Category Archives: Teacher Development

Teacher Development

Dismissal bill falters in Assembly

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

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

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

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

Narrow band of ‘egregious’ cases

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

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

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

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

Current law works

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leaders who don’t protect students from predators violate public trust

As a former counselor in a facility for teenagers who had been physically and sexually abused, I witnessed the indelible impact of this abuse on young men and women. As I read the stories about the sexual abuse scandal at Miramonte Elementary School in Los Angeles Unified, I remembered these young people and the destruction that twisted adults had wrought on their lives. Then I waited for the calls for reform from those with the power to make changes.

After all, the allegations are monstrous. The possibility that school officials may have known about the sexual abuse and done nothing is appalling. The fact that the Los Angeles Unified had to pay an alleged pedophile $40,000 to leave the school rather than spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to follow teacher dismissal laws is unbelievable. Worst of all is the knowledge that this situation could have been prevented by lawmakers in Sacramento.

Three years ago, the Los Angeles Times documented multiple cases of teachers who had abused students with little or no consequences. The articles revealed how the ten-step, state-mandated dismissal process for certificated staff including teachers (all other employees have the normal legal protections against arbitrary dismissal) protects abusive and incompetent adults from any accountability. Yet, instead of fixing these laws, most of the Sacramento power structure yawned and waited for the outrage to dissipate rather than confront their supporters in the statewide teachers unions. As a result, we have Miramonte.

Defenders of the current system like to argue that Miramonte is an isolated situation. But those who have been in school systems know that this is far from the truth. Recently, I talked with an attorney who had represented districts in dismissal cases. He shared story after story of high-cost cases to remove teachers who had either physically or sexually abused students – including male teachers who had raped impressionable female students and called their actions “relationships.” In these cases, the districts had been willing to spend millions to use the dismissal process with no guarantee of success.

I shared with him a story about a health-class teacher who was physically aggressive and sexually forward toward students. Despite student and parent complaints, nothing happened. The standard advice from our attorneys to school leaders was, “document the incidents and create an improvement plan.” For experienced school administrators who had already tried these steps, this advice was laughable. Finally, I received a report of a new problem. A female student complained that he had taught her class wearing loose shorts and no underwear so that his privates were clearly visible. Based on this complaint, our lawyers agreed to “counsel him out.”

Now, when a system has become so degraded that the threshold for “counseling out” of the profession is not job performance, but the exposure of one’s privates to a classroom of teenagers, there is clearly a need for change. This situation, Miramonte, and the earlier cases documented by the L.A. Times should raise troubling questions for those lawmakers protecting the current system. How many more teachers with similar histories have been “counseled out” and ended up in other schools? How many have had their records expunged and continued to teach? How many have been transferred or made their way to high-need schools in poor and immigrant communities where the parents may be less aware and more trusting?

Similar questions have been raised in other abuse scandals in powerful institutions such as the Catholic Church and Penn State. Like those cases, defenders of the current system talk about the importance of due process and assail anyone recommending reform for “attacking the profession.” In this instance, the accusation will be that critics are “bashing teachers.” In any context, these arguments lack credibility.

Not only is the existing system bad for students and communities, it is fundamentally bad for the teaching profession. First, the millions of dollars spent trying to remove a few bad apples and training administrators on the ten-step dismissal process could and should be spent on instructional improvement. Second, the predictable futility of the ten-step process undermines the credibility of the evaluation system overall. Most importantly, given the likelihood of similar cases coming to light, lawmakers should be making every effort to reform the system to prevent future collateral damage to the profession.

Senate Bill 1530 by Democratic Sen. Alex Padilla would do a great deal to fix this situation by modifying the existing dismissal process for teachers accused of serious misconduct including sex, violence, or drugs. (A broader bill by Republican Sen. Bob Huff that would have encompassed a wider array of misconduct and abuse accusations failed to get out of committee.) SB 1530 has the support of children’s advocates, school districts including LAUSD, and L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s office. Predictably, it is opposed by both statewide teachers unions. Sadly, it has the silence of many of their key allies, including our most powerful education leaders: Governor Jerry Brown, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, and Speaker of the Assembly John Perez.

Now that the bill has moved out of the Senate and into the Assembly, its opponents will work hard to defeat it. They will lobby their longtime allies and the chairs of important committees. They will work to derail the bill with the aid of longtime legislative staffers who have always prioritized their friends in the CTA over any other interest. And if all else fails, they will take their case to the governor.

