Another strike at Transitional K

Governor Brown isn’t giving up on efforts to curtail Transitional Kindergarten (TK), despite being rebuffed by both the Senate and Assembly subcommittees dealing with education funding. The May Revision budget plan, released Monday, seeks to make TK a voluntary program and use the savings to restore proposed cuts to state-funded preschool.

The State Department of Finance estimates this plan would capture $132.2 million. Of that, however, $40.7 million would go to funding TK in the handful of districts that the department expects will continue or start a program, and to providing districts that lose students by opting out of TK with the mandatory one-time funding for declining enrollment. That leaves a net gain of $91.5 million.

“It’s robbing Peter to pay Paul,” said Deborah Kong of Preschool California, adding that the Department of Finance savings estimates are “very questionable.” Preschool California posted an interactive map on its website showing that even though about three dozen districts are holding off on implementation of TK for now, more than 200, including Los Angeles Unified, the state’s largest district, have indicated that they’re moving forward.

Still the law

Transitional Kindergarten was established under SB 1381, the Kindergarten Readiness Act of 2010, introduced by State Senator Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto). It raises the minimum age for starting kindergarten by moving up the entry date one month in each of the next three years, so by the 2014-15 school year children will have to be five years old by September 1 to enroll.

The bill also created the TK program for the estimated 125,000 children who turn five during that three-month window between September 2 and December 2, and who will no longer be eligible for kindergarten. Sen. Simitian says the way TK is funded, there’s no cost to the state for the first 13 years because all the children in the new program would have been in traditional kindergarten otherwise.

Minimum age requirements under Kindergarten Readiness Act. (Source:  Preschool California). Click to enlarge.
Minimum age requirements under Kindergarten Readiness Act. (Source: Preschool California) Click to enlarge.

“It’s important for parents and school districts to remember that the Governor’s proposal is just a proposal,” said Sen. Simitian in a written statement yesterday. “Any changes to that law must be approved by the Legislature.”

Lawmakers have already spoken twice on the issue: once when they approved the bill two years ago, and again last month, when the budget subcommittees in both the Senate and Assembly rejected the governor’s proposal in his January budget plan to eliminate TK.

“The governor needs to understand Transitional Kindergarten is here to stay and that we stand firmly behind the Kindergarten Readiness Act,” said Assemblymember Susan Bonilla (D-Concord), chair of the Budget Subcommittee on Education that voted to protect TK.

When he first proposed eliminating TK in his January budget proposal, Gov. Brown argued that, given the budget deficit, this is not the time to create a new program. The state Legislative Analyst’s Office agreed, writing last month in a brief for lawmakers that the plan is “reasonable for budgetary purposes,” and that it “does not make sense to offer [an] additional year of public education to a select group of children at the expense of

Gov. Brown's changes to TK in his May Revision budget.  (Source:  Calif. Dept. of Finance). Click to enlarge.
Gov. Brown's changes to TK in his May Revision budget. (Source: Calif. Dept. of Finance). Click to enlarge.

funding existing K-12 services.”

Since January, however, the governor has changed the language on the trailer bill several times, and the most recent version could open TK to even more children. At the same time he proposed making it a voluntary program for school districts, Gov. Brown proposed that if those districts want to enroll children who will not turn five until sometime during the academic year when they’re admitted, the state will pay average daily attendance (ADA) funding for those students from the first day of school. Sen. Simitian’s office estimates that could potentially add another 250,000 four-year-olds to TK and cost the state tens of millions of dollars.

Preschool vs. Transitional Kindergarten

Back in January, when Gov. Brown first recommended ending TK completely, he was going to use the savings to help pay down the more than $10 billion in school deferrals from the state. The May Revision changes that and instead would redirect the $91.5 million to state-funded, part-day preschool. The January budget called for cutting the preschool reimbursement to providers by 10 percent, raising the financial eligibility requirements, requiring parents to work full-time instead of attending college or a job-training program, and eliminating full-day preschool starting in 2013.

Scott Moore of Preschool California said the idea that such a plan would save money is false for a number of reasons. One is that about half the 125,000 children who miss the cutoff for kindergarten and would go to TK instead are also eligible for state-funded preschool, so the 15,500 spots that would reopen in part-day preschool wouldn’t come close to accommodating the kids who need it. In addition, Moore says there are already more than 80,000 children on the waiting list for state-funded preschool.

“What the administration is trying to do is pit the TK community against the preschool community,” said Moore. “It’s sad that we’ve gotten to a moment where politics has really taken over what is sound policy.”

The political process will be different this time around. Since lawmakers have already rejected the governor’s proposal to eliminate Transitional Kindergarten, for all practical purposes, that recommendation is no longer a part of the 2012-13 budget plan. Restoring it isn’t just a matter of reconsidering that vote; it would require an entirely new proposal to end TK, and a complete turnaround by the same legislative committees that overwhelmingly killed the idea just two months ago.

