Tag Archives: John Deasy

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.”

Bill me: Legislative week in review

John Fensterwald co-wrote this article.

One day after Democrats on the Senate Education Committee rejected his sweeping approach to getting rid of poorly performing and badly behaving teachers, Republican leader Bob Huff mentioned an often cited but much disputed quote of the late Albert Shanker in letting the Democrats have it.

“The Senate Education Committee’s actions exemplify the comments made by Albert Shanker, former head of the United Federation of Teachers, who stated, ‘When school children start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of schoolchildren.’ Once again the Democrats on the committee have chosen to put the demands of some union bosses over the safety of our children,” Huff said in a press release. (Shanker’s wife, Edith, denies he ever made the statement.) UPDATE: I contacted Shaker’s biographer,  Richard Kahlenberg, who wrote Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy.  His email response regarding the authenticity of the quote: “I tried to track down the quotation for my biography of Al Shanker but I was unable to confirm it, so it may well be apocryphal.”

Democrats passed a much narrower bill, SB 1530, that pared away the due-process procedures for teachers being charged with offenses involving drugs, sex, and violence against children. Not that they got much love from union reps, who accused legislators from both parties of “grandstanding” on the issue.

Huff issued a chart showing that the Democrats’ bill wouldn’t alter the sometimes laborious dismissal procedures for teachers accused of a raft of other vile offenses that don’t fall into the new category of “serious and egregious” acts.

The odd thing is that, after the Democrats gutted an identical version of Huff’s bill in the Assembly this week, leaving in only two small reforms, the Republican co-sponsor of AB 2028 waxed poetic on the bipartisan achievement in a press release. “It was great to see Assembly Democrats today set politics aside and work with us to pass these vital reforms to get those who try to harm our kids out of the classroom,” said Assemblymember Cameron Smyth, R-Santa Clarita.

Not wanting to get caught in this dogfight, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Los Angeles Unified Superintendent John Deasy testified for both the Republican and Democratic versions.

Stepping up to community college plate

“I am a community college success story,” proudly proclaimed Jessie Ryan at a news conference Wednesday after the Senate Education Committee unanimously approved the Student Success Act. SB 1456 starts the process of implementing some of the 22 recommendations in the Student Success Task Force report, which was released late last year.

Ryan, the associate director of the Campaign for College Opportunity, grew up with a “struggling, single welfare mother,” and said community college was truly her “gateway to opportunity.”  She was admittedly fortunate that her college helped her develop an education plan and held an orientation that put Ryan “on a path to success.”

Sen. Lowenthal, with community college leaders and students, announcing passage of SB 1456. (Click to enlarge)

Sen. Lowenthal, with community college leaders and students, announcing passage of SB 1456. (Click to enlarge)

SB 1456, by Sen. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach), chair of the Education Committee, calls on all the state’s 112 community colleges to provide all students with the type of support Ryan received. More than half of all community college students fail to receive an AA Degree, earn a certificate, or transfer to a four-year college within six years, and the figures for Latino and African American students are even worse.

But the big drivers in the bill for boosting success were tempered amid an outcry from students and the reality of state finances.  Provisions requiring students to declare a goal and not to exceed a certain number of units in order to be eligible for Board of Governors (BOG) fee waivers will not take effect unless colleges have the resources to provide the needed support services, said Lowenthal.  Just looking at one of those, counseling services is daunting.  On average, there are 1900 students for each counselor.

The bill would create a new fund which repurposes the $50 million in the matriculation fund to provide colleges with some money to focus on education planning and advising, but it’s not nearly enough, and the chancellor’s office said they’re looking to schools to develop innovative programs to help students make good decisions about which classes to take.

“These reforms are about doing the most we can with what we have,” said Erik Skinner, Executive Vice Chancellor of programs.  “The next step is to make the case for more investment.”

Bus Stop

Gov. Brown’s effort to eliminate funding for home-to-school transportation at the time of the mid-year trigger cuts sparked legislation by Assemblyman Warren Furutani (D-Gardena) to introduce legislation protecting school bus service.

