Big changes for better teachers

Report for LAUSD has larger implications
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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).

Compensation

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.

Tenure

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).

Evaluations

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.

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19 Comments

  1. One thing that will certainly not improve education for urban districts is more testing.   My brothers and sisters and I grew up on welfare, with a mentally ill mother and an absentee father.  When we were teens and my mother was committed again and again to mental institutions, we had to steal food, clothing and toiletries to survive.  Yet, today, we have all broken the cycle of poverty and abuse for ourselves and our children.  How? We had exceptional teachers.  They didn’t just dispense facts.  Instead, they provided opportunities for us to confirm our self worth.  Money is not what is needed to improve education.  Making it possible for caring, competent teachers to make a meaningful connection with EVERY child in the classroom makes all the difference. A high school teacher’s few positive comments scribbled in my weekly journal were enough to sustain me for a week. Soon, one week led to another and before I knew it, I was graduating from college.  This magical connection in the classroom can never be measured by a standardized test.

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  2. These are all common sense changes to the law and we really don’t need any more studies or reports to confirm their benefits.  The problem is a matter of will.  Everyone knows these changes would help kids but I can’t name one Democrat in the entire Legislature that would support any of these changes. 

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  3. Thank you, Katie Roberta Stevens.  It is unfortunate that your comments, that is by not parroting the “conventional wisdom,” will fall on blind eyes and deaf ears.
    This “study” is wrong on so many levels it’s hard to know where to begin. Let’s start with the National Research Council, the nation’s highest scientific  body, who previously debunked  test score based accountability for teachers and who has lately debunked test based education period.
     
    Then there was the paper by the typically neo-liberal National center on Education and the Economy who compared US standards/test based education “reform” with what those nation’s who outscore the US on international tests are doing. Those nations, notably Singapore and Finland, do none of the things we do.  Finland not only pays teachers to continue with higher education, it demands all teachers have an MA.

    The US, in fact, has been on the standards/testing jihad for a decade now (longer in CA) with little to show for it. One sure-fire way to deal with lousy policies is to double down on accountability (accountability for those on the bottom of power hierarchy) and by some strange alchemy it will be transformed into good policy. Right.

    So now LAUSD and UTLA, rather than applying resources and energy into real improvement for kids, have a script for disruptive and protracted conflict sure to leave all students further behind.

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  4. It seems to me that student performance is clearly the most important factor in judging a teacher’s competence.  The harder question is how to judge the students’ performance.  Standardized tests should play a part, but aren’t there other options out there as well?  Why does the conversation about “student performance” always run up against the “standardized test” debate?  The two are separate – though clearly related – issues.

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  5. Thanks for speaking out, Gary.  I would just add that I’d like some context on the bad teacher evaluation rate.  What is the comparison?  What is suggested?  What number would make people happy?  I’m NOT saying that evaluation systems are wonderful, but what I’d rather see is an evaluation system that helps 100% of teachers improve continually, rather than go in search of an extra 0.5% or 1.2% or 5% or whatever number of undiscovered “bad teachers” we  should be looking for.  Also, it should be noted that the issues around seniority and transfers and layoffs are symptoms, not sources of problems.  When states and districts dedicate enough time and resources to do their job properly, to create the workplace and learning places we need – when they show their sense of accountability – then we’ll certainly have far fewer layoffs, and likely fewer transfers.

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  6. Because, studentteach, the parameters of the debate were created by people who have no understanding of what it is that Katie Roberta (above) is talking about. Education debate is constrained by policy makers who have bought into a business model of using simplistic “metrics” to judge education. It,  perhaps, makes sense to evaluate widgets based on metrics and spread sheets but this is not true for art, learning, and various other valuable human endeavors.

    For fun sometime, watch Robin Williams playing a teacher in Dead Poet’s Society. In one scene he has the students following the directions of the author of one of the textbooks. The task is to use “metrics” to graph the “value” of a poem. Williams tells the students that this is hogwash, you can’t graph the majesty of great poetry. He tells the students to rip those pages from their text. This is based on a true story. The teacher is fired for being a real teacher and not showing “fidelity” to the text. “Fidelity” is one of the qualities recognized today as being a “highly effective teacher.” Textbook publishers not only create the texts, they create the tests. Woe to the teacher who questions publishing corporations. Real teachers, like the one Williams portrays, face dismissal for acts of courage.

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  7. Thank you to all the Mr. Keating’s who don’t teach to the test!

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  8. I actually think that the 2 year evaluation may be better than a longer time period, if one’s goal is to assure that newly hired teachers are rigorously mentored and evaluated, and that only the best remain. At the end of a year and a half, you should have a pretty good sense if this person is a good fit for the school, and if the person is either already doing well or takes direction in a way that is promising.
     
    A 3 or 4 year evaluation system oddly has the effect that those evaluations and that support is less urgent, and it may be easier for teachers to gain tenure ‘by accident’ because fewer people have their eye on the clock and are really thinking about getting this person up to speed as quickly as possible.
     
    4 years is a long time to have an ineffective employee.

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  9. I question the portion under compensation.  Doesn’t it say “BA+” when it is counting units?
    A teacher who got a credential in the last 5 years would have 50 units for the credential- if they need to have a 2nd credential 53 units.  (Special Ed is more.)  Add a Masters at 30 units and a teacher is at 83 units.  Add  the ongoing requirement for professional development (approx 5 units every 5 years), as there are no lifetime credentials, and a teacher with 15 years experience could have exactly 98 units, although more likely for a teacher with 20 years as the Masters would also count towards the first 5.
    Getting credit for the same course, unless it’s a course involving aspects that could be completely changed in 5 years (current technology has and might in the future), does seem a bit unfair.