Financially strained districts on rise

Nearly a third of California students attend school in a district facing dire financial circumstances. A report released yesterday by the State Department of Education shows that 127 of California’s 1,037 school districts are now designated as either in negative or qualified budget territory. And that’s before taking the January trigger cuts into account.

2011-12 California school districts in financial distress. (Source: Calif. Dept. of Education). Click to enlarge.
2011-12 California school districts in financial distress. (Source: Calif. Dept. of Education). Click to enlarge.

Seven districts in the First Interim Status Report for 2011-12 received a negative certification, meaning they might not have enough money to get through the rest of this academic year or the next one. They include Vallejo City Unified, which was on the verge of bankruptcy in 2004 and is still paying off a $60 million bailout loan from the state.

Another 120 districts – 17 more than last year – landed in qualified status. They range from Los Angeles Unified, the largest district in the state, to La Grange Elementary School District in rural Stanislaus county, with 7 students. These districts will get through this year, but may not be able to pay their bills in the next two years.

“The financial emergency facing our schools remains both wide and deep,” said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson in a written statement. “The deep cuts made to school funding – and looming uncertainties about the future – are driving school districts to the brink of insolvency.”

For a second straight year school districts are planning their budgets without knowing whether they’ll have to take another mid-year cut. If voters reject all of the tax increase measures on the November ballot, funding will fall by about $450 per student next year. In the meantime, the March 15 deadline for preliminary layoff notices to teachers is three weeks away.

“I don’t think this list accurately reflects how serious the situation is,” said Michael Hulsizer, head of governmental affairs for the Kern County Office of Education. “Imagine one of these districts facing a $450 per student cut on top of where they are; they have no place to go other than to make cuts right now.”

That’s what Superintendent Kent Taylor is working on in Southern Kern Unified School District. A year ago the district was on the negative list, facing insolvency. This year, after renegotiating all its vendor contracts and getting the unions to accept some furlough days and reduced medical coverage, the district has moved into the positive zone. Taylor intends to keep it there, and that means getting into the weeds himself, looking for any place to save money.

2010-11 California School Districts in financial distress.  (Source: Calif. Dept. of Education) Click to enlarge.
2010-11 California School Districts in financial distress. (Source: Calif. Dept. of Education) Click to enlarge.

“Superintendents nowadays, if they want their districts to survive, have to spend a lot of time on business. Half my day is spent on finances, and that’s how we’re going to stay strategically planned for the future.”

Even the best plans can’t compete with the recession. In San Bernardino County, where the unemployment rate is nearly 12 percent, a quarter of the school districts are on the qualified list. Riverside County, with 12.5 percent unemployment, has 40 percent of its districts in qualified status. But it’s the school districts around the state capital that are reeling the most. More than 95 percent of students in Sacramento County attend one of the eight school districts that ended up with qualified certification.

It falls to the county offices of education to monitor the districts and try to help them get back on sound footing. “I send them a letter which gives them the steps we think they need to take,” explained Dave Gordon, superintendent of the County Office of Education. “Our role of fiscal oversight is not to tell them what to cut; our role is to tell them what it will take to maintain their solvency.”

One of the most dramatic downturns in the county is in Elk Grove Unified, where Gordon spent nearly a decade as superintendent. During his tenure, Elk Grove was one of the fastest growing districts in the state; they couldn’t build schools fast enough. Since then, the housing market tanked, growth stopped, the district’s enrollment fell, and, of course, the state made huge cuts in education.

Gordon said one of the biggest problems is the state deferrals that push billions of dollars in Proposition 98 funding into the following fiscal year. The state shortfall gets erased that way, but districts are left scrambling for cash to cover their expenses, and as they run out of reserves they turn to loans, often with high interest rates.

That’s why there’s so much riding on the governor’s tax initiative. Gov. Brown said the first thing he’d do with the additional funds for education would be to start to pay down the deferrals.

County offices are advising districts to again prepare for the worst, but “worse is a matter of degree nowadays,” said Gordon. “It’s all a question of how much you’re willing to prepare for the sort of doomsday cuts. What we keep saying to people is that hope is not a strategy.”

Once more around the track of school reforms in Los Angeles Unified

In a new labor agreement that embraces local school autonomy, Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent John Deasy has jumped from one school reform horse to another.

He dismounted the Public School Choice horse, thus ending the era when the school district sought to improve schools through robust competition among district-run school management teams, charters, and other complex operating arrangements. Under what has been called “portfolio” logic, the school district would assemble the best collection of schools it could, putting underperforming ones up for competitive bids while encouraging the ones that were doing well.

The labor agreement now being voted on virtually ends Public School Choice. For the next three years, no charters or external school management organizations can apply, and the district is forbidden to reconstitute a school that is making what the agreement calls but does not define as “reasonable progress.”