AB 1448 requires transportation funding for next year to be “at least equal to the appropriation provided in the budget for 2011-12.”   The bill holds a special place for Los Angeles Unified, which, under a court-ordered desegregation plan must provide transportation.

Budget uncertainty marked many bills that came before the committees this week leading to one surprisingly stinging exchange between two lawmakers.  During the debate on AB 1448, Assemblymember Shannon Grove (R-Bakersfield), asked fellow education committee member Das Williams (D-Santa Barbara) why the democrats were trying to protect the school transportation funds when they were the ones who supported putting it in the trigger cuts when they approved the governor’s budget plan last year.  Williams retorted almost before she could finish, noting that republicans forced their hand.  “With all due respect,” said Williams, “that wouldn’t have happened if you had the courage to vote for taxes to support our education system.”

Click here for a list of education bills and their status

Faster firings in ‘egregious’ cases

Kathy Baron provided reporting from Sacramento for this post.

The Senate Education Committee voted unanimously Wednesday to make it quicker and cheaper to suspend and fire teachers facing a narrow range of “egregious” misconduct charges that include sex, drugs, and violence. In doing so, they disregarded calls from the mayor of Los Angeles and superintendents of Fresno and Los Angeles Unified to go further, by also making it easier to dismiss incompetent teachers.

“It matters that this state put a stake in the ground” on the issue, said Los Angeles Unified Superintendent John Deasy, in supporting SB 1059, sponsored by Senate minority leader Bob Huff of Diamond Bar, giving school boards the final say over all dismissals. Deasy and Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson called for eliminating the Commission on Professional Competence – a three-member appeals board that contains two teachers – which they said adds an expensive and unnecessary bureaucratic hurdle to firing teachers who behave badly and perform poorly. The Commission would be replaced with an administrative law judge, giving only advisory opinions to the local school board.

But Sen. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach), who chairs the Education Committee, said it was “premature” to change the piece of the dismissal law dealing with unsatisfactory performance, because the Legislature has yet to create a teacher evaluation bill that defines satisfactory performance, with support systems to help teachers meet that standard.

Instead, Lowenthal and other members backed a more restrictive bill, SB 1530, by Democratic Sen. Alex Padilla of Los Angeles. It too would replace the appeals board with an administrative judge, but only in those cases involving sexual misconduct, drugs, and violence by teachers against children. (Huff, in a comparison of the two bills, claims that Padilla’s would prevent dealing expeditiously with some recent incidents of abuse: using racial epithets, locking children in a closet and taping a child’s mouth shut for talking too much).

Padilla’s and Huff’s bills were partly a response to community outrage following criminal charges of sexual abuse against students by three former teachers at Miramonte Elementary in Los Angeles Unified. In two of the cases, the district failed to document and follow up on earlier investigations of suspected illegal acts.

Padilla’s bill would make it easier to suspend a teacher facing “serious and egregious” charges without pay; it would remove the ban in current law against filing dismissal charges during the summer, and it would remove the current prohibition on using evidence of similar violations that’s more than four years old against a teacher. In the Miramonte case of the worst alleged molester, the district paid Mark Berndt $40,000, including legal fees, to get him to drop the appeal of his firing. Berndt is facing 23 counts of lewd acts against children ages 7 to 10.

Saying that the average teacher dismissal case (not just for alleged misconduct) costs Los Angeles Unified $300,000, Deasy called Padilla’s bill “about-time legislation” to enable the district to deal quickly with teachers “who violate sacred trust.”

Los Angeles Unified board member Nury Martinez said the bill would fix an “antiquated” part of the education code that “ties our hands when we need to reassure parents with decisive action.”

“This is about extreme cases where a trusted employee has engaged in unspeakable behavior involving a child and we have to act,” she said.

The California Teachers Association and other unions, however, denied that any changes in law were needed, called both the Huff and Padilla bills assaults on teachers’ rights and little more than grandstanding.

