, you have to leave your job. Right now the only way to move up is in administration,” Sherene Judeh, one of the co-authors of the report, said at a conference last month in Sacramento on Teaching Quality and California’s Future (go here for a summary of the conference by David B. Cohen, one of the organizaers).

Judeh, a fifth-year teacher, and co-presenter Anna Martin, a seventh-year middle school teacher, embody the challenges facing teachers and districts that don’t want to lose them. A ninth- and tenth-grade humanities teacher and grade-level leader at Lighthouse Community Charter High School in Oakland, Judeh has had multiple roles already, chairing the algebra readiness committee and working with novice teachers as a mentor. Martin is a hybrid teacher in the Alum Rock Union School District in San Jose, coaching teachers, making student placement and master scheduling decisions, mentoring students, and providing professional development for all staff members.

Under a different career ladder, there would be other opportunities for teacher leaders. Source: "Many Ways Up, No Reason To Move Out." (Click twice to enlarge.)
Under a different career ladder, there would be other opportunities for teacher leaders. Source: "Many Ways Up, No Reason To Move Out." (Click twice to enlarge.)

But most districts lack clearly delineated career paths to become master, mentor, hybrid, or specialization teachers, linked to objective standards and professional development fostering teachers’ aspirations. And they lack pay differentials recognizing those levels of achievement, so that a master teacher can one day earn as much as an administrator.

Judeh and Martin started through Teach for America, which makes their advocacy for a three-year apprenticeship all the more interesting. They had only a five-week summer training course before being placed in high-poverty urban schools, then got their teaching credential while teaching school the first year.

“No first-year medical resident is given a scalpel, an operating room, and multiple surgeries to perform on her first day,” the report says. “No law intern argues a case by himself at his first court appearance. No rookie is the starting pitcher on the first day of his team’s season. Yet we continue to throw our beginning teachers into challenging environments without a support system in place to coach them. And unfortunately, in the end, students are the ones who suffer the most as a result.”

In the first year of a three-year preparation program, the apprentice teacher would observe a mentor teacher, while helping to plan lessons, working with students in small groups and taking courses for a credential. In the second year, the apprentice teacher would teach two classes, with the mentor teacher observing and the apprentice meeting regularly with the cohort of apprentice teachers in the credentialing program. In the third year, the apprentice would teach a full load, with the mentor teacher  observing during several paid release days per month.

The apprenticeship is modeled after urban teacher residency programs in Boston and Chicago. San Francisco Unified and Aspire Public Schools have year-long versions, too, as do a number of teacher preparation programs at several California State University campuses. The teacher candidates bear the full cost of the program.

Carolyn Nelson, dean of the College of Education and Allied Studies at California State University, East Bay, said “a more gradual training model, like a medical residency, would be a wonderful way to go.” The issue would be funding, particularly paying for the equivalent of a full-time teaching salary the second year, with added support the third.

The expectation would be that better trained beginner teachers would feel more supported and confident and be less inclined to leave. Turnover has a big cost: Referring to  a study by the Alliance for Excellent Education, the report cited the cost of recruiting, hiring, and retraining replacement teachers nationally at  $7.34 billion annually, with high-poverty, high-minority districts bearing a disproportionate cost.

The report challenges the status quo – teacher tenure after only two years and a pay scale based on years on the job – that the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers defend. “Effectiveness,” the report says, “will no longer be marked simply by a set number of years in the field. Instead, a clearly delineated career continuum will be linked to objective teaching standards and benchmarks, not the traditional and outmoded ‘steps and columns’ system that still dominates American public education today.”

The recommendations are what may be needed to attract a new generation of teachers looking for more respect and more career opportunities backed by better pay.

Facing some inconvenient truths about reforming teacher evaluations

(Brentt Brown, senior writer at Pivot Learning Partners, co-authored this post.)

Good teaching matters. Yet most teacher evaluations are compliance-driven checklists that have little or no impact on teaching and learning. The question is not whether teacher evaluation should be improved, but what the goals of the new processes we seek should be.

The received wisdom is that better evaluations would provide teachers with useful feedback and also improve decision making about tenure and retention. Critics also note that in a better system, evaluations would be more frequent, more focused on evidence of student learning, more effective at sorting teachers into multiple performance categories, and more valid, in that evaluators would be highly trained. All of these are worthy goals, but hardly inevitable ones. Not only are they expensive, but they fail to address the realities of the current approach to teacher evaluation. Here are some inconvenient truths that reformers of teacher evaluation must address.