Deasy and United Teachers Los Angeles President Warren Fletcher saddled up a new filly — the daughter of school reforms past — called decentralization. The underlying logic is that diversity in approach to schooling is good, that many different models of instruction are needed, and that teachers and administrators know best how to design schooling and to self-regulate their jobs.

They were right to get off the old horse. It was dead or at least hobbled. The 2009 Public School Choice resolution offered by former board member Yolie Flores was an audacious idea, but political pushback tied its legs from the beginning. Its racing life was short. In the first round of applications, the school board rejected Superintendent Ray Cortines’ recommendations and awarded none of the newly constructed schools to charters. The persistently underperforming schools, which had been ordered to write competitive proposals, largely competed against themselves. Few charter or external organizations sought to run them. Conventional wisdom in the charter world is that taking over existing public schools is too fraught with pain and difficulty to be worth the effort; better to start anew.

However, the new decentralization horse does not have a good track record. LAUSD rode this horse hard during the 1990s, and both Deasy and Fletcher could learn from that trial.

The 1990s decentralization horse didn’t get fed enough. Schools that joined the LEARN project were promised budgetary flexibility, which largely never appeared, and added funding, which dried up after a few years.

There may be no food at all for the new decentralization mount. While the labor agreement promises formative assistance for struggling schools and help for planning newly decentralized ones, the state budget shortfall, with more in store next week, may truly empty the feedbag.

The 1990s decentralization horse often didn’t know where the finish line was. LEARN training focused more on adult process skills than hard-core analytics about student achievement. There was no agreement about how to measure the outcomes the schools wanted, and for most of the period California lacked statewide measurements.

The same ambiguity applies now. Will the decentralized schools be judged only by the state’s Academic Performance Index? Will teachers be evaluated by how much they contributed to test score increases? Teachers in general and UTLA in particular loathe so-called “value added” measurements, but they have not proposed an alternative. The expectations for decentralized schools, the means of evaluating them, and the consequences are all up for grabs. Without a finish line, the new school reform horse is as likely to spend its time chewing the infield grass as galloping on the track.

The 1990s school reform horse had inconsistent trainers. Teachers and principals attended sometimes extensive workshops and residencies. (Palm Springs in July. Bring gloves; your steering wheel will be too hot to touch.) They learned the process rudiments of what was called a professional learning community. But these schools were isolated within the larger LAUSD and UTLA organizations. The idea of teacher leadership was rejected by the administrative establishment as improper and by union activists as not being tough minded enough.

The 1990s school reform horse had a short season at the track. LEARN was approved by the school board in 1993 and got under way the following year. By 1999, the race was over. External supporters grew frustrated with LAUSD, and they moved on to foster charter school development, particularly those now called the Alliance Schools. Opposition in the district, school board, and union increased. Victory was declared, but the season ended.

Fletcher and Deasy may have saddled up a better horse. Using the union contract as a reform document gives reform a stable home. Contracts last longer than superintendencies or a union president’s term, and they are good at patterning behavior. Still, neither union nor district could resist the temptation to mire their new ideas on a slow muddy track of committee approvals, school votes, plan documents, and more approvals. It may never get to the starting gate.

I don’t know whether this horse will run, but I’m putting down my bet. See you at the $2 window.

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

State delays next SIG awards

It took two-and-a-half months, but the U.S. Department of Education (ED) has approved California’s request to postpone the second group of school improvement grants by a year and carry over the $66 million in federal funding for the schools, known as Cohort 2.

The State Board of Education voted to seek the waiver at its July 13, 2011 meeting, after ED officials informed the California Department of Education (CDE) that none of the 58

Minutes of State Board meeting vote on requesting a SIG waiver.  Click to enlarge.
Minutes of State Board meeting vote on requesting a SIG waiver. Click to enlarge.

schools that applied earlier this year met the criteria for funding. CDE staff told the Board they needed more time to review the proposals with the schools, discuss what changes have to be made, select the grantees, and give them a chance to develop their plans so they’re ready to go on the first day of the fall 2012 school year.

Those 58 schools that completed the lengthy and time-consuming application weren’t thrilled to hear that if and when the CDE received the waiver, it planned on reopening the application process to include all 96 schools on the state’s persistently failing schools list. Trouble is, critics say some of them are no longer failing.

Old scores no longer settled

SIG is a competitive federal program under Title I, providing $3.5 billion in grants, over three years, to the nation’s lowest-performing schools.

Under the state criteria, California identified the lowest performing five percent of schools based on their API scores.  No district could have more than 10 percent of its schools qualify.  It also excluded all schools that raised their API scores by 50 points or more over five years – a low barrier for a very low-performing school.  The result was that the combination of factors led to some higher performing being included on the list and some lower-performing schools being removed.

