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.

CTA prez foresees attacks on union

Like floods and tornadoes, the attacks on collective bargaining and the imposition of test-score-based teacher evaluations that have swept through states in the Midwest and South this year have not been seen in California. But the incoming president of the 325,000-member California Teachers Association expects the state will not be immune for long.

“It’s only a matter of time before what I’ve been calling the ‘pseudo-reform movement’ that’s been sweeping the country is going to come right to us; because all the players are here, and the money’s here, and the argument has spread,” Dean Vogel said in a video interview (go here for transcript). “Both political parties are talking about the need for change.”

The CTA is ready for this, he said, and expects to be in the center of the debate over issues such as teacher evaluations. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Gov. Jerry Brown relied on the CTA’s support to get elected and that Democrats, traditionally allied with the CTA, are firmly in control of the Legislature.

(Click here for part II of the interview.)

Vogel, 64, the current CTA vice president and a 37-year elementary school teacher and counselor from Vacaville Unified, is politically astute and media savvy. Some young teachers I have spoken with are optimistic that he might be a flexible, different union leader, one who will listen to them and be open to change.

But if that’s to happen, they’ll have to become a lot more active themselves. In an interview last week,, preceding assuming his two-year term later this month, Vogel offered no distinction between his views and the current positions of the CTA. If there are differences, he’s not saying so. That’s not surprising, since Vogel will take his marching orders from the board of directors and the 800-member State Council of Education, which meets quarterly and takes positions on legislation.

Evaluations are an example. Vogel co-chaired a committee for the National Education Association that has proposed a seven-page policy on teacher evaluation and accountability that will be voted on by the NEA delegates at their convention this summer. It’s become controversial because it includes “valid, reliable high-quality standardized tests” among several indicators that  could be used to measure student growth and learning.

To teachers in states like Illinois, where the Legislature imposed a policy of using standardized test scores as the predominant factor in judging teachers, the adoption of a nuanced NEA policy would be a victory. But a large portion of California delegates will likely oppose any inclusion of the use of standardized test scores in an evaluation.

Vogel reflected that perspective. Test scores should not be a criterion; what’s important instead is to measure how teachers use the test data to improve instruction. I pushed on this point for clarification. His response: “Let me be really clear. I want to assess the teacher’s use of the data, okay? So if the data’s there, and the teacher uses it appropriately, what it’s going to do is inform better practice.”

On other issues, Vogel:

  • Defended the traditional step and column method of paying teachers by years taught and graduate credits accumulated. The current system “encourages people to stay in. It’s really to our advantage to have veteran teachers who can be the collegial support to young folks.”
  • Called for no change to California’s granting of tenure after only two years. Most states award permanent status after three or four years: “Some places are saying three. Some are saying four. Right now, our position is – the ed code (states) here in California, it’s two years.”
  • Called for considering changing Proposition 98, the 20-year-old formula that sets the minimal levels of funding for K-12 schools and community colleges. However, he restated CTA’s opposition to AB 18, this session’s major finance reform. It that would permanently give districts more flexibility in spending while creating the framework for a weighted student formula providing more money for  low-income students and English learners. CTA says more time is needed to consider possible unintended consequences of the bill. “We’re nervous about what can happen when you move so quickly,” he said.

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.

19,000 and counting

Wall Street has Black Monday, and now California teachers have Red Tuesday, so named because yesterday – Tuesday, March 15 – was code red for public education, the deadline for districts to issue layoff warnings to teachers. During a late afternoon news conference at Portola Elementary School in San Bruno, David A. Sanchez, president of the California Teachers Association, said they’d heard from 293 of the state’s 1,000 school districts and estimated that nearly 19,000 pink slips went out. He predicted that the number would rise to more than 20,000 by the time the final numbers are in. “In my 30 years as a kindergarten teacher, I have never seen such unprecedented cuts that are so deep and impact so many,” said Sanchez.

A rally sign (courtesy of Mike Myslnksi, CTA).
A rally sign (courtesy of Mike Myslinksi, CTA).

Whatever the final number released by the CTA, the actual figure will be even higher because the union only counts layoffs of permanent teachers, those who have been teaching for three or more years and have due-process rights. No one – not the CTA, not the State Department of Education or any of half a dozen agencies I called – keeps track of all the first- and second-year teachers who will be let go, and the temporary teachers working on one-year contracts as fill-ins and the like, even though they’re almost sure to disappear. A few phone calls to districts turned up some numbers: 164 in San Francisco Unified, 209 in Long Beach Unified, and 56 in San Jose Unified. Los Angeles Unified included temp workers in its 5,045 layoff notices.