  • Districts treat teacher evaluation as first and foremost a tool to remove a truly weak teacher. The resulting process is highly scripted because it is used to build a legal case in the event it is needed. While districts believe in the value of feedback and coaching for teachers, it is not clear that formal evaluation – with all of its legal constraints – is the best tool for this purpose.
  • Districts rarely remove teachers, in large part because of the high price tag. Better evaluation doesn’t change this, and those who believe that better evaluation processes will lead to more weak teachers being dismissed aren’t being realistic.
  • California has close to the highest ratio of teachers to administrators in the nation, which means that school principals are ridiculously overloaded. A better evaluation process won’t end the checklist approach if principals are the people doing the evaluating.
  • Staff development budgets for teachers have been slashed, and it may not make sense to invest heavily in training teacher evaluators when we cannot afford to train the teachers.
  • In the past, many large urban districts rarely opted not to tenure a teacher, and this led to granting tenure to some weak teachers. In the vast majority of cases, this was a reaction to a chronic teacher shortage. If you can’t staff your classrooms, you will tenure the folks you’ve got. The current hiring climate will change this situation without a better teacher evaluation process.

I believe that better teacher evaluation is worth working on, but we need to rethink the goals.

What if the goal of teacher evaluation were to communicate and foster a shared vision of excellence, one that would guide and inspire teachers? This is the starting point for the North Bay Training Collaborative for Strengthening Teacher and Principal Evaluation, a project of Pivot Learning Partners, funded by the Full Circle Fund, which brings together teams from almost a dozen districts to take on this question. The process that Pivot Learning has used with this group of districts – and that it is using with others around the state – includes:

  • Recognizing that redesigning teacher evaluations can be contentious and that teachers and union representatives must be involved;
  • Challenging teams to study and learn from both research and examples from districts around the country;
  • Encouraging districts to develop their own vision of teaching excellence;
  • Keeping the idea of evidence of student learning on the table, while promoting a broader discussion about what would constitute evidence that students were learning rigorous content. This approach leads to a serious consideration of multiple measures instead of a dead-end discussion about test scores and the statistics behind value-added approaches;
  • Acknowledging that if useful feedback to teachers is the goal, then the most useful feedback will always come from other teachers, not from an administrator. This means that the vision of excellence and rubrics associated with it must be used broadly in the district by teachers as well as administrators.

It is too soon to determine what will come of the collaborative and inclusive approach suggested above, or for that matter from the more scripted approach being taken in districts receiving federal school improvement grants (SIGs). What is notable is how different the conversation sounds – more cautious perhaps, but also nuanced – when the North Bay Collaborative meets than when teacher evaluation is discussed by policymakers or in the media. This disconnect is hardly new, but in this case what it signals matters.

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 School 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.

Poll: Tax with ed reforms is winner

A new poll has confirmed what Ted Lempert, president of Children Now, and others in the 2012 Kids Education Plan coalition expected: An initiative coupling school reforms with a tax increase dedicated to education has a good chance of winning at the polls a year from now.

The qualifiers are important. Less than a majority of respondents said they would be willing to pay a general state tax increase to support state services, including education, but not exclusively for schools. A slight majority said they’d be willing to pay more if it’s exclusively for education. But that rose to two-thirds if paired with the general reforms that the Kids Plan has been promoting. They include giving local districts more control over spending decisions and the hiring and dismissal of teachers.

Neither a sales nor income tax increase drew a majority support when suggested as a new general state tax.
Neither a sales nor income tax increase drew a majority support when suggested as a new general state tax. Click to enlarge. (EMC Research)

“The reform piece is needed to bring folks together,” said Lempert. “It provides a clear path for voters.”

It’s also needed to pick up the financial support of the business community, which will be needed to sustain a long campaign against likely anti-tax opposition.

The Kids Education Plan coalition, which includes the Association of California School Administrators,

Support grew when the income or sales tax was proposed as a tax dedicated to education. Click to enlarge. (EMC Research)
Support grew when the income or sales tax was proposed as a tax dedicated to education. Click to enlarge. (EMC Research)

United Way of Greater Los Angeles, the advocacy group Education Trust-West, Bay Area Council, and San Francisco-based Silver Giving Foundation, commissioned the poll of 600 voters in mid-November by EMC Research in Oakland, a marketing and opinion research firm that has done polling on education issues. Lempert released a six-page summary of the results.

The coalition has not yet written its own initiative. Instead, Lempert has taken on the role of broker, trying over the next month to coax deep-pocket sponsors of several emerging tax initiatives to compromise on one proposal. And that includes Gov. Jerry Brown, who’s said to be days away from announcing a tax initiative that he has been working on with the California Teachers Association. When Republican legislators killed his plan to extend tax increases as part of this year’s budget, Brown pledged to go to voters in 2012.