Those measurements used to identify Cohort 2 schools go back nearly two years, said Doug McRae, a retired test publisher who’s been critical of the state’s SIG selection process since it began.

McRae proposes another formula that’s based both on API growth and on where the school actually ranks on the state’s API scale. He suggests if a school has met or exceeded its API growth targets for at least three years, and is no longer in Decile 1 on its current API ranking, it should be removed from the list and schools now in Decile 1 be added. He dropped the data into an Excel spreadsheet (click on + sign several times to enlarge) to show that, using his measures, only 20 of the 96 schools would still be eligible to apply for SIG.  A third of the 96 schools are no longer even in Decile 1.

“If they made what California expects them to make in growth over the last three years, my viewpoint is it’s kind of hard to call them persistently low achieving,” said McRae.

CDE officials say changing the rubric would be a more complicated sell to the U.S. Department of Education than a waiver to postpone the selection process and could require rewriting part of the state proposal.  “This is still Cohort 2, even though it was delayed by a few months to do the request for applications again,” said Julie Baltazar, the administrator in CDE’s accountability and improvement division.  “We’re not reapplying for the grant, we’re just amending the time line.”

Even though API status isn’t included in the evaluation, some districts have decided not to pursue funding for schools that have been improving without the federal money and its concomitant regulations.

Los Angeles Unified School District has nearly two dozen schools on the list, and spokesperson Donna Muncey said the district has been reviewing their recent growth with an eye toward reducing the field.  “We do not anticipating submitting an application for each of the 22 schools,” Muncey said.  “Some of the schools have been making good progress in their efforts to improve teaching, learning and student achievement.”

A hiccup in continued funding

There is a possibility that it could be a short-lived victory for Cohort 2 grantees.  As of now, the CDE only has money in hand for the first year of what’s supposed to be a three-year program.

Baltazar said politics and the economy could intervene by either reducing funds for the second and third years, or cutting them altogether.  “If the federal government didn’t give us any money, then it would end,” she said.

Cohort 1 schools are facing a different hurdle.  They’re in a holding pattern, waiting to learn when, or if, the state will release year two funds.  California has the money, but the State Board voted, at that same July 13th meeting, to make the money “contingent on schools implementing all required elements of the SIG program on the first day of school year 2011-12.”

At issue is what the federal government means by increased learning time.  CDE staff determine last summer that almost none of the school programs in Cohort 1 met the requirements.  The catch was that ED wasn’t exactly forthcoming with an explanation.  State education officials have called every school to discuss what they have to do to get their funds released.  So far, no money has changed hands.

“It’s been frustrating not having the money approved, but the district is going ahead as if it were,” said Sandra Gonering, interim SIG administrator for San Bernardino City Unified School District which received $57.6 million for 11 schools for three years.

Nevertheless, she said the district is confident they’ll get the funds.

At Mission High School in San Francisco, principal Eric Guthertz said the State Board’s protracted selection process for Cohort 1 turned out to be a plus.  He said the money came so late last year that they have enough carryover to get through the first part of this year.

LAUSD, feds reach rights accord

Los Angeles Unified School District agreed to vast improvements in the way it teaches English learners and African American students after a 19-month investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights found students were being denied equal educational opportunities.

Even after years in the district, many English learners were languishing in ESL classes, never becoming fluent in English and therefore being shut out of the core academic classes they needed to graduate and enroll in college or job-training programs. Nearly 30 percent of the district’s 678,000 students are classified as English learners.

“In education, too few public school students who are not native English speakers learn English well enough, or fast enough, to prepare them for other core academic coursework, or for life after the school age years,” said U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan in a written statement.

Duncan and Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Russlynn Ali announced the voluntary agreement before the Los Angeles School Board Tuesday, calling it the first successful settlement of a civil rights enforcement action taken under the Obama administration.

Ali’s office launched the investigation in March 2010 as a compliance review to examine what was happening in the district, not in response to any complaints. It was expanded to include a look at resources and academic opportunities for African American students following complaints by local civil rights organizations and, reportedly, some Los Angeles area members of Congress.

Ali called the resolution “a model for the country” during a telephone call with reporters, and said it “will have an impact that exceeds the borders of Los Angeles and indeed California as a whole.”

Under the settlement, the district pledged to rewrite its Master Plan for English Learners describing how it will improve English language instruction and prepare English learners to take the academic subjects they need to be on track to graduate from high school ready for college.

The plan will also include coaching and professional development to improve the quality of teachers who work with English learners and African American students.

Resources for African American students

In a separate set of actions, the district agreed to implement eight plans targeted at providing equal academic resources for African American students.