For the average citizen, taxpayer, and voter, it must boggle the mind that Sacramento would even be debating this; that this situation wouldn’t have been fixed years ago; and that our most powerful elected leaders won’t commit to fixing it now. Now many of these same leaders and other legislators will be stumping around the state asking the citizens of California to trust them to spend their money, fix the budget crisis, and solve a host of other problems. Of course, the average citizen might ask in return, If we can’t trust you to protect our children from adults involved in sex, violence, and drugs in our schools, how can we trust you on anything at all?

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

Smart policy decisions can only result from involving teachers

As someone who engages in education policy advocacy and development for a living, it’s good to know opportunities abound for me and fellow policymakers to hear the voices of America’s teachers and to apply their perspective in crafting policy solutions to educational challenges. Apart from the traditional participation of teachers unions (American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association), a number of national and state-based initiatives (Accomplished California Teachers, Teach Plus, VIVA Project) have launched to inject the voices of teachers into education policy discussions.

But is anyone listening?

Policymakers attending the annual summit of the State Consortium on Educator Effectiveness (SCEE) last month were listening. While there, I was reminded of the power and wisdom of teachers while hearing 2011 National Teacher of the Year Michelle Shearer deliver the keynote address. She offered four key insights that add depth and complexity to the current policy conversation about effective teaching.

I believe every policymaker focused on education should hear what she had to say.

First, Shearer reminded us that, like students, educators are on a developmental continuum – always getting better. This matches our belief at New Teacher Center that teachers are learners and great teachers are made, not born.

Second, Shearer contended that much of what we want from great teaching – like compassion, caring, and relationships with students – cannot be measured or observed. Such dispositions are critically important but may be in danger of being lost within data-driven evaluation systems.

Third, Shearer shared that while teaching is competitive at times, it also must involve collaboration for the greater good. A group of successful public school teachers in Florida echoed this in What turned our teachers into our favorites?,” an article about some of the common traits that great teachers share.

Lastly, Shearer told participants that effective teachers empower students to hold each other accountable for learning and for the use of classroom time. A teacher might do this by instructing the entire class to work as a group toward a common goal. To an extent, the use of such an instructional strategy is contingent upon a school leader who creates a school environment where teachers have opportunities to share decision-making and the freedom to teach outside the box.

This view of teaching is largely antithetical to the behavior-focused accountability systems created by federal and state policies that assume and penalize underperformance. Shearer’s conception involves a teacher-driven spirit of collective responsibility built around a shared vision for learning. Effective teaching grows from cooperation rather than top-down control.

So how can we think systemically and unleash the power and wisdom of teacher leaders as we develop policy initiatives aimed at improving teaching and learning?

* Consider the implications of proposed education reforms on the complexities of teaching, including the work of Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson’s Educator Excellence Task Force. Teachers should be given a seat at the table to develop and implement policy. The Task Force has done this.

* Create an environment that empowers teachers and enables great teaching. The heads of eight influential policy organizations (U.S. Department of Education, American Federation of Teachers, National Education Association, Council of Chief State School Officers, American Association of School Administrators, National School Boards Association, Council of Great City Schools, and the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Services) took a step in the right direction on this recently by signing a shared vision for the future of the teaching profession. They set common goals and agreed on what it will take to meet them, including “Conditions for Successful Teaching and Learning.” The statement rightly acknowledges that “high-functioning systems can amplify the accomplishments of their educators, but a dysfunctional school or district can undermine the impact of even the best teachers.” We are working with a number of state partners to build such district and school climates.

* Establish a policy framework that provides for individualized professional development for beginning and veteran educators and regular opportunities for teachers to collaborate, reflect, and learn. The state of Colorado’s comprehensive effort deserves attention. According to the state’s website, “the promise of educator effectiveness requires much more than evaluation.” Colorado employs five strategies for optimizing educator effectiveness: (1) hiring excellent candidates, (2) boosting teaching effectiveness through evaluation and targeted professional development, (3) retaining and leveraging top teaching talent, (4) prioritizing effective educators for high-need students, and (5) improving or dismissing less effective educators.

* Involve teachers in key decisions around the development and selection of frameworks, curricula, and instructional tools associated with Common Core State Standards implementation. Doing so would help teachers understand and embrace the new standards and would contribute to the desired impact on classroom instruction.

And, more simply, let’s listen to teachers.