Push for one tax initiative in November 2012

There is general agreement, based on past elections, Lempert said, that voters would find multiple tax measures confusing and turn them all down. “We are focused on getting one measure on the ballot,” he said.

Today, Los Angeles attorney Molly Munger and a nonprofit she co-founded, the Advancement Project, are expected to send their initiative to the Attorney General for vetting. It would raise $10 billion for preschools through high schools, primarily from the wealthy, by increasing the personal income tax by 1 percentage point. Last week, the Think Long for California Committee, led by billionaire Nicolas Berggruen, proposed government reforms and also a $10 billion tax increase by extending the sales tax to services while lowering the personal and corporate income taxes. Higher education would get half of the money, but preschools and early childhood programs would get none.

Besides differences in who would be funded, there are advantages and liabilities to both proposals. The personal income tax is volatile, so a broader sales tax would provide more revenue predictability. But businesses that provide services, from attorneys to nail salons, will fight a new tax. The CTA will likely oppose Munger’s plan, because it would not mix the new money with Proposition 98, which funds pay increases and health benefits. CTA has already condemned Think Long’s plan for wiping off the books about $14 billion owed to schools. Munger’s plan has elements of the reform favored by Lempert’s group, such as providing bonus money for low-income children and giving school sites more say over how money is used. But those reforms would apply only to new money, not existing Prop 98 funding.

Precise wording of the poll questions is important. A USC/Dornsife poll found that 64 percent of respondents said they’d be willing to pay more taxes to support education. There was no mention of making this tax contingent on reforms.

However, the EMC poll teased out the distinctions:

  • “A narrow 53% majority agree and 43% disagree with the statement The most important thing our schools need is more funding.” The support rises to 66 percent when framed, I would be willing to pay more in taxes for schools if it went along with significant reforms to our state education system.
  • Only 39 percent said they would favor, with 58 percent opposing, a 1% increase in the income tax to provide general fund revenue “for uses such as education, social services, public safety and corrections.” That rose to 55 percent supporting, 42 percent against, when proposed as a dedicated tax for education. (Poll respondents weren’t told that under the state’s progressive tax structure, those earning more than $300,000 would pay the bulk of the new revenue.)
  • 44 percent said they would favor, with 52 percent opposing, a ½ percent increase in the sales tax to provide general fund revenue. That rose to 61 percent supporting, 36 percent against, when proposed as a dedicated sales tax increase for education.

Lempert isn’t talking publicly about specific reforms that the coalition wants. Respondents were read a question citing four general reforms:

  • Create a revised K through 12 education funding system for California that gives control over spending decisions to local communities and educators instead of the state legislature;
  • Require complete financial transparency and accountability for all education spending;
  • Give local school districts more control over teacher hiring and dismissal decisions; and
  • Provide substantial new funding for California schools by implementing a fair, broad-based new statewide tax for education.

However, the pollster then got more detailed, asking respondents about specific ideas, indicating which changes the coalition is interested in:

  • 80 percent favored making it simpler to dismiss underperforming teachers while preserving their right to appeal;
  • 79 percent favored requiring local districts to adopt a comprehensive teacher quality plan governing the recruiting, hiring, training, and evaluating of teachers;
  • 74 percent favored requiring that teachers have four years of experience, instead of two, before receiving permanent tenure status;
  • 72 percent favored expanding access to quality preschool and early childhood education programs;
  • 72 percent favored requiring districts to create a teacher compensation plan, developed with public input, detailing the pay structure for teachers;
  • 66 percent favored setting a base funding level for each student, with more for high-needs students;
  • 59 percent favored allowing district tax measures (parcel taxes) to be passed by 55 percent majority instead of the current 67 percent;
  • 55 percent favored significantly increasing statewide education funding with a broad-based tax raising between $6 billion and $8 billion per year.

Ruth Bernstein, a principal with the pollster EMC, said that the 59 percent support for dropping the threshold for a parcel tax, while lower than other reforms, was higher than in the past. She said she interpreted the 55 percent support for an $8 billion statewide tax as a sign that voters want reforms if they are going to pass a tax of that magnitude.

“We are seeing heightened awareness about the need for more funding,” Bernstein said, “and awareness of structural changes that are needed.”

Let’s make a deal for ed funds

A group of billionaires, old-line political movers and shakers, and influential advocates released their recommendations Monday for changing the state’s tax structure to increase state revenues by $10 billion a year, with half of that going to K-12 schools and community colleges and another $2.5 billion for the University of California and California State University.