  • Gifted and talented program: Develop a district-wide plan to address the disproportionate participation of black and Hispanic students in GATE.
  • Technology resources: Increase the student/computer ratio in each school and provide more technology-based instruction.
  • Library resources: Increase library collections and make sure all schools have an electronic database of library resources.
  • Community school pilot project: Develop a community school in the area serving Annalee and Leapwood Elementary Schools that includes health and social services, encourage community participation in improving student achievement, and build a sustainable and replicable model to close the achievement gap for African American students.
  • College preparedness and career readiness: Develop a program to provide college and career readiness by providing support and information to help African American students prepare for college academics.
  • Academic language proficiency: Included in the English Learners Master Plan, the district will address the language proficiency needs of African American students beginning in elementary school.
  • Equal access to effective teachers: Be accountable for learning and support by providing professional development and monitoring instruction. Also, develop a plan to increase attendance for students and staff to a minimum of 96 percent.
  • Discipline: Analyze disciplinary policies, practices, and data and use that information to modify policies, where statistics show disproportionate discipline against African American students.

Ali praised the school district for cooperating with the investigation and the remedies. LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy said that improving graduation rates and academic performance of English learners and African American students is the district’s greatest challenge.

But some civil rights advocates say the plan seems vague. “I can’t tell whether it’s simply that the district is going to develop a program regarding English learner students’ college preparedness,” said a former administration official. “It doesn’t say that they’re actually going to meet any goal or how they’re going to get there.”

They hit all the right areas, agreed John Affeldt, a civil rights attorney with Public Advocates who specializes in educational equity issues. “It’s pretty sweeping in scope what they’re promising to do, but it’s pretty short on benchmarks and enforcement details.”

There’s no immediate deadline for putting all the pieces in place. The Office for Civil Rights will monitor the agreement and won’t sign off until LAUSD is in full compliance with civil rights laws. In the meantime, said Ali, OCR officials may pop in to check the district’s progress.

Jobs bill could rescue CA teachers

President Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan spent the day Tuesday lobbying for the nearly-doomed American Jobs Act by underscoring its financial commitment to rehire laid-off teachers and retain those whose jobs are in jeopardy.

While the President traveled to Eastfield Community College in Mesquite, Texas, and Duncan spoke with reporters by telephone, the White House released a short report titled Teacher Jobs at Risk. The talking points were essentially the same: the jobs bill is a win for teachers.

Of the $447 billion in the Jobs Act, $30 billion is earmarked for states to protect some 280,000 teachers in jeopardy of losing their jobs in the coming year due to budget cuts, and to provide funding to rehire 100,000 more who were laid off over the past three years. (See page 13 of the Act for details.)

State by state funding under American Jobs Act.  Source:  US Dept. of Education (click to enlarge)
State-by-state funding under American Jobs Act. Source: US Dept. of Education (click to enlarge)

California’s share would be $3.6 billion. Of that, Los Angeles Unified School District would get about $570 million because the funds are targeted to the highest need districts and those with the largest portion of students living in poverty.

The multi-pronged lobbying approach is, perhaps, one of the few cards the administration has to try to gain traction over the opposition led by Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Virginia), who said yesterday that the bill is dead on arrival in the House of Representatives.

“Well, I’d like Mr. Cantor to come down here to Dallas and explain what in this jobs bill he doesn’t believe in,” said President Obama, calling out the congressman during his speech in Texas. “Mr. Cantor should come down to Dallas, look Kim Russell in the eye, and tell her why she doesn’t deserve to get a paycheck again. Come tell her students why they don’t deserve to have their teacher back.”

During the past three years, 30,000 certificated teachers in California and 10,000 support staff have lost their jobs, according to the State Department of Education. Last year, 20,000 teachers received layoff notices, according to the California Teachers Association, the state’s largest teachers union, but in the end all but 5,000 were rescinded.

“Every day, hardworking teachers in every state are burdened by finding work, and everywhere I went teachers shared

State and local spending on K12 education. Source: Bureau of Economic Analysis.  (click to enlarge)
State and local spending on K-12 education. Source: Bureau of Economic Analysis (click to enlarge)

stories” said Secretary Duncan during the phone call. He related some of those stories and statistics: a drop from 100 to eleven art teachers in Milwaukee; a Philadelphia music teacher who works at seven schools with a budget of $100 and is forced to teach drumming on buckets; talk of eliminating all extracurricular activities in Pittsburgh; and the possibility that California will have to shorten the school year – again.

The Act also provides funds to modernize at least 35,000 public school buildings and community college campuses by putting construction workers back to work.

Still, it’s hard to imagine how the President will turn around an intransigent Congress. California Federation of Teachers spokesman Fred Glass wouldn’t recommend that school districts count on this federal windfall “since unfortunately they face the same kind of undemocratic rules in congress as they do in California. I suppose it looks grim.”

Teacher evaluation bill 2012 priority

A bill that would vastly change how teachers are evaluated is 75 percent of the way there, the bill’s sponsor, Assemblyman Felipe Fuentes, reports.