Liam Goldrick is Director of Policy at New Teacher Center, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to improving student learning by accelerating the effectiveness of teachers and school leaders. Liam leads a range of initiatives designed to strengthen new educator induction and mentoring policies at the state and national levels. Most recently, he served as project lead on the NTC Review of State Policies on Teacher Induction, which includes a policy paper and individual policy summaries for all 50 states.

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.”

Judge to rule on teacher evals

A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge has promised to finish up this weekend his decision on whether state law requires school districts to consider student test scores in evaluating teachers.

A landmark ruling on behalf of students and parents suing Los Angeles Unified and the district’s teachers union would give Superintendent John Deasy the muscle of the law to press ahead with adopting growth in student performance as one of several metrics for  teacher evaluations. It would signal to other school districts that they must also do so in some fashion. A ruling against the plaintiffs might not change the status quo, since few school districts currently use student test scores in formal evaluations.

Oral arguments in the case had been scheduled for Tuesday, and Deasy, who’d been subpoenaed to testify, was in court. But after Judge James Chalfant indicated he had nearly completed his tentative ruling, attorneys for both sides agreed to wait until the next hearing, on June 12, to respond to what he has written. Chalfant didn’t preview his position, although he did dispute a characterization by the attorney for the district of the broad issue in the case – possibly a sign which way he’s leaning. He did make clear several times that he was thoroughly versed in the case, had read the record and recognized the case’s importance.

What does Stull Act require?

Sacramento-based nonprofit EdVoice, filing suit for the parents, has forced the issue in Jane Doe et al vs John Deasy. It argues that the four-decade-old Stull Act, the state law laying out procedures for teacher and principal evaluations, requires that evaluations consider “pupil progress as it reasonably relates” to district standards and to state academic standards as measured by the California Standards Tests. Among those agreeing with that position is Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who, when he was speaker of the State Assembly, sponsored a bill that updated the Stull Act.

Los Angeles Unified has extensive data tying student test scores to teachers. It created a system, called Academic Growth over Time (AGT), that uses demographic data on individual students and  their results on past years’ tests to project future results. Teachers are scored on whether students in their classes exceed or fail to meet those expectations.

Deasy has shared AGT scores with individual teachers, though they haven’t counted in evaluations yet. He hasn’t said what percentage of an evaluation AGT would comprise, although he said it would be a minor piece.

The plaintiffs argue that, in failing to incorporate test scores, the district “has relinquished its obligations to the students in order to placate more powerful interests” – in other words, caved to union pressure. As evidence, they point to 600 randomly selected teacher evaluations that they reviewed. While 98 percent of teachers had satisfactory reviews, less than 3 percent made any reference to standards or tests, attorneys said, and the evaluation forms contained no questions requesting information on students’ learning relative to standards. The plaintiffs argue that the failure to evaluate teachers effectively violates students’ civil rights, denying them their constitutional right to an opportunity for a quality education.

Deasy has proven to be the plaintiffs’ star witness. Their brief begins by quoting from his deposition: “We do not currently construct evaluations of teachers by using how students do over time in terms of their academic outcomes.” On Tuesday, after a brief hearing, Deasy told reporters that he looked forward to a ruling that would help clarify the state law and support his effort to use AGT districtwide. He acknowledged that the district and UTA had discussed trying to settle the lawsuit, without success.

Deasy’s statements under oath notwithstanding, the district’s formal position is that it is complying with the law. The AGT model that the district is piloting is proof that the district is linking test scores to teacher evaluations. (This argument glosses over that actual implementation of AGT is at least a year away and will be contested in court by United Teachers Los Angeles.) The district’s teacher evaluation form also contains many questions that relate to student performance, including whether a teacher:

  • Demonstrates knowledge of state standards and student development;
  • Plans and implements classroom procedures that support student learning;
  • Uses the results of multiple assessments to guide instruction.

Lawyers for the parents, however, argue that these areas may examine and support effective teaching, but don’t tell you whether student learning has actually increased.

United Teachers Los Angeles makes a very different argument. Contrary to what EdVoice, Villaraigosa, and the parents claim, UTLA says point blank, “The Stull Act does not prescribe how local school districts must conduct employee performance evaluations.” The criteria for evaluations are left to the school district, and any changes must be collectively bargained. And the district has wide discretion in determining how pupil growth “reasonably relates” to standards of student achievement, the UTLA argues in its brief.

