A reportedly “historic” teacher evaluation deal between Los Angeles Unified and the teachers union would solidify the dismal status quo.

A substantive settlement in the Doe vs. Deasy lawsuit would drag the Los Angeles Unified School District into the 21st Century. In November of 2011, I wrote

…a half-dozen anonymous families working with EdVoice, a reform advocacy group in Sacramento, filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court against the LAUSD, district superintendent John Deasy, and United Teachers Los Angeles. The lawsuit in essence accuses the district and the union of a gross dereliction of duty. According to the parents’ complaint, the district and the union have violated the children’s “fundamental right to basic educational equality and opportunity” by failing to comply with a section of the California Education Code known as the Stull Act. Under the 1971 law, a school district must include student achievement as part of a teacher’s evaluation. Los Angeles Unified has never done so: the teachers union wouldn’t allow it.

In 1999, the state legislature amended the law, named after the late Republican state senator John Stull, to require that “the governing board of each school district shall evaluate and assess certificated employee performance as it reasonably relates to: the progress of pupils toward the standards established pursuant to subdivision (a) and, if applicable, the state adopted academic content standards as measured by state adopted criterion referenced assessments.” In plainer words, a teacher’s evaluation must be based at least in part on how well her students perform on state tests.

In June, a judge ruling in favor of the plaintiffs said that student performance must be used as part of a teacher’s evaluation. Then this past Friday, after months of negotiation, the school district and union did reach what is being called a tentative settlement. (The final details of the agreement must be submitted to the judge by end of business day today.) That’s the good news. The bad news is that the terms of the agreement (as written so far) are so vague as to be meaningless. The United Teachers of Los Angeles immediately posted a summary of key elements on its website. The first part says,

No individual AGT/VAM in final evaluation: As specified in this agreement, a teacher’s individual AGT results cannot be used to form the basis for any performance objective or be used in the final evaluation (SECTION 1.3E).

This means that “academic growth over time (AGT)” or “value added measurements (VAM)”   which assess the value or improvement that a teacher adds to a student’s knowledge base via a standardized test score during the time that the student is in the teacher’s classroom – cannot be used. The district had wanted to use AGT as 30 percent of the total assessment, but the union collectively bargained that reasonable number down to zero. Instead,

The teacher and administrator will determine data sources: The multiple measures of student progress for the initial planning sheets will be determined by the administrator and the employee. These measures may include:

• data such as a teacher’s past CST results (not AGT), current students’ previous CST results, and school-level CST/AGT data, and

• authentic evidence of student learning, such as teacher-created assessments, student projects and portfolios, semester/unit culminating activities, and periodic assessments (SECTION 1.3A-G).

None of these measures are to be treated as the “sole, primary or controlling” factors in determining the overall final evaluation (SECTION 2.0A).

In other words, it’s business as usual. There is way too much wiggle room here. This ruling was supposed to bring forth a more objective way to assess teachers and add an accountability factor. But with this settlement, incompetent teachers and unaccountable principals can survive lengthy careers and irreparably damage millions of children. Curiously, absent a savvy principal, an excellent teacher can be made to appear to be mediocre. It cannot be stressed enough that principals in Los Angeles, though technically at-will employees, live in the same “culture of non-accountability” as teachers, and if this agreement is accepted as is, these administrators will have a bigger and more important role in assessing teacher quality. As Stanford Professor Eric Hanushek points out, principals can make a huge difference in a school’s performance. Yet they have not been held to any real liability. So we will now have evaluation methods “determined by the administrator and the employee” with neither party being held accountable for student learning.

Also, it’s no secret that the process to fire an incompetent teacher is so expensive and time-consuming that few principals even make the effort. This issue must be directly addressed as part of this agreement or school kids in Los Angeles will continue to be victimized by the current dysfunctional system.

Amazingly, the powers that be are gushing over the preliminary agreement. Superintendent John Deasy went so far as to declare the new plan “historic.” LAUSD school board President Monica Garcia damned the deal with faint praise, saying it is “absolutely, by all accounts, better than what we have today.”

The agreement is not written in stone yet. After receiving some final add-ons, the judge will assess whether it fulfills all the legal requirements of the Stull Act. If it passes that hurdle, the UTLA rank-and-file gets to vote on it in January.

Additionally, while the agreement applies to LA only, the rest of the school districts and local unions in the state will be watching. They too will have to follow the law and implement some kind of evaluation plan, and very well may use this deal as a template. Unless new details emerge or the judge tosses this version into the round file, the teachers union gets the last laugh and the children yet again get the shaft.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.

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