Of course, it’s the last 25 percent – down to the last disputed detail – that will make or break bills as potentially contentious as AB 5. Already, those who believe the bill doesn’t go far enough in creating effective evaluations are proposing significant changes that the state’s teachers unions will just as strongly oppose. One current part of the bill that will generate controversy – and probably a lawsuit – would keep data tying student test results to teachers out of the hands of the public and the newspapers like the Los Angeles Times, which created an uproar last year by publishing “value-added” ratings of teachers  based on test results. If used in teacher evaluations, the data would become part of a teacher’s personnel file – and private.

Last week Fuentes, a Democrat from San Fernando, agreed to delay  a vote on the bill until next year. One reason is that there’s plenty of work to do; another is that Los Angeles Unified asked for the delay, pending the outcome of its legal dispute with United Teachers Los Angeles. The union has sought to stop the district from designing and piloting a new evaluation process. The extent to which districts must negotiate the details of the evaluation – or can decide criteria on their own – will be a key aspect of the bill.

The bill would require that all districts adopt teacher evaluation systems grounded in best practices as measured in a combination of ways, including evidence of teacher impact on student achievement and observations by trained observers. Those best practices would include the teacher’s ability to set high expectations, create an engaging learning environment, do differentiated instruction to reach pupils at various level of achievement, use student tests to improve classroom learning, collaborate with other teachers, and establish good relationships with parents, administrators, and the community.

Praise for the effort

Advocates for strong evaluations, including Los Angeles Unified and the non-profit Education Trust-West, praise Fuentes for taking on a tough issue and creating a sound framework.

“We have maintained from the start that the state has a role in setting parameters and providing guidance for best ways to grow and develop teachers and administrators,” said Drew Furedi, an adviser on evaluations to Los Angeles Unified Superintendent John Deasy.

But the district and Ed Trust-West have pointed to weaknesses of the bill or aspects they argue should be more explicit.

  • Timing: In replacing the 30-year old**, weakly written Stull Act, AB 5 would be a state mandate, with funding by the state, at a cost of tens of millions of dollars. Because of that Fuentes would tie the bill to improved revenues, specifically the elimination of the “deficit factor” – a measure of how much the state is underfunding the revenue limit to K-12 schools (about $6 billion now). Fuentes, who chairs the Assembly Appropriations Committee, is confident it can be implemented in 2013-14, but others say that is based on wildly optimistic predictions of a better economy or higher taxes. Arun Ramanathan, executive director of Ed Trust-West, says the system should be adopted regardless of the current budget. The issue, he says, “is a matter of state guidance and local will, not funding.”
  • Local discretion: In the bill’s current form, districts and unions would negotiate which measures to use in evaluations and how much weight they should be given. Teachers unions oppose using standardized test data as a significant factor, if at all, and point to research showing the unreliability of the data. Ed Trust-West, on the other hand, fears that districts will settle for “soft data” – a teacher’s relationship in the community – instead of “hard data” of student results. It wants the Legislature to require data on students’ academic growth as a “principal” component, counting at least 30 percent of an evaluation. Deasy also favors 30 percent and argues that districts under current law already have the discretion to require it.
  • Dismissals: The bill is silent on how long a district would have to wait before dismissing teachers with unsatisfactory reviews, other than to say that they would continue to be reviewed annually until they were rated satisfactory or dismissed. Deasy recommends dismissal after two years of no progress under the guidance of a mentor through the Peer Assistance and Review program. Ed Trust-West recommends one year of remediation and then placing a poor-performing teacher in a probationary status.
  • Levels of performance: The bill refers to either satisfactory or unsatisfactory performance ratings. That’s the way it is under the Stull Act, and a tiny percentage of teachers currently get bad ratings. Ed Trust-West wants the Legislature to add categories, such as “needs improvement,” setting up discussions with teachers’ plans for improvement.  The biggest benefit of the bill, Fuentes told a Senate Education Committee earlier this summer, is not to weed out the 5 percent of bad teachers but to help the other 95 percent with “real-time feedback” to enhance  classroom instruction. 
  • Frequency: The bill would require annual evaluations for probationary teachers, biannually for tenured teachers, and at least every five years for tenured teachers with a decade of experience. Ed Trust-West wants annual evaluations required for all teachers.

Fuentes says he will consider changes to the bill, such as incorporating teachers as peer reviewers and adding parental input, and will make AB 5 his top priority for next year. He plans to meet with Gov. Jerry Brown to discuss the financial implications and why the expenses for professional development are worth the investment.

** Correction: My math was off: The Stull Act (1971) is actually 40 years old.

Still waiting for fix for SIG grants

The first day of school is just over two weeks away in San Francisco Unified School District and they still don’t know whether they’ll get their second year of funding under the federal School Improvement Grant (SIG) program.  That’s the program that awards up to $2 million per year to the lowest-achieving, highest-poverty schools.