LA groups want test scores part of evaluations

Two Los Angeles education groups have offered separate teacher evaluation frameworks that they hope will help break the impasse between Los Angeles Unified and its teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles.

“There is frustration that, even after years of discussion, there still is no new system in Los Angeles,” Mike Stryer, a former Los Angeles Unified teacher who helped create the plan for Our Schools,  Our Voice Coalition, said at a news briefing Thursday.

Our Schools, Our Voice Coalition wants teacher observations to comprise  60 percent  of  a teacher's evaluations score, followed by student test scores at 25 percent. Source: Our Schools, Our Voice (click to enlarge).

Our Schools, Our Voice Coalition wants teacher observations to comprise 60 percent of a teacher's evaluation score, followed by student test scores at 25 percent. Source: Our Schools, Our Voice. (Click to enlarge)

The biggest barrier – at this point seemingly uncrossable – is disagreement over the inclusion of student standardized test scores in the evaluation. The district uses a method, Academic Growth over Time, that measures a teacher’s impact on student test results. Superintendent John Deasy wants to include the AGT score in the evaluation, although he has not said how much weight it and other factors would have. UTLA remains adamantly opposed, ­and devoted considerable space in a 53-page evaluation proposal released in March to argue why, as unsuitable and inaccurate measures, “standardized test scores should play no part in high stakes decisions leading to dismissal.”

Both Our Schools, Our Voice Coalition – with parents, education advocates, and some Los Angeles teachers – and Teach Plus, a national network of teachers with a chapter in Los Angeles, support phasing in AGT, but with conditions. Among requirements under the Our Schools, Our Voice Coalition plan, AGT wouldn’t count unless a course’s curriculum matched the standardized tests and there was a statistically significant sample size. AGT wouldn’t count for probationary teachers. And all test results would remain confidential, inaccessible to the public and the press (no more providing data for publishing in the Los Angeles Times). Use of test scores would be phased in, counting 10 percent the first year, reaching a maximum 25 percent after three years. Teach Plus also advocates starting at 10 percent, working up to a third of a teacher’s evaluation, if benchmarks for test integrity and reliability are met, said John Lee, executive director of Teach Plus Los Angeles.

What the union, the district, and the two outside groups all agree on is that classroom observations should constitute the biggest piece of an evaluation: 60 percent under Our Schools, Our Voice’s plan and at least half, Deasy has indicated, under the district’s. The district is currently training principals in uniform observation rubrics and piloting observations in 100 schools involving 700 teachers. Teach Plus wants teachers to help evaluate their peers in areas requiring content expertise but in a capacity of providing classroom guidance, separate from a formal evaluation with consequences. UTLA favors an expanded use of Peer Assistance and Review, a panel of teachers who counsel teachers needing improvement and recommend dismissal for those who “have been given a real chance to improve but are unable to meet clearly defined standards.” Under the Our Schools, Our Voice recommendations, a mentor will be assigned to a teacher identified as needing intensive support for at least a full year.

Like the district’s eventual plan, Our Schools, Our Voice proposes student surveys (beginning in the third grade), parent surveys, and a measure of contributions to the community – each counting 5 percent. And Our Schools, Our Voice includes a new, intriguing element: a way to identify and reward, with up to a bonus 10 percent score, those teachers who help close the achievement gap for Hispanic students, African American students, and English learners in the bottom quarter who  make marked progress.

The release of both organizations’ recommendations is intended to prod UTLA and the district to start talking. But at this point, leverage is more likely to come from the courts or the Legislature.

On Tuesday, in Los Angeles County Superior Court, there will be arguments in a suit brought by the nonprofit EdVoice on behalf of Los Angeles Unified and UTLA over the failure to include standardized tests in evaluations. EdVoice makes a good case that the Stull Act, the 40-year-old state law on teacher evaluations, requires test-score use, but districts like Los Angeles Unified have ignored the provision. A victory by EdVoice – and indirectly for Los Angeles Unified, though named as a defendant – might force UTLA to back off its unqualified opposition to the use of test scores.

Until now, Los Angeles Unified has argued that it has the exclusive right to determine the requirements for an evaluation. It exercised that right in setting up the pilot evaluations, despite the opposition of UTLA. But later this summer, the Senate will likely take up AB 5, sponsored by Democratic San Fernando Valley Assemblymember Felipe Fuentes, which would replace the Stull Act. As currently written, most aspects of an evaluation process would have to be negotiated with unions, which could stretch out adoption of a new system for months, if not years.