How the $10 billion in new revenues will be distributed.  (click to enlarge)
How the $10 billion in new revenues will be distributed. (Click to enlarge)

The Think Long Committee for California, chaired by Nicolas Berggruen, founder and president of Berggruen Holdings, intends to place two initiatives on the 2012 ballot to overhaul the state’s tax and finance structures, and to amend the school funding law, Proposition 98.

The proposals, explained in the committee’s 24-page report, A Blueprint to Renew California, seek to get the state out of debt by reducing personal income taxes at every level, cutting corporate taxes, and reducing sales taxes for consumer goods while extending them at a higher rate for services like haircuts, accounting, and car repairs.

“Nearly one-half of California’s $2 trillion economy is composed of services – none of it taxed,” wrote Berggruen and Nathan Gardels, an adviser to the Think Long Committee, in an OpEd piece in yesterday’s Sacramento Bee. “If you eat a doughnut in a coffee shop, the sales tax on goods applies. If you use a legal or financial service, it is not taxed. In other words, the doughnut subsidizes lawyers, accountants, and other services.”

Similar ideas have been kicking around for years. In early 2009, Gov. Schwarzenegger established the Commission on the 21st Century Economy, which also proposed tax code changes to stabilize the state’s revenue. That commission, which was chaired by Gerald Parsky, now a member of the Think Long Committee, failed to get any traction in the state legislature.

Strings attached to new school funds

For at least the first year, the new education funds would be spoken for, used to reduce at least half of the $9.4 billion deferral of school funds by the state. (Initially the delayed payments were supposed to be just a few days, from the end of one fiscal year to the start of the next. But in recent years the delays have grown longer and the deferrals larger.)

After that, the $5 billion becomes an additional permanent source of discretionary funds for schools that is not subject to the fluctuations of state revenues, according to Tim Gage, a consultant to the committee. However, it doesn’t get folded into Proposition 98, which would raise the base amount due to schools.

But there is a caveat. In exchange for the annual $5 billion, the state would never have to repay as much as $14 billion in maintenance fees; that’s the gap in funding that occurs during recessions or other economic downturns, when Prop 98 is either suspended or reduced. Schools are currently first in line to get that money restored when the economy improves.

John Mockler, a former executive director of the State Board of Education and the author of Prop 98, said he supports some of the recommendations, but he could barely contain his anger at that part of the plan, which he described as arrogant and likened to a form of extortion.

“Somebody borrows money from you; they borrow $100 and they come and say, ‘I know I owe you $100, here’s $4, but first you have to change your hairstyle, lose a little weight, and tune up your car.’ Excuse me, you have a legal debt, a constitutional debt created by two constitutional amendments,” said Mockler.

The California Teachers Association slammed much of the Blueprint, calling the Think Long Committee “out of touch with California voters and their commitment to fund public education,” based on some recent polls.

“Rather than help public schools recover from the billions they have lost, the committee ties future funding increases to unproven education reforms. This is taking the state in the wrong direction,” said CTA president Dean Vogel.

But Gage insists that it’s a good deal for schools because they’ll get the $5 billion a lot sooner than if they had to wait for state revenues to increase enough to recoup the maintenance factor funds. What’s more, he said, “This money would be available as discretionary revenues to be used for any school purpose.”

Panel of independents

Members of the Think Long Committee cross the political spectrum from former Republican secretaries of state George Shultz and Condoleeza Rice to Democrats Gray Davis and longtime state assembly leader Willie Brown.*

Since members of the Think Long Committee were not appointed by any government agency and have no ties to special interest groups, they weren’t beholden to any point of view and reached consensus on all the proposed recommendations, wrote Berggruen in the Sacramento Bee article.

“The ideologically rigid will have a hard time putting the Think Long proposal in any box,” wrote Berggruen. “We came together only as an independent group of concerned citizens who believe in California’s promise and who want to get the state back on the right track.”

*Complete list of members:  Nicolas Berggruen, David Bonderman, Eli Broad, Willie Brown, Gray Davis, Maria Elena Durazo, Matthew Fong (the former State Treasurer died June 1, 2011), Ronald George, Antonia Hernandez, Robert Hertzberg, Gerry Parsky, Condoleeza Rice, Eric Schmidt, Terry Semel, George Shultz, and Laura D’Andrea Tyson.