Nine of the district’s ten SIG schools were cited by the State Department of Education for not meeting all the requirements for renewal of their grants. (The tenth SIG school was shut down). Two weeks ago, the State Board of Education (SBE) voted not to distribute year 2 grants to schools that aren’t in full compliance. The question is, compliance with what?

“We are in conversation with the state to clarify what we can do about corrective action,” said Gentle Blythe, the district’s communication director. “In most cases it was a question of not being clear on what the state was expecting.”

San Francisco is hardly alone in scratching its head. “I’m communicating with other school districts and none of them has received information on anything,” said Nader Delnavaz, who oversees SIG grants in Los Angeles Unified School District.

That pretty much sums up what the state is saying about the U.S. Department of Education (ED). “The standards that are emerging from Washington are a little difficult to understand,” said Fred Tempes, in what many schools would consider more than a bit of an understatement. Tempes directs WestEd’s California Comprehensive Assistance Center, which has a contract with the State Department of Education to help with implementation and monitoring of SIG grants.

A moving target

From "Guidance on School Improvement Grants" June 29, 2010, U.S. Department of Education (click image to enlarge)
From "Guidance on School Improvement Grants" June 29, 2010, U.S. Department of Education (click image to enlarge)

At the heart of the confusion is what the U.S. Department of Education (ED) means by increased learning time. Schools that opted for the transformation* or turnaround** reform models in the SIG program (85 of the 90 in California), are required to provide additional instruction in core subjects. Sounds simple enough. But in a variation of an adage, if something seems too simple, it probably isn’t.

San Francisco thought it meant extra instructional time for students who scored below or far below basic on the California standards tests. Nope, it must be for all students. Other districts proposed Saturday school and summer school. Nope, it has to be built into the regular academic year calendar. Oakland Unified’s SIG schools extended the day to 5 o’clock three days a week and 4 o’clock one day a week, and contracted with Citizen Schools to provide academic and homework support, tutoring and an apprenticeship program. Nope, not quite right according to the state.

Kilian Betlach, assistant principal of Elmhurst Community Prep Middle School in Oakland, says he was surprised to be listed as out of compliance, especially since his school’s approved SIG application was very specific about how they planned to meet the increased learning time.


“What’s unclear to me is where is that decision coming from? Is it that the state received feedback from the federal government that they want to see something different? Is it that the state gained greater clarity over this?” wondered Betlach.

That’s one of the key issues being raised by the Association of California School Administrators (ACSA) in a two-page memo sent Wednesday to the State Department of Education. “We’re questioning the ability to implement what appears to be this moving-target definition of extended learning time,” said Sherry Griffith, ACSA’s legislative advocate.

Waiting on ED

State Department of Education officials share the frustration.  They’ve been trying to pin down ED on a working definition of extended time since before the state board meeting two weeks ago.

“They are very eager to get this answer and get it out to districts; they completely understand the urgency and they’re working on it as best they can,” said Sue Burr, executive director of the State Board of Education.

The latest back and forth between the state and U.S. departments of education has focused on the nitty-gritty details and nuances.  California’s education code makes it difficult to implement some of the federal requirements, said WestEd’s Tempes.  There are limitations to the kind of support that paraprofessionals can provide, and extending the day for credentialed teachers requires collective bargaining.

There’s also the question of what’s meant by extended learning time: 30 minutes a day? 60 minutes? Two hours?  Federal education officials say the answer should be research based and site studies indicating a minimum of 300 hours a school year, but the findings aren’t consistent. “What the research says is there is no right amount of time, it depends on how you use the time,” said Tempes.

At a meeting he attended yesterday morning with state education officials, Tempes said it appeared that an agreement with ED was near – possibly even by the afternoon.  There was no word from Washington, however, so now they’re hoping for something today or tomorrow – hope being the operative word.

* Transformation Model: The LEA implements a series of required school improvement strategies, including replacing the principal who led the school prior to implementation of the transformation model, and increasing instructional time.

** Turnaround Model: The school district or charter school (LEA) undertakes a series of major school improvement actions, including replacing the principal and rehiring no more than 50 percent of the school’s staff; adopting a new governance structure; and implementing an instructional program that is research‐based and vertically aligned from one grade to the next, as well as aligned with California’s adopted content standards.

(descriptions from EdSource and Strategic Education Services)

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.

Start of something big in LA …

So much for the promised webcast of the United Way’s education summit  Tuesday in Los Angeles featuring U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Never happened. Technical problems. But author, blogger and Claremont Graduate University research professor Charles Taylor Kerchner was this Johnny’s on-the-spot reporter and offers an excellent account of the day.