“There are already very clear, very strict guidelines in the education code that give districts immediate authority to protect students and ensure that teachers who engage in that kind of serious sexual misconduct or immoral conduct are immediately removed from the classroom,” said CTA lobbyist Patricia Rucker.

But the Stull Act, which Gov. Ronald Reagan signed in 1971, also protects teachers with due process rights that should not be taken lightly, she said. What’s more, Rucker said the Padilla bill could backfire. Before the Stull Act created an objective commission, peer reviews would sustain slightly more than one third of dismissal decisions by school boards, she said. Since then, with the weight of the commission behind dismissals, Superior Courts uphold seven out of nine firings, she said.

Hanson and Deasy, however, indicated that those statistics are misleading, because most cases involving misconduct charges fall by the wayside – and not for lack of merit. Deasy said that since 2003, 667 cases involving charges of serious misconduct were brought forward  in California; of those only 129 went to a hearing, with 82 resulting in dismissal.   “This does not pass a reasonable smell test.”

Assault on due process

Ken Tray, political director of United Educators of San Francisco and a spokesman for the California Federation of Teachers, called SB 1530 “an attack on educators of California.”

“Sometimes politicians have to stand up for what is truthful, what is right, and what is good. Teachers are under attack,” Tray said.  “And one of the ways to defend the people, the over overwhelming number of my colleagues who are the most highly moral and conscientious of California’s public servants is to defend their due process, so that justice is served.”

Padilla disputed that  the bill would deny teachers due process. They could still request a hearing by an independent arbiter and present their own defense with an attorney and witnesses and the right of disclosure. It would not make teachers “at-will employees,” as the unions claimed. Teachers would retain their right to appeal decisions in Superior Court.

The bill is needed, he said, because appeals can be lengthy and onerous.

Hours after the Senate Education Committee acted, members of the Assembly Education Committee were even less included to change the current law. They stripped a parallel version of the Huff bill, AB 2028, sponsored Republican Steve Knight of the Antelope Valley, of all but two provisions. As amended,  it would remove the four-year limitation for using evidence of prior allegations, and it allow the dismissal process to begin during summer.

That didn’t discourage Knight from proclaiming victory in a press release. “Parents and students across the state are cheering today’s bipartisan vote to enact these important reforms to protect our kids from classroom predators,” he said.  “This is just the first of many steps that must be taken to enact these much-needed reforms and prevent a Miramonte-like tragedy from ever happening again.”

Tightening teacher dismissals

It has taken a mess of lewd acts, criminal charges, and threatened lawsuits in Los Angeles Unified to spur calls for reforming the cumbersome process for dismissing teachers for immoral and unprofessional conduct.

Last week, LAUSD board members unanimously passed a resolution sponsored by board member Tamar Galatzan, who’s also a criminal prosecutor, calling for the Legislature to speed up state dismissal procedures (see item 16 of the board’s agenda). Democratic and Republican lawmakers, in turn, have been elbowing one another to be first in line with legislation that has yet to be filed.

Changes in statutes could fix some but not all parts of what has been a systemic failure to act on and follow up on credible evidence over many years.

Three former teachers at one LAUSD elementary school face criminal charges for sexually abusing students. One was fired last month after being charged with committing lewd acts on a 9-year-old in 2009. Another teacher, now a fugitive, was investigated for three cases of sexual misconduct against students before resigning from the district several years ago and being hired by Inglewood Unified, where he is now accused of molesting another young girl.

The most egregious case involved Miramonte Elementary third-grade teacher Mark Berndt, 61, who pleaded not guilty to lewd acts on children (for more explicit details, go here). The district investigated complaints about Berndt dating back two decades but failed to substantiate them. Information about the complaints wasn’t in Berndt’s file, because a clause in the district’s contract with United Teachers Los Angeles, negotiated in the ’90s, requires that misconduct allegations that did not lead to action be removed from a teacher’s file after four years.