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  10. I think that the growing chorus against teachers taking (contracted) sick days needs to be research-tested.  Teachers spend their working hours in known illness incubators: schools.
    I’ve been teaching for over ten years.  In that time, I’ve had whooping cough, mononucleosis, and enough colds and flus to keep the makers of Sudafed profitable.  Every one of these illnesses can be traced to students in my class.
    I get sick more often than the average worker.  I therefore take more sick days.  Having to report my illnesses to a central administrator isn’t going to make a difference.  Nor will requiring a doctor’s note for every absence.  It only assumes worst intentions on my part.
    Given the difficulty of making last-minute substitute plans and the chaos that often awaits when returning from an illness, I doubt that most teachers are spending their sick days heedlessly and without cause.

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  11. Intellectually dishonest is a euphemism for the propaganda piece published by the so-called NCTQ. How anyone could defend a report that had all of its “conclusions” developed a priori in order to satisfy the political needs of the privatization junta of LAUSD and their billionaire backers is beyond my comprehension. From top to bottom, the NCTQ, and all the documents it produces, are steeped in neoliberal logic.
    I read the “report” three times, and was astonished at how vapid and vacuous it was. Quoting other non-peer reviewed papers funded by the selfsame plutocrats? Any self respecting academic would be ashamed to publish such rubbish. Other than demonstrating that there’s jobs for people that can dress up propaganda as scholarly, I found little of the report to be based in fact, and most of it sounding like it was written by the libertarian hacks at Reason magazine, or by Heartland’s  arch-reactionary Ben Boychuk.

    Of course, I didn’t just read it, I wrote about it just as Dr. John Thompson and Martha Infante have. Although my article is linked in both their articles, let me provide the link again.

    http://www.schoolsmatter.info/2011/06/nctqs-lausd-reports-highly-questionable.html

    In the end the NTCQ and all of its so-called research is nothing more than a me-too right wing think tank with the acumen to present itself as moderate right of center “reformers” as to provide DFER types dubious “research” for use a bludgeon against our communities and against the hard working women and men that teach in our public schools.

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  12. Just a clarification of fact.  In our district (and in most other districts that I have direct knowledge of) teachers on probation (without guarantee of due process) are evaluated EVERY year.  In addition, many districts have specific teacher training/support programs in place that ensure teachers have requisite skills and support while learning to implement them;  such programs also work to identify those who aren’t going to make it in the profession.
    As for the suggestion that teachers be evaluated every year, forever – with what resources?  Evaluation, even at the minimal level that is now the norm, takes a great deal of time.  For instance, in our school, a fairly small one, we have three administrators to evaluate 55 teachers.  This doesn’t seem like much, but a single evaluation requires an hour to meet about standards to be evaluated, an hour for a formal evaluation, another hour to meet to go over the formal evaluation, and at least two more hours for paperwork and, hopefully, frequent shorter visits during the year.  If an administrator takes his/her job seriously, then in addition to the already crippling load of work each has to take on (filling out documentation for the state and federal government for every little action taken along the way, dealing with parents and students and teachers, supervision of students at the school and at extracurricular activities, reviewing programs, going to meetings at the district and meetings to coordinate school policies, and then more paperwork) this means each would be spending 91 hours a year JUST in evaluating students.  That’s over two weeks out of a 50 week year, based on a 40 hour week (and most administrators work considerably MORE than 40 hours a week, just like their teachers).  OK, that may not seem like much, but as enumerated above, it’s a lot on top of their other tasks.  Is the state going to add money for this duty?  No.  It can’t even pay for current books, desks that don’t fall apart, or hot water in restrooms.  One of the best things the state has done lately, in my opinion, is to allow districts to evaluate teachers who have a long record of excellent performance to only be evaluated every five years.

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  13. Agreed.  It takes at least two hours to prepare for a sub, and then about two days to clean up afterwards – we only take sick days when we have to.

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  14. Thank you, Ms. Stevens, for your affirmation of the real work teachers do – and why we’re willing to keep doing it, in spite of everything.

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  15. Helping kids.  That slogan has been beat like a dead horse.
    Why not just say Pro-life.

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  16. Mr. Eric Hanushek blew a gasket when the NRC pretty much threw his research out the window.  That says it all.

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  17. An open letter to the edu-reformers:You proudly display your credentials.  You offer ONE solution, say it is the ONLY solution.  You say we have NO time to implement your recommendations.Hyman Rickover said stupid people ought to be dead.  He pushed people out of the way and prototyped the BWR and PWR using sea water and a condenser in a submarine with a 28 ft beam. He did NOT accept the ONE solution fallacy.  He found smart people and he made it work.So, either come up with things that WORK, or get out of the way.  There are others, perhaps smarter, who are READY to try to do things that will work for all parties.Private enterprise has NEVER accepted the one solution offer.  They reject it, and so should teachers and students.The VAM model has been sold as the ONLY objective measure.  Baloney.Find another alternative, or get out of the way.FInally, stop posting your academic credentials and produced papers.  GIVE US AN ACCURACY RATE.

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  18. This report is the same old same old.
    We need a Hyman Rickover to level the edu-establishment, and get rid of the one solution ideologues. This guy REJECTED the one solution fallacy.  He built a team and prototyped the BWR and PWR reactors and fit them in a 28 ft beam submarine.
    He was not kicking tail on the enlisted. He TRAINED THEM.  He booted many officers and fellow admirals.  He was cruel to them.
    And that is what needs to happen here.  Train the teachers and fire the bureaucracy.  It has worked before and it will work again.
    Let’s start with every single think tank out there or DC located advisory panel.
    They have a one solution agenda.
    We need them to start attaching an accuracy rate for their policies to their names.

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