By Charles Taylor Kerchner

For the first time since the eclipse of  LEARN, the massive school reform program of the 1990s,  Los Angeles has hosted a broad scale education summit designed to bring the city together around support for public education.  “There had been a lot of what I call ‘silo’ conversations.  We needed to make sure the whole community was here,” said Elise Buik, president of United Way of Greater Los Angeles, which organized the program.

Buik’s intent, and that of the United Way board, is to use the half-day event to kick off a longer more substantive discussion of the future of public education.  A parent summit is planned for next month.

Charles Taylor Kerchner
Charles Taylor Kerchner

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan delivered a keynote that reiterated several themes found in his recent speeches.  Tough times may be the “new normal,” Duncan said but, “don’t go into survival mode … Crisis gives us a perfect opportunity, not just a perfect storm.”  Duncan and other speakers zeroed in on a handful of opportunities that Los Angeles might seize.

The first of these is building a new relationship with labor.  The contract between the Los Angeles Unified School District and its teachers is up for renegotiation.  John Deasy, the incoming superintendent, and Julie Washington, the “new sheriff in town” at United Teachers Los Angeles, will negotiate for the first time.  They will sit down in an environment that expects the labor contract to be used as an instrument of reform.  Duncan raised that expectation, saying that Los Angeles needs productive, tough collaboration to solve problems, not just “a kumbaya moment.”  He referenced productive labor contracts in cities such as New Haven, Conn., and the recent labor-management conference that the Department of Education sponsored in Denver.

The second opportunity is to anchor discussions about progress in real data about student achievement.  “It’s time to stop pointing fingers,” said Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a remark that was echoed by others, and talk about which students are learning what.  Connecting student achievement to teacher evaluation — a wildly controversial subject even a year ago — appeared to be a somewhat settled issue.  The question is how, and what data?  Judy Burton, president of the Alliance for College Ready Schools, has been developing a  teacher evaluation system along with other charter management organizations.  Similar efforts are under way within LAUSD and will become one of the items of negotiation with UTLA.  In both cases, the evaluation systems under development are sophisticated and involve multiple measures, not just scores on the state’s annual test.

Once the finger pointing stops, the work of designing teacher evaluation appears difficult but at least discussable.  Washington asked for evaluations differentiated by the stages of a teacher’s career.  “We want beginning teachers to demonstrate competency,” she said, but competency should be followed by mastery and then leadership by the more experienced teachers.

Duncan asked for political help in getting Congress to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that guides the federal government’s largest investment in public education, in part to allow the government to base school ratings on a broader swath of data than it now does.  The current version of the law has few rewards for schools getting better: “The only good thing for a school is not being listed as a failure.”

The third opportunity in the current crisis is to begin to redesign teaching and learning.  “The system’s obsolete,” said retired business executive and former ambassador Frank Baxter, who advocated the blending of live teachers and computer-aided instruction that has become part of some of the Alliance for College Ready Schools campuses.  Both Duncan and Villaraigosa urged rethinking of schooling using neighborhood and community resources.  (For my thoughts on redesigning learning and teaching, see Learning 2.0.)

Incoming superintendent Deasy promised rapid and unrelenting attention to student progress, echoed the theme of  “no excuses,” and issued a call to the interested, “if you want to be in a place where things are happening fast, pack your bags and come to L.A.”

What’s different now?

For someone who has watched and studied efforts at education reform in Los Angeles for more than 20 years, Tuesday’s gathering was both encouraging and sobering.  Others have been on this path before and have come away with sobering realization that “this stuff is a lot harder than I thought it would be.”  Los Angeles Unified has auditioned scores of reforms and has largely been unsuccessful in sustaining them.  So, it’s reasonable to ask: What’s different now?

Compared with 1991, when LEARN — the last great civic-school reform — was brewing, all the parties are much more focused on student achievement.  There are good reasons to criticize test-score accountability.  It has done some bad things, but it has focused the system on outputs rather than making the assumption that changing the powers and responsibilities of adults would automatically produce trickle-down results for students.  Starting with students and working backward to think about how adults need to change creates a stronger beginning place.

As in the current era, LEARN began as Los Angeles Unified entered a fiscal crisis.  But the current one is worse.  It may be that even the business community will come to see that schools in Los Angeles and California have been on a starvation diet, and that finding new sources of operating revenue need to be part of the reform solution.  There is a real and open question of whether the system has the capacity to engage in what school people call “building the airplane as it rolls down the runway,” or whether decades of contraction have so hollowed out LAUSD that it does not have the capacity to change.

LEARN was anchored in the city’s large core businesses, most of which no longer exist.  This time, reform will of necessity need to be more grass roots, more anchored in community based organizations, non-profits, and in smaller businesses.  The open question is whether the scattered business community can coalesce around the necessity of lifting California and Los Angeles from the bottom ranks of virtually every education index, and whether it can become politically possible to blend well-designed reform with well-measured revenue infusions.