Berndt was dismissed after the latest accusations surfaced in January 2011. In June 2011, the district agreed to pay him about $40,000, including legal fees, to drop the appeal of his firing. This type of settlement is common, not just in LAUSD, but in many districts, because appeals of dismissals to a three-person Commission on Professional Competence can take more than a year, during which time teachers continue to be paid, and the district can be liable for attorney’s fees if it loses the case.

For all three teachers, the district failed to notify the state Commission on Teacher Credentialing, which would have had the authority to pull the licenses of the teachers, whether or not they were convicted of a crime.

The resolution passed by the school board calls for changes in state law in cases involving unprofessional, criminal, or immoral conduct that would:

  • Discontinue paying a teacher during the appeals process;
  • End the prohibition on introducing personnel information involving charges of misconduct that is more than four years old. (This would preclude districts from negotiating away the right to keep the information confidential, as occurred in Los Angeles Unified, and would allow the state Commission on Teacher Credentialing to consider older information as well.);
  • Permit dismissal notices to be filed throughout the year (including summer) and shorten the 45- or 90-day grace period before the board could initiate dismissal proceedings;
  • Withhold pension benefits to any public employee convicted of sex abuse involving a minor;
  • Make decisions of the appeals board, the Commission on Professional Competence, advisory only, giving a school board final say over dismissals.

The resolution asks Superintendent John Deasy to make recommendations to the board next month on how to proceed. If LAUSD didn’t already have enough to worry about, last month the State Supreme Court ruled unanimously  that school districts can be liable for administrators who fail to act to protect children after learning that an employee may be prone to molesting children.

Trustees have cause for frustration. Three years ago, they approved a similar resolution calling for legislative action. While the Legislature failed to enact what the board requested, the issue wasn’t ignored. In 2010, Republican Sen. Bob Huff sponsored SB 955, a sweeping bill calling for changes in teacher evaluations and giving districts more authority to ignore seniority when making layoffs. It also would have given school boards the final say over all teacher dismissal cases, not just those involving personal misconduct and criminal acts. It  would have eliminated the positions of two teachers on the three-person Commission on Professional Competence, leaving appeals solely in the hands of an administrative law judge, whose decisions would have been strictly advisory.

Huff’s bill actually passed the Senate Education Committee, 5-4, but the Democratic Senate leaders referred the bill to the Rules Committee, and it was never brought to the full Senate for a vote – an action that rankled Huff.

Two Democratic senators from Los Angeles have said they would introduce bills on dismissals. Kevin de Leon plans to work on banning pension benefits for teachers convicted of abusing children. The bill would apply only to future cases; Berndt and other teachers now facing charges would continue to be entitled to pensions. Alex Padilla says he will introduce a bill on other dismissal issues sought by LAUSD board members. Meanwhile, Republican Assembly and Senate leaders put out a press release stating that “Republicans are standing with Mayor Villaraigosa and Los Angeles Unified to enact reforms to empower local districts and ensure that a Miramonte-like tragedy never happens again.”

It will be interesting to see whether the Republicans will tailor their bill to apply only to misconduct cases, based on the LAUSD board’s resolution, or whether it will apply to all dismissals, including those based on unsatisfactory performance, which comprises the vast majority of cases and was the intent of Huff in SB 955.

In returning to the trustees with recommendations next month, Deasy too must decide whether he favors a narrow or broad bill.

United Teachers Los Angeles and the California Teachers Association didn’t respond to my requests for comment on likely legislation. UTLA President Warren Fletcher has said the union would be open to renegotiating the prohibition on using old information on unproven misconduct complaints.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big changes for better teachers

A report commissioned by the United Way of Greater Los Angeles and civil rights groups is recommending sweeping changes in the way Los Angeles Unified recruits, hires, evaluates, and pays teachers, as well as substantial changes in state laws in areas such as tenure and seniority rights that obstruct teacher effectiveness. The report will prove instructive to other California districts whose union contracts and personnel polices are similar to LAUSD’s.

While reaffirming many recommendations last year of the district’s Teacher Effectiveness Task Force, the 58-page report by the Washington-based National Council on Teacher Quality provides national context for Superintendent John Deasy’s teacher agenda, starting with new evaluations. It is also a message of urgency from those outside the  school system to move forward. (See here for the executive summary and here for a link to the full report.)