“We’re here on a sad day,” said Tom Torlakson, the state Superintendent of Public Instruction, at yesterday’s event in San Bruno. Yet, the mood in the school’s small multipurpose room seemed more feisty than gloomy as parents, teachers, and children, most wearing red shirts, waved hand-lettered signs reading, “Where’s Our Bailout,” and “Stop the Cuts,” and speakers challenged state lawmakers to do a better job.

“I will tell you that sometimes it means you have to risk your own future, and if that’s what it takes, that’s what we demand they do,” said Jill Wynns, incoming president of the California School Boards Association, in a dig at the Republican legislators who are so far keeping the governor’s $12.5 billion tax extension off the ballot.

Without the tax extension, there’s no chance that Gov. Jerry Brown will hold to his pledge not to cut K-12 education next year. According to the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst, schools could lose $4.5 billion in a worst-case scenario; that’s on top of the $18 billion in cuts over the last three years. During that same three-year period 30,000 teachers lost their jobs, said Sanchez.

One of the big scares for next year, however, is that far fewer jobs will be saved than in recent years. For instance, 25,600 teachers received layoff warnings last year, but 10,500 of them were rescinded, in large part thanks to $100 billion in federal stimulus money to the states, which saved about a quarter-million teaching jobs nationwide. With that money gone, the doomsday scenario has moved in

CTA President David Sanchez said he had "never seen such unprecedented cuts that are so deep and impact so many” (photo courtesy of Mike Myslinski, CTA).
CTA President David Sanchez said he had "never seen such unprecedented cuts that are so deep and impact so many” (photo courtesy of Mike Myslinski, CTA).

This time around, some veteran teachers were caught off guard. “Three of us with tenure got pink slips,” said Kalasea Sanchez, a second grade teacher at Christopher School in San Jose’s Oak Grove School District. Sanchez is in her third year at the school, but has served on many committees and thought that experience might protect her. [Note: In Los Angeles Unified, the usual last in, first out procedure for laying off teachers was thrown out by a court for several dozen low-income, low-performing schools]. As of now, however, class sizes are heading up in Christopher School next year, going from the low 20s to 30 in kindergarten, first, second, and third grades. It’s a Title I school, more than half the students are English learners, and Sanchez says she’s always had some foster children in her classes. 

“I was thinking today, I had this student last year who was taken away from his mom when he was about 4 for drinking a bottle of Gatorade with meth in it,” recalled Sanchez. “I spent a lot of time with him and bonded with him; his mom turned her life around. Today I saw him and he ran up and gave me a big hug.” He still has many challenges ahead of him, and Sanchez says she worries what will happen when she leaves and he’s in a larger class with a teacher who doesn’t know anything about him or his family.

Teachers who were pink-slipped will find out in two months, on May 15, if their layoff notices will be rescinded. But some districts are waiting until late summer to begin their layoffs. The State Education Code allows districts to lay off teachers between five days after a state budget is enacted and August 15, if the total revenue limit hasn’t increased by at least 2 percent. This hasn’t typically been a reliable fallback for districts because they cannot rely on the Legislature passing a budget on time.

But Proposition 25, approved by voters last November, requires only a simple legislative majority – 50 percent plus one – to pass a state budget. Raising taxes still requires a two-thirds vote, so even if the tax extension fails to make it onto the ballot or is voted down, the Democratically controlled legislature and the governor could pass a budget with massive spending cuts, which may force school districts to cut even more teachers just weeks before the start of the new school year.

Districts will lay off some of their best and brightest today; that must change

Kaitlin Donovan, Nicholas Melvoin, Emilie Smith, and Tyler Hester didn’t expect to get a layoff notice. They were the kind of teachers typically romanticized in Hollywood movies. Young, energetic, and idealistic, they sought out the challenge of teaching in high-poverty urban schools and set high expectations for their students. Yet, each of them went to their teacher mailbox and found a pink slip.

As a young teacher in San Francisco in the ’90s, I experienced a similar layoff. Reading the pink slip was a like a punch in the gut. It said to me, “Nothing you’ve done matters to us.” That feeling was echoed more than a decade later by Emilie, who said, “It was like getting an F on a paper you didn’t write. It sends the message that we don’t care about your performance in the classroom.”

Emilie is right. Because of California’s teacher layoff laws, performance in the classroom doesn’t matter. California has decreed that the most important aspect in layoff and other personnel decisions in school districts is seniority – the amount of time a person has been employed by a school district. In addition, California has mandated a layoff process for teachers and other staff that is both backwards and brutal.

As a district administrator in San Diego Unified, I watched this process unfold multiple times as we reacted to the education cuts in the governor’s January budget. In the 21/2 months before the March 15 layoff deadline, district leaders and school principals scrambled to make a series of high stakes budget and personnel cuts that were little more than stabs in the dark. Because this process was dependent on seniority, district personnel spent countless hours tracking down seniority dates and certifications in order to ensure that the least senior employees either lost or were bumped out of their jobs. And because high-poverty schools often had the least senior employees, they would often see their school staffs decimated.