Teacher dismissal bill moves on

It will be easier and quicker to fire teachers in the most egregious misconduct cases, under a bill that the Senate passed Tuesday 33-4.

SB 1530, a response to a series of shocking abuse cases in Los Angeles Unified, would allow districts to suspend with pay teachers accused of sex, violence, or drug charges involving children and then speed up the process leading to a dismissal. A formal appeals process before the three-member Commission on Professional Competence would be replaced by an administrative law judge who’d issue a strictly advisory opinion to the local school board, which would have the final say.

The bill, authored by Sen. Alex Padilla, a Democrat from Los Angeles, will lead to a significant change in the legal process for a narrow range of misconduct cases. It will also allow districts to file dismissal charges during the summer – a quirk in the law favoring teachers – and will allow evidence more than four years old to be considered in dismissal cases. (Clarification: The bill applies not just to teachers but to all certificated personnel, including administrators.)

Had the bill already been a law, Los Angeles Unified could have handled Mark Berndt, 61, differently. He’s the teacher at Miramonte Elementary who’s been charged with 23 counts of lewd acts against children ages 7 to 10. Rather than go through an expensive and time-consuming appeals process, the district paid Berndt $40,000, including legal fees, to get him to drop the appeal of his firing.

The district had investigated complaints about Berndt dating back two decades but failed to substantiate them. Information about the complaints wasn’t in his file, because a clause in the district’s contract with United Teachers Los Angeles required that misconduct allegations that did not lead to action be expunged from a teacher’s file after four years.

In passing Padilla’s bill, the Senate beat back amendments proposed by Senator Bob Huff (R-Diamond Bar) that would have extended the provisions in Padilla’s bill to a broader range of misconduct cases. Huff pointed to  cases involving teachers who locked a student in a closet and made ethnic slurs and fun of a handicapped child, which, he told senators, would not have been covered by the Padilla bill. Huff accused Democrats who closed ranks behind Padilla’s bill of  choosing “to support union representatives at the expense of our children and the honorable teachers serving them.”

Earlier this month, the Senate Education Committee defeated Huff’s own bill, SB 1059, on teacher dismissal, which included the amendments that he introduced on Tuesday, as well as shortened the appeals process and gave school boards the final say for dismissing teachers for unsatisfactory performance – a sweeping change. Los Angeles Unified Superintendent John Deasy and a representative of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa testified for the bill, saying the current dismissal process can take years and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The California Teachers Assn. and the California Federation of Teachers had opposed both bills, saying they eroded due process protections against false and unproven accusations.

Padilla said that teachers will retain the right to a hearing with witnesses and the right to appeal a decision to Superior Court.

Race to the Top opens up to districts

California school districts will finally be able to seek Race to the Top money without interference and resistance from Gov. Jerry Brown and state officials.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on Tuesday announced much anticipated draft criteria for a $400 million competition open to individual districts or groups of districts nationwide. That’s enough money to fund a projected 20 proposals for grants of $15 million to $25 million, Duncan said.

For districts and qualifying schools in California, this will be the last opportunity to pursue innovative ideas and school models they have not been able to develop in cash-strapped times. The three previous Race to the Top rounds have been open only to states, and California has been shut, although it was one of nine finalists in the second cycle and was all but guaranteed at least $49 million in round three. However, Brown declined to sign the application on behalf of seven districts that put it together, because he believed it would have obligated the state to enact statewide reforms he opposed. As a result, Duncan rejected the state’s application out of hand.

That hasn’t discouraged John Deasy, superintendent for Los Angeles Unified, one of the lead districts in the aborted last round. Deasy said Tuesday that the nation’s second largest district certainly will be applying for $25 million. LAUSD’s pilot schools, its new teacher evaluation system, and experiments in other schools are the kinds of reforms that Race to the Top is encouraging, he said.

Applications will be due in July; the awards will be announced in October, and money for the grants disbursed in December.

LAUSD and the other six Race to the Top districts formed the California Office to Reform Education, or CORE, to continue their work implementing Common Core and teacher evaluation. They also have been encouraging federal education officials to open up Race to the Top to districts. Hilary McLean, director of communications for CORE, said that the superintendents remain intrigued at the possibility and will examine the criteria for applying either singly, as LAUSD intends to do, or collectively.

