Student scores in evaluations

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next step: negotiating compliance

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

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

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

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

Signal to other districts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Villaraigosa’s Stull Act amendment

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

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

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

John Deasy’s pressure chamber

Los Angeles Unified Superintendent John Deasy was asked to talk about a career failure during a breakout session Wednesday at NewSchools Venture Fund’s annual Summit in Burlingame, the Lollapalooza for education reformers. Deasy talked about his first effort to move forward a multiple-measure teacher evaluation system combined with tenure and teacher compensation reform while superintendent in Prince George’s County, Md. This was years before the Obama Administration pushed the issue in Race to the Top and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan put it at the top of the agenda in a labor-management summit in Denver.

“It all sounded good on paper,” he acknowledged, “but this  proved to be a huge problem. There was no appetite at the state level. When it got sticky with labor unions, predictably – and I was hell bent on it – there was no national context, and  I was left alone with a great idea.”

Deasy did eventually create the system and pushed it through, but, he acknowledged, “it was always compromised from day one because there was never basis at the state and national level to explain why we needed to move to it.”

John Deasy
John Deasy

Shift to May 2011, and Deasy, one month on the job, has context working for him: New teacher evaluation systems are being rushed forward in many states – in some ways wisely; in many cases, using test scores as the predominant factor, not. The Teacher Effectiveness Task Force, created by Deasy’s predecessor, Ramon Cortines, has proposed a new teacher evaluation process, along with differentiated compensation, new tenure laws, and an end to layoffs strictly by seniority. Deasy has district trustees behind him. And Los Angeles is a lead district in California Office to Reform Education, or CORE, which had made collaboration on teacher evaluations a priority.

But the  leadership of United Teachers Los Angeles is balking at including the impact of any student standardized test scores as a multiple measure in a new system. Deasy wants student test scores to comprise 30 percent of a teacher’s evaluation, but that’s the maximum, and not a hard and fast figure, he told me during an interview. (Getting this man in perpetual motion to sit down for 15 minutes was not easy.)

By his own admission, in the caldron that is LAUSD politics, Deasy said he has little time: six months, at the most a year on the job, to make good on his stated priorities, or good will and trust will dissipate. Revamping evaluations is at the top of the list.

Other districts have moved deliberately on evaluations, but the reality of LAUSD politics, he told me, is that his board faces reelection in 18 months, and the mayoral election is less than two years away. Time is ticking.

“What matters is to do what you say you are going to do – and be transparent about how you did it,” he said.

On officially taking office last month, after serving as superintendent in waiting for eight months, Deasy listed five goals and 15 performance metrics with ambitious annual targets. He will be judged by the progress:

  • Increasing  the graduation rate (70 percent by the class of 2013-14, compared with 55 percent in 2009-10, with huge gains in students qualifying for a four-year university);
  • Attaining proficiency for all (English language arts, elementary math, algebra, and reclassification of Engish learners);
  • Raising  the numbers of students and staff with 96 percent attendance ;
  • Engaging parents (doubling numbers of parents who fill out satisfaction surveys);
  • Improving safety in schools (lowering violent and non-violent suspensions by about 20 percent).

Everyone in the district will know the 15 metrics, he said. They will be “the guard rails when people want to steer off course.” And the way to achieve them is to improve instruction. “That is the fundamental work that we do as a district.”

The teacher evaluation system will have four goals:

  • Identify and celebrate top performers;
  • Provide specific ways to improve the practice of teaching;
  • Identify underperforming teachers and call for remediation;
  • Create leadership opportunities for teachers without leaving the classroom for administrative jobs. (The latter would imply a change in pay levels – something that would have to be negotiated.)

Within a day or so, Deasy will release the numbers and names of schools that have agreed to pilot the multiple measure evaluation system that the district has been drafting. How students perform on standardized tests will be one of many benchmarks.