I’ll always remember one particular school, Jackson Elementary. Long one of the district’s lowest performing schools, Jackson had experienced a dramatic turnaround under the leadership of its principal, Rupi Boyd, and a group of new teachers. Refusing to accept the belief that their children couldn’t learn because they were all poor and English learners, Rupi, now the chief academic officer for MLA Partner Schools in Los Angeles, and the teachers produced dramatic improvements in student learning, raising the school over 200 API points from the bottom to the middle of state school rankings. For their achievements, Jackson was recognized as one of the state’s distinguished schools. Yet, when the 2007 budget cuts came, nearly all of Jackson’s teachers received pink slips. They just didn’t have enough seniority.

For Jackson’s entire school community, this process was a disaster. Yet, with all the focus on just “preventing budget cuts,” the negative impacts of the mechanics of budget cutting and the layoff process typically attracted little attention. Now, three years of state budget cuts later, it is strikingly clear that both the education budget cuts and the state-mandated layoff processes based on seniority are disastrous for California’s future.

In “Victims of the Churn,” our most recent report, we are able to quantify these negative impacts with data from three large urban districts. The findings should be familiar to school communities across California. In all three districts, thousands of teachers get layoff notices unnecessarily because of unrealistic state-mandated deadlines and requirements to focus on seniority. When it comes to final layoffs, students in high-poverty schools are 65 percent more likely to have a teacher laid off. And in certain high-need schools more 15 percent of staff members lose their jobs.

In Nicholas Melvoin’s case, his high-poverty school in Los Angeles is now protected from this lunacy because this teacher went to the ACLU after he and nearly all of his colleagues received a pink slip. The settlement of the lawsuit against Los Angeles Unified now provides a strong measure of protection for students in some of LA’s highest-need schools.

What legislators must do

Unfortunately, one lawsuit won’t necessarily protect the students in the schools where Kaitlin, Emilie, and Tyler taught. Nor will it prevent other committed young teachers from leaving the classroom entirely. That will require courage on the part of our leadership in Sacramento to change longstanding policies.

Policymakers should start by changing the layoff notification date to prevent over-noticing; giving districts explicit flexibility to protect high-poverty schools from the disproportionate impact of layoffs; replacing California’s seniority-based layoff requirements with laws that emphasize job effectiveness and competence; and providing additional flexibility and authority to principals and school communities to maintain the stability of their school staffs in good and bad budget times.

None of these reforms are easy or politically expedient. All of them have been vigorously opposed in the past by the Sacramento special interests such as the statewide teachers unions focused on keeping things the same. But as Gov. Brown and legislative leaders approach California taxpayers with requests for vital funding, these are the reforms that Californians should expect in return for their hard-earned dollars.

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 a child in preschool and another in a Spanish immersion elementary school in Oakland Unified.

Will LAUSD layoffs be a model?

An appeals court on Monday refused to delay a settlement that will shield children in 45 low-income schools in Los Angeles Unified from layoffs that would create havoc with their education. With a March 15 deadline a week away for teacher layoff notices statewide, the big question is whether other districts will follow the lead of Los Angeles Unified and protect their most vulnerable children as well.

Districts have a model in the deal reached between LAUSD and attorneys representing students most victimized by the yearly churn of teacher layoffs. They also have a District Court judge’s decision last year empowering them to deviate from standard seniority-based layoffs under state law when children’s right to equal educational opportunity is adversely affected. What districts need is the fortitude to act on those children’s behalf.

The Sacramento Bee reported that Sacramento City Unified Superintendent Jonathan Raymond plans to prevent disproportionate layoffs at six academically troubled schools where the district has made a special effort to recruit teachers. But other districts haven’t indicated whether they planned to capitalize on Judge William Highberger’s landmark ruling.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, the Public Counsel Law Center, and the firm Morrison & Foerster filed the suit in the LAUSD case. Public Counsel lead attorney Catherine Lhamon wouldn’t say whether attorneys plan to sue additional districts in coming weeks. She did say that she and attorneys have asked districts about their plans.

Last year, Gov. Schwarzenegger and State Board of Education President Ted Mitchell sided with plaintiffs in the LAUSD case, even though the state also was named in the suit. United Teachers Los Angeles opposed the deal that district administrators and plaintiffs’ attorneys reached on the grounds that it violated seniority rights under state law and the teachers’ contract.

Under the deal, 45 lowest-performing schools and those showing signs of academic improvement will be protected from layoffs this year. The district will set a cap on the percentage of teachers that can be laid off in the remaining schools. The practical effect will be that teachers with the same years of experience may get layoff notices in one school with lots of veteran teachers but not another school with less experienced teachers.