There will be a new twist. The top priority will be, Duncan said, “personalized student-focused learning” ­– approaches and programs directed to meeting individual student needs within and outside of the classroom. The Department of Education describes these on the Race to the Top website as “collaborative, data-based strategies and 21st century tools to deliver instruction and supports tailored to the needs and goals of each student, with the goal of enabling all students to graduate college- and career-ready.”

21st century technologies

One obvious applicant pool would be districts and charter schools with a widespread use of online and blended learning; the latter is a hybrid that combines classroom instruction and online learning. California has leaders in blended learning: Palo Alto-based Rocketship Education, along with districts (Los Altos School District) and charters (Summit Public Schools) working closely with Mountain View-based Khan Academy on technologies that track individual students’ progress and allow them to learn at their own pace.

Among large districts, Riverside Unified, with 43,000 students, is the farthest along in piloting online and blended learning. It also operates the Riverside Virtual School for 12,000 students in and outside the district. Principal David Haglund said that a Race to the Top grant would enable Riverside to take its individualized learning commitment to scale.

But Duncan said that new technologies are only one approach to break the “one size fits all mold.” Pointing to the Promise Neighborhoods model of community involvement in schools, Duncan said this could be done by bringing adult tutors into the schools and establishing partnerships with community groups, colleges, and health services to meet the academic, physical, and emotional needs of students. Oakland Unified’s ambitious Community Schools, Thriving Students initiative, which has established partnerships for school health clinics in some schools, with plans for a community STEM concentration in West Oakland, is one effort that could be taken to scale. Deasy said that pilot schools with home visitations and extended-day programs are examples of what the district might choose to expand with a grant. LAUSD hasn’t decided whether to target certain schools or concentrate on select grades.

Some of the proposed criteria and stipulations may disqualify some districts and give others pause:

  • District applications must serve at least 2,500 students (too large for some rural districts and charter school organizations but not in a consortia with others), with at least 40 percent of students eligible for free or reduced lunch subsidies;
  • Applicants must agree to priorities of previous rounds of Race to the Top. These include having a data system that links teachers to students and a commitment to employ a teacher evaluation system by 2014-15 that gives significant attention to growth in student achievement;
  • The superintendent, president of the school board, and head of the teachers union all must sign the application. In previous rounds, union leaders’ consent was not required but helped a state’s score.

United Teachers Los Angeles didn’t sign off on LAUSD’s previous applications. Deasy said he assumes that the union would not stand in the way of pursuing $25 million for the district.

Schools must repair their other damaged infrastructure: relationships

Infrastructure is not sexy. It sounds like pipes, highways, and wiring. In education, it is both people and organizations, and it takes both kinds of infrastructure to deliver – but also to improve – education.

The problem is that budget cuts seek to preserve the service delivery infrastructure at the expense of the improvement infrastructure. We cut professional developers and coaches and keep classroom teachers.

This isn’t necessarily wrong: Teaching children is our first priority. But as California enters the “awareness” stage of work on Common Core State Standards, one of the things we are becoming aware of is that we have decimated the improvement infrastructure that we will desperately need if California is to do anything useful about the Common Core.

"Three Doors to the Common Core" approach allows districts to choose a door (focus) - Curriculum or Instruction or 21st Century Skills, that is the best match for their specific needs. Each door leads to the same destination: a new vision and implementation of 21st Century Teaching and Learning in every classroom.

"Three Doors to the Common Core" approach allows districts to choose a door (focus) – Curriculum or Instruction or 21st Century Skills – that is the best match for their specific needs. (Click to enlarge)

What do I mean by improvement infrastructure? Inside schools and districts, it is structures like regularly scheduled collaboration time. It is also processes, which may range from lesson study to a protocol for visiting classrooms.

It is also roles: professional developers, teacher coaches, teacher leaders, even assistant superintendents of curriculum and instruction.

It is tools: formative assessments, a data system that provides teachers with timely and actionable data reports, a communication system that makes it easy for teachers to reach out to parents and that includes space for online collaboration.

Finally, it is agreements: How often will the professional learning communities meet? How long will it take the data guy to run those reports? This kind of improvement infrastructure has been downsized almost everywhere. In many districts key parts of it are gone without a trace. And policymakers who talk easily about implementation of the Common Core should not underestimate the difficulty of generating either the political will or the resources at the local level that it will take to rebuild this infrastructure.