“The task force recommendations were very good, but now we are asking for acceleration,” said Alicia Lara, vice president for community investment of the United Way. She said that the partnership with parent and community groups, including the Los Angeles Urban League and the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, will include an advocacy campaign to keep information in the report in the public’s eye.** The coalition will present findings to the LAUSD school board today.

Evaluations as linchpin for change

“Teacher Quality Road Map: Improving Practices and Policies in LAUSD” not only criticizes state laws and terms of the teachers contract but also the district itself for not acting on the flexibility it has had within laws and the contract to make wiser hiring practices and staffing decisions. The report offers two dozen recommendations in five areas: staffing, evaluations, tenure, compensation, and work schedule. But Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, said improvements in many of those areas – policies affecting transfers, pay, layoffs – hinge on more effective evaluations. Deasy recognized that as well, in making a new evaluation system his first priority. United Teachers Los Angeles is seeking an injunction to stop a volunteer pilot test of the program involving 900-plus teachers in 91 schools.

“I hope that we would all see the report (by NCTQ) as an opportunity to reflect on the way to move forward. I am worried that we will become mired in political moves to prevent improvement of teaching,” Deasy told me.

Very few teachers received a negative evaluation last year (click to enlarge).

Very few teachers received a negative evaluation last year (click to enlarge).

One message that was clear from the report, which included a survey of 1,317 teachers and 247 principals, is that everyone wants a different system. More than half of teachers reported they got no feedback or feedback once a year from their principals. Los Angeles Unified is one of a handful of the nation’s largest urban districts that, as required by state law, have a binary evaluation system that labels teachers as meeting or not meeting expectations. Last year, only 2.4 percent of teachers got a negative rating, and 79 percent got a passing rating on every one of 27 criteria used. And yet 68 percent of teachers said there were teachers in their schools who should be dismissed for poor performance. One-third of principals said they didn’t try to dismiss a poorly performing teacher because the process probably wouldn’t lead to a dismissal.

NCTQ has conducted similar studies in a half-dozen large urban districts. Most face similar personnel issues, but in some areas LAUSD’s problems are distinct. “The sheer size of LAUSD is reason enough to view its prospects for reform daunting. Add to that mix the state’s extreme financial turmoil and it becomes even harder to envision a successful turnaround strategy,” the report states. “Yet the resolve to alter the district’s course is strong and genuine, energized by the arrival of a new school superintendent and a community that is determined to move beyond rhetoric to action.”

Here are the report’s major findings and recommendations, some requiring contractual changes or legislative action and some inviting independent action by the district itself.

Teacher Placement:

Sacramento: Allow performance to be used as a factor in determining which teachers will be laid off. California is one of only a dozen states mandating layoffs by seniority. Other states allow districts to set their own criteria or make seniority one of several factors.

Sacramento: Expand California’s “lemon law,” which allows principals to refuse  teachers voluntarily seeking a position in a low-performing school, to all teachers involuntarily seeking new jobs because of layoffs.

Sacramento: Permit districts to dismiss displaced teachers who are unable to secure a new assignment after one year (they’d be on the district payroll for that year, however. Under the current financial crisis, districts are likely discouraging paying any teachers to sit out).

Contract: Eliminate the priority placement list based on seniority that forces principals to accept teachers who aren’t a good fit for their schools.

On its own: Move up the June 30 deadline when teachers must notify principals if they are returning. That would give the district a head start on hiring for the fall. As it is now, LAUSD loses good candidates to charter schools and other districts and ends up hiring most new teachers in July and August. Deasy says the district has made progress during the past year, although the report notes that the hiring problem is particularly acute in poor schools.

On its own: Educate principals in low-performing schools that they have some flexibility in rejecting priority-list teachers who won’t be a good match.

On its own: Require prospective teachers to present lesson plans (hard to believe, the district doesn’t).

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.

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.