Unlike his predecessor Jack O’Connell, who took no position on the lawsuit, the new Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tom Torlakson,  filed briefs opposing the settlement and calling for delaying its implementation, because of the settlement’s “far reaching, unintended consequences throughout the state.”

There’s no question that the issue is complex. Layoffs ideally would be partially based on a credible system of teacher evaluations. But the lack of such a system in California is no justification for inaction. Districts know which schools would be devastated by seniority-based layoffs – like the middle school in LAUSD in which 72 percent of the staff, mostly relatively new teachers, got layoff notices. Districts know which low-performing schools, under new leaders and turnaround strategies, show promise of academic improvement but need more time.

This month promises to be particularly tragic for teachers. Because of uncertainty over the state budget, districts may issue layoff notices to tens of thousands of teachers ­– many thousands more than will be let go if  Gov. Jerry Brown succeeds in getting state tax extensions on the ballot and voters to approve them in June. Teachers will have the possibility of losing their jobs hanging over their heads for much of the summer.

No legislative fix for now

Last fall, a bill that would have partially resolved the issue statewide died after passing the state Senate but failing to make to the full Assembly for a vote. SB 691 would have required that the percentage of teacher layoffs in the lowest-performing schools be no higher than the average for all schools in their districts. The sponsor, Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, hasn’t reintroduced it, so it’s every district for itself, for now. (Update: Sen. Bob Huff’s office points out that Huff, R-Diamond Bar, is sponsoring SB 355, which would allow districts to lay off teachers based on performance evaluations and a district’s education program.)

Last month, the Education Trust-West issued Victims of the Churn: The Damaging Impact of California’s Teacher Layoff Policies on Schools, Students and Communities in Three Large School Districts. Its recommendations include:

  • repealing the  state law requiring districts to use seniority as the primary criteria for layoffs (California is one of only a dozen states that do);
  • protecting high-poverty schools from the disproportionate impact of layoffs and the churn caused by bumping rights; and
  • moving back the March 15 deadline for layoff notices to the summer, giving districts more time to make accurate layoff decisions while reducing excessive notifications.

Judge resolves L.A. layoff suit

Three days of hearings this week didn’t change his mind. A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge on Friday approved a landmark settlement that will shield 45 low-performing and new schools in Los Angeles Unified from seniority-based teacher layoffs that would have disproportionately harmed the schools’ disadvantaged children.

The 45 schools include the three low-income, low-achieving middle schools that were named in the lawsuit brought last year by the Los Angeles office of the American Civil Liberties Union and the public interest law firm Public Counsel Law Center of Los Angeles. All will be exempt from the next round of layoffs in which more than 4,000 of 29,000 district teachers could lose their jobs. Layoffs in the remaining 750 schools will be based on seniority but will be spread evenly. As a result, experienced teachers could be laid off in some schools.

Last May, Judge William Highberger issued a preliminary ruling that a school district can override seniority-based layoffs for teachers when they intrude on children’s fundamental right to equal educational opportunity. That happened in the three middle schools named in the suit, where, in a regular churn of new teachers, more than half of the staff were laid off, creating turmoil and leaving them with permanent substitutes.

After Highberger’s ruling, plaintiffs’ lawyers worked out a settlement with district administrators and the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, whose city-affiliated schools in the district were affected as well. But United Teachers Los Angeles, which claimed it has been left out of negotiations, objected, and Highberger agreed to hold hearings this week.  The Los Angeles Times reported Friday that the union will likely appeal the deal that Highberger approved.

Under the three-year settlement, the court will monitor the case annually. The district will create incentives to retain teachers and administrators in the targeted schools. The district will have some latitude to choose the 20 new schools. The 25 low-performing schools will be chosen from among those with high teacher turnover rates that have shown some academic progress.

The settlement won’t set a precedent for other districts.  A bill sponsored by the Senate President pro Tem that would have required layoffs in the lowest-performing schools to be proportionally no greater than the district average died last year amid opposition from the California Teachers Assn. It’s too late for possible legislation this year to take effect before March 15, when districts are required to give notice to teachers potentially affected by a reduction in force.

With Los Angeles Unified facing a possible $400 million deficit, this year’s could be the largest layoff yet. In her testimony this week, the plaintiffs’ chief expert witness, City University of New York psychology professor Michelle Fine, characterized the lawsuit as “a very sad case about distributing pain.”

“A hurricane is about to hit LAUSD,” she said, “… so what this settlement does is simply provide a kind of little umbrella over a set of very fragile schools.”

Also expressing sorrow that many teachers are likely to lose their jobs, Catherine Lhamon, lead attorney in the case for the Public Counsel Law Center, said that Highberger “today lifted the burden of the financial crisis facing the district from the backpacks of the children least able to shoulder that burden.”