Of course, while the in-district improvement infrastructure is essential, external sources of professional development, tools, coaching, and consulting also matter, and these, too, have been decimated. Part of that is scarce resources, but for the most part the infrastructure that supported schools to work on improving teaching and learning was dismantled intentionally: the old subject matter projects were dismantled and a diverse ecology of nonprofit organizations, consultants, and university-based programs were replaced by a one-size-fits-all set of training programs that were intended to align professional development with state-adopted curriculum and tests.

That was a grand experiment, and while elements of it were wildly unpopular with teachers, it was not a failure. Scores rose, achievement gaps narrowed, and many underperforming systems were improved. Cultures also changed, with many more teachers embracing collaboration as a strategy and common practice as a worthy goal. The use of data and formative assessments to guide instruction became the norm rather than the exception.

Yet the failings of this approach are too obvious for it to be attractive to recreate it:  Not only teachers, but also parents rebelled against a one-size-fits-all curriculum, and many of these parents voted with their feet and opted for charters. There is more to say, but this is enough: In 2012, public education cannot afford a policy approach in which standards require standardization.

So what does this mean about improvement infrastructure for Common Core? We need one, and actually, the solution is simple enough:  If Governor Brown is serious, as it seems he is, about valuing local control and local decision-making, then the goal of state policy should be to foster a vibrant and locally-responsive set of service providers that can provide ongoing professional development, coaching, and support to schools and districts.

What it takes to do this is both simple and difficult; it takes two scarce ingredients: money and trust. California can implement the Common Core if policy provides districts with funding that is earmarked for improvement support and if Sacramento turns its back on the culture of distrust that says locals cannot be trusted to make good decisions about how to spend the money. Actually, the stakes in this decision are high: We cannot make an education system that supports kids to be thinkers and creators unless we’re willing to create a system in which adults, too, can be trusted to think for themselves.

Merrill Vargo is both an experienced academic and a practical expert in the field of school reform. Before founding Pivot Learning Partners (then known as the Bay Area School Reform Collaborative, or BASRC) in 1995, Dr. Vargo spent nine years teaching English in a variety of settings, managed her own consulting firm, and served as executive director of the California Institute for School Improvement, a Sacramento-based nonprofit that provides staff development and policy analysis for educators. She served as Director of Regional Programs and Special Projects for the California Department of Education. She is also a member of Full Circle Fund.

Full-scale assault on dismissal laws

A nonprofit founded by a Silicon Valley entrepreneur has filed a sweeping, high-stakes lawsuit challenging state teacher protection laws. A victory would overturn a tenure, dismissal, and layoff system that critics blame for the hiring and retention of ineffective teachers. A loss in court could produce bad case law, impeding more targeted efforts to achieve some of the same goals.

Students Matter is the creation of David Welch, co-founder of Infinera, a manufacturer of optical telecommunications systems in Sunnyvale. The new nonprofit filed its lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court on Monday on behalf of eight students who attend four school districts. A spokesperson for the organization told the Los Angeles Times that Los Angeles philanthropist Eli Broad and a few other individuals are underwriting the lawsuit. They have hired two top-gun attorneys to lead the case: Ted Boutrous, a partner in the Los Angeles law firm of  Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, and Ted Olsen, former solicitor general for President George W. Bush.

The lawsuit asserts that five “outdated statutes” prevent administrators from making employment decisions in students’ interest. The tenure statute forces districts to decide after teachers are on the job only 18 months whether to grant them permanent job status. Once granted tenure, they gain due-process rights that make it expensive and difficult to fire them even if they’re “grossly ineffective.” And then, when an economic downturn comes – witness the last four years – a Last In/First Out (LIFO) requirement leads to layoffs based strictly on seniority, not competency.

The protection of ineffective teachers “creates arbitrary and unjustifiable inequality among students,” especially low-income children in low-performing schools, where less experienced teachers are hired and inept veteran teachers are shunted off, under a familiar “dance of the lemons” since they cant be fired. Because education is a “fundamental interest” under the state Constitution, the five statutes that “dictate this unequal, arbitrary result violate the equal protection provisions of the California Constitution” and should be overturned.  The lawsuit doesn’t prescribe a solution.