Reform/revenue plan for ’12 ballot

A  partnership of education, parent, and business groups is aiming to put on the November 2012 ballot an initiative combining sweeping education reforms with a tax increase dedicated to preschool to twelfth grade, called The 2012 Kids Education Plan.

In a short statement (see below), the dozen groups used the code words for fundamental changes in school funding and personnel laws like teacher tenure without yet citing specifics: “a student centered finance system, true transparency, significant workforce reforms, and new investments in education through a statewide broad based revenue source and lowering the voter threshold on local revenue” (a reference to the current two-thirds majority needed to pass a parcel tax).

Joint statement by the groups and individuals in The 2012 Kids Education Plan.
Joint statement by the groups and individuals in The 2012 Kids Education Plan.

Ted Lempert, president of Oakland-based Children Now, said the groups were considering a tax that would raise $6 billion to $8 billion annually for education – the equivalent of roughly an additional $1,000 to $1,330 per student – an amount that would recover much of the state funding that has been cut over the past three years. While a big ask in a recession, it would still fall shy of raising California’s per-student funding to the national average.

Those who have signed on to the effort so far include one member of the Education Coalition, the Association of California School Administrators; Children Now; Bay Area Council, a San Francisco-based business group; United Way of Greater Los Angeles; Education Trust-West; Public Advocates; San Francisco-based Silver Giving Foundation; the new parent groups   Educate Our State, Educacy and Parent Revolution; and three prominent superintendents: Mike Hanson of Fresno Unified, Chris Steinhauser of Long Beach Unified, and Tony Smith of Oakland Unified.

At this point, Lempert said, it’s still in the discussion phase. Over the past month, Lempert said, he and others have reached out to other groups that have signaled interest but have not committed, like the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, California PTA, and the California Teachers Association (no official comment yet from the CTA). Also, “key folks in the Brown administration are interested in what we are pushing,” Lempert said. “I hope they get behind this.”

The presidential election ballot is expected to be jammed with initiatives, including pension and state governance reforms. Lots of ideas for tax increases –  reconfiguring Proposition 13, hitting up millionaires, taxing oil production to support higher education – are floating around, though still in flux. Lempert said that a broad-based tax that business groups could support, focused on pre-K to grade 12 education, would most appeal to voters and have the best chance of passing. With big backers behind it, a Kids Education Plan would dominate, if not chase off, other initiatives.

If $6 billion, tied to reforms, sounds familiar, that’s because Gov. Schwarzenegger’s bipartisan Committee on Education Excellence, led by Ted Mitchell, a Democrat, recommended the same amount and strategy four years ago. Schwarzenegger blew off the committee’s report, but the ideas – many stemming from the voluminous studies Getting Down to Facts in 2007 – and the approach have been simmering on back burners. “The concept is to do it all together, to put it in one package and get it done,” Lempert said. “You can get more money for education if it includes reform.”

The need to settle on the initiative’s wording and to start collecting signatures by January at the latest leaves only about two months to reach agreement on which reforms and which tax. Consensus will demand few hard-and-fast positions.

A student-centered finance system with transparency is shorthand for replacing the complex system of legacy-based funding, with dozens of categorical grants, with a system based on student needs, with more money for poor students and English learners.

The principle behind workplace reforms, Lempert said, is removing obstacles in state law preventing districts from exerting more control over hiring, including tenure, and promoting and dismissing staff. Three groups in the coalition – United Way of Greater Los Angeles, Public Advocates, and Education Trust-West – have pushed for more rigorous evaluation systems. Public Advocates also represents plaintiffs in the suit Campaign for Quality Education, charging that the state inadequately funds its schools.

Several key bills now before the Legislature would address some of the initiative’s key reforms: Assemblywoman Julia Brownley’s AB 18 on school financing and Assemblyman Felipe Fuentes’ AB 5 on teacher evaluations. But, reflecting both the compressed timing and uncertainty over whether the Legislature will pass strong bills, the coalition intends to write the reforms into the initiatives, leaving perhaps companion bills to the Legislature.

In an email, California State PTA Executive Director Paul Richman said that the PTA disagrees with this approach, while expecting to support one ballot measure funding education next year. “We believe new funding to restore programs that have been cut for students is foremost and that other potential reforms, many of which we’d get behind, can be accomplished legislatively,” he said.

Dennis Cima, vice president of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, another likely ally of the effort, said that the organization agrees with many of the priorities  in the initiative and could support a broad-based tax, but will be watching to see what else is being proposed for next November. Noting that an initiative can be a blunt instrument, he said, “Is the ballot the best way?”

It may be if the intent is to ensure that reforms are passed, not watered down or frittered away by the Legislature.