Grading the Teachers
California Lawyer

Grading the Teachers

By Barbara Kate Repa

December 2012

illustration by Phil Foster

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Change is hard and slow for California's school systems, where the interests of students, parents, teachers, unions, and administrators often clash. But a monumental mandate - requiring that student test scores be included in their teachers' evaluations - is set to take effect this month.

It's the result of uneasy allies pushing for a long-ignored law to be enforced. Doe v. Deasy (No. BS 134604 (Los Angeles Super. Ct.)) has its roots in the 1971 Stull Act, requiring that teachers and other school employees in California be evaluated by objective criteria, including pupil progress (Cal. Educ. Code ยงยง 44660-44665). Theoretically, this standard applies to all districts in the state, although most do not comply.

In November 2011 EdVoice, a Sacramento-based nonprofit for public education reform, joined with unidentified parents and students to sue the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), along with school officials and unions. They charged that in the 41 years it's existed, the Stull Act has never been complied with - particularly its provisions for evaluating personnel.

The only named plaintiff, Alice Callaghan, runs Las Familias del Pueblo, a community center with a charter school on the edge of Skid Row. She says common sense fueled the litigation: "How can you help teachers be better teachers unless you're willing to identify them as struggling?"

Judge James Chalfant ruled in June that the school district had indeed failed to comply with Stull's strictures. He gave it until December 4 to work with unions for teachers and administrators to hammer out a new evaluation system.

The ruling was welcomed as a win by the plaintiffs - and also, somewhat ironically, by John Deasy, a defendant in the suit who months later became superintendent of LAUSD. Deasy had rankled the status quo early on by crusading for major reforms, including revamping teacher evaluations.

Steve Zimmer, a school board member also named in the lawsuit, posits that politics may have trumped meaningful reform. "The Stull Act covers the whole evaluation process," he says. "To go to court on just one provision is not about improving the teaching profession. It's about the hot-button politics of winking at evaluations using standardized test scores."

Still, no one denies that change is needed in Los Angeles's public schools. In the 2009-10 school year, for example, 79 percent of the teachers met the standard requirement (the highest possible rating) for all 27 performance indicators. Meanwhile, standardized test scores showed that only 41 percent of their students were proficient in language arts, and just 39 percent in math.

Critics of linking student performance to teacher evaluations counter that such tests measure students' test-taking skills, not necessarily their progress or the ability of teachers - and that many factors outside the classroom, such as family life and economics, affect student learning.

Todd A. Goluba, a partner at Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo, negotiated a settlement between unions and the Lucia Mar district last year to weigh student achievement gains in determining teacher bonuses. "The primary concern of teachers' unions is that if data could be used to weed out less effective teachers, the districts would be emboldened to do just that," he says. "The process of dismissing a typically ineffective teacher would cost $100,000 to $200,000. Right now, districts won't invest the money to do it."

The Associated Administrators of Los Angeles union reached an agreement with the school district in September for compliance in evaluating principals and assistant principals. It includes student performance as a measure, but also attendance and suspension rates, graduation and drop-out rates, advanced placement course enrollment, and overall percentages of passing students

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