Incremental versus global approach

Students Matter’s wholesale assault on the laws contrasts with fact-specific, narrowly tailored lawsuits brought by attorneys for the ACLU of Southern California and Public Counsel Law Center. Two years ago, they won a landmark victory in Reed v. the State of California when Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge William Highberger found that the heavy churn of teachers due to LIFO at three Los Angeles Unified middle schools violated students’ right to an equal educational opportunity. That decision led to a settlement between the district, the mayor’s office, and the attorneys that has protected the staffs of 45 low-performing schools from layoffs for the past three years. The strength of that case lay in its ability to tie specific harm to students to the layoff law, which explicitly permits exceptions to seniority layoffs to protect students’ fundamental constitutional rights. LAUSD had not exercised that exception. (United Teachers Los Angeles has appealed; arguments will be heard June 28.)

Earlier this year, the Sacramento-based nonprofit EdVoice brought suit against Los Angeles Unified over the pro forma way it conducts teacher evaluations. But here, the suit isn’t seeking to overturn the Stull Act, which defines how evaluations are done; it says that the district (along with nearly every other one) has chosen to ignore the law’s requirement that student performance be included in teacher evaluations.

Screen Shot 2012-05-17 at 12.09.04 AMThere’s no shortage of critics of the tenure, dismissal, and layoff laws, which teachers unions have lobbied hard to preserve. California is one of few states that have not lengthened the probationary period for teachers. More than two dozen states have strengthened their evaluation systems in the past several years. California’s dismissal law, with its 10-step process laden with due process, can cost districts hundreds of thousands of dollars to fire a teacher on the grounds of unsatisfactory performance, which is why districts often work around it by paying teachers to retire or pushing them from one school to another.

Persuading a judge that the practical problems and the effects of the laws rise to the level of a constitutional violation is another matter. (In an analogous case, California is among the nation’s bottom spenders on K-12 education; it has tough standards and a challenging student population. But attorneys last year failed to convince a Superior Court judge in Robles-Wong v. California and Campaign for Quality Education v. California that adequate education funding is a constitutional right.)

Tough burden of proof

The tenure law may be particularly challenging. As the suit points out, something like 98 percent of probationary teachers have gotten tenure. The two-year probationary period (actually 18 months, since teachers must be notified by March of their second year) is not long enough. Too often evaluations have been slapdash. But the law itself doesn’t require a district even to cite a cause in denying tenure; the power of dismissal lies with the employer.

Students named in the lawsuit are from Los Angles Unified, Pasadena Unified, Sequoia Union High School District, and Alum Rock Union Elementary District, although only Los Angeles Unified and Alum Rock, which serves 11,000 students in San Jose, are specifically cited as defendants, along with  Gov. Brown, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, the State Board of Education, the state, and the State Department of Education.

The only specific reference to Alum Rock was in the identification of plaintiff Daniella Martinez, 10, whom the lawsuit says chose to transfer to a public charter school because “of the substantial risk that she would be assigned to a grossly ineffective teacher who impedes her equal access to the opportunity to receive a meaningful education.” The initial filing doesn’t cite evidence of  specific teachers who negatively affected Daniella or the other seven defendants. It refers to studies by such groups as the National Council On Teacher Quality, which issued a blunt assessment of the tenure and dismissal practices of Los Angeles Unified, and on research by Hoover Institution author Eric Hanushek, who concludes that just by dismissing 6 to 10 percent of weakest teachers, students’ academic achievement and long-term earnings as adults would increase significantly.

Los Angeles, as the state’s largest district, may have been named as a defendant because its superintendent, John Deasy, has been outspoken about the need to change labor laws. United Teachers Los Angeles has also  sued over a comprehensive teacher evaluation system that Deasy has put in place.

Deasy would appear to be a friendly witness for the plaintiffs. In a statement, he said he supports lengthening the probationary period, quickening the dismissal process, and reforming the state’s layoff law. “To my dismay, we have lost thousands of our best and hardest-working classroom instructors through the last hired, first fired rule. When forced to reduce our teaching staff through budget cuts, we are compelled through state law and union rules to base these difficult decisions primarily on seniority,” Deasy said.

But when questioned, Deasy will be pressed to acknowledge that it may not be the laws but the implementation that counts. Since joining the district, first as deputy superintendent, then superintendent, Deasy has pushed administrators to apply more scrutiny in granting tenure and more perseverance in dismissing bad teachers. Last year the district terminated 853 teachers. Furthermore, the number of probationary teachers denied tenure rose significantly last year: from 89 in 2009-10 (10 percent of those eligible) to 120 teachers in their first year and 30 in their second year. Other superintendents would agree that well-trained, persistent principals can document the case for teacher dismissals, notwithstanding cumbersome, excessively burdensome requirements.