The pilot program next year will be low stakes – teachers won’t be held to the results, and teachers facing discipline action won’t be included. Deasy says the contract with teachers permits this, but he knows UTLA will oppose, possibly fight, the pilot program.

But Deasy says, “I have been overwhelmed by the emails from teachers who want to be involved in the system – thousands of them.”

They may make the difference if Deasy is to avoid the resistance and failings he encountered years ago in Maryland the first time around.

Mayor Villaraigosa attacks UTLA

Los Angeles Mayor Antionio Villaraigosa, who cut  his teeth organizing for United Teachers of Los Angeles, unloaded on the union in a speech Tuesday at a conference in Sacramento sponsored by the Public Policy Institute of California.

Characterizing the UTLA union leadership as “one, unwavering roadblock to reform,” the mayor called on the union to come to “the reform table, ready with ideas” – specifically to change tenure laws and teacher evaluations, which he called currently “meaningless.” He disparaged the process of awarding tenure, a system of complex due process rights, to 97 percent of teachers after only two years on the job.

Villaraigosa has tangled with the UTLA before, most recently when he supported the ACLU in filing suit to block layoffs by seniority that decimated young staffs in some of the 21 low-performing schools the mayor brought under his control through his Partnership Through Los Angeles Schools. But his remarks were unusually confrontational for a mayor who, along with other leading Democrats, has steadfastly allied himself with organized labor. Villaraigosa directly referred to the growing split between teachers unions and Democrats who are calling for school reforms on behalf of another core group of Democratic constituents: minorities and low-income voters.

While reaffirming his support for the right of workers to unionize and bargain, he added, “… union leaders need to take notice that it is their friends, the very people who have supported them and the people whom they have supported, who are carrying the torch of education reform and crying out for the unions to join them.”

Villaraigosa called “our unsound, unstable and insufficient school finance system and our lack of a meaningful evaluation system to ensure an effective teacher in every classroom” two of the biggest problems facing public schools.

But even with an effective evaluation system, he said, “we cannot continue to automatically guarantee lifetime employment to all teachers, nor can we make decisions about assignments, transfers and layoffs solely on the basis of seniority. Tenure and seniority must be reformed or we will be left with only one option: eliminating it entirely.”

In a panel discussion (which I moderated) following Villaraigosa’s speech, California Teachers Association  President David Sanchez said that classroom teachers should not be blamed for problems that have been caused by devastating budget cuts. And he warned that the current school environment, heightened by layoffs, would scare off  potential teachers needed to replace the 100,000 teachers who will retire in the next decade.

Fresno Unified Superintendent Mike Hanson, another panelist, said that if forced to make a binary choice, he’d side with the mayor. But it shouldn’t come down to that. Lasting progress in Fresno has resulted through collaboration with teachers, with a common focus on student achievement, he said.

And Stanford University School of Education professor Linda Darling-Hammond said she was taken aback by Villaraigosa’s reference to eliminating the process in which bad teachers get pushed from school to school. “This isn’t just about doing away with the ‘Dance of the Lemons,’ it is about chopping down the trees that grow bad lemons,” the mayor said.

Darling-Hammond said that teachers should be trained and professionally supported to develop skills and good teaching practices. A good orchardist carefully feeds, prunes and cultivates a harvest – and doesn’t arbitrarily cut down 10 percent of the trees in the orchard every year, she said.

UTLA President A. J. Duffy issued the following response to Villaraigosa’s speech, as reported in Jack Chang’s blog in the Sacramento Bee: “Schools succeed when everyone – parents, teachers, school districts, and the community – work together. UTLA has and continues to work in collaboration with all stakeholders. Pointing fingers and laying blame does not help improve our schools. UTLA will continue our partnership with all parties to overcome the devastating effects of the  budget cuts on the education program for our students.”

That commitment notwithstanding, the UTLA and CTA are said to be gearing up for a multi-million dollar campaign next year to oust reformers on the Los Angeles Unified school board.