In Partnership with The 74

As LA’s teachers union prepares to strike, here’s something that could be a bigger hang-up than raises: how to identify great teachers

Laura Greanias | September 24, 2018



As LA Unified and its teachers union enter into mediation this week and the union prepares for a strike, their differences over how teachers are evaluated could be harder to resolve than how much pay raises will be.

The district wants to add a new category of teacher ratings, called highly effective, as part of its strategy to raise student achievement, attract and retain good teachers, and keep families in the district. The union has steadfastly opposed identifying top performers or paying those teachers more, and it wants the district to replace the current teacher evaluation system, which has three tiers of ratings, with one that was created more than two decades ago and does not include ratings.

The two sides “fundamentally disagree” on this issue, the district says. “You continue to reject any effort to recognize highly effective teachers,” it stated in its response to the final offer of United Teachers Los Angeles.

The new superintendent, school board members, and parent and advocacy groups have all focused on teacher quality in the weeks running up to mediation.

“An ineffective teacher can cause students to lose more than a year of learning, which is setting students up for failure,” Superintendent Austin Beutner said this month in his first major policy speech, calling for a high-quality teacher in every classroom and a more efficient way of moving ineffective teachers out.

• Read more: What’s the value of being able to identify highly effective teachers? Q&A with Daniel Weisberg, education advocate and chief executive of TNTP

UTLA maintains that teacher evaluations are a distraction during this year’s contract negotiations. As one union officer told LAist after Beutner’s speech last week, addressing “ineffective teachers” is “a policy narrative that has come and went.” UTLA did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

The district is prepared to match the salary increases it recently approved for its other labor unions, but it wants to move the needle on teacher quality as it strives to improve student achievement.

“I think given what we are prepared to offer in terms of compensation, similar to other units, around 6 percent, it would be fair to get something in return,” Nick Melvoin, vice president of the LA Unified school board, said in an interview Thursday.

“It’s important to talk not solely about salaries when there are a lot of other things that we’re trying to do. This is in the context of a district that needs massive improvement. We want to use this as an opportunity to drive the district forward, not just give raises or compensation, but think about what we also believe to be important to raising achievement.”

But would the disagreement over adding a top category for teacher evaluations “be the reason we would walk away from negotiations? Probably not, because we believe we can settle and it’s important to keep schools open,” Melvoin said.

“Obviously, we do not want a strike,” Deputy Superintendent Vivian Ekchian said Monday. “The delivery of instruction in our classrooms and the high quality attached to it is our No. 1 priority, and we’re here to recruit the best, assign appropriately to schools where they can be more successful, and offer the support necessary for them to continue to build competency so that every student in every classroom has a high-quality teacher. … But it’s a joint responsibility. We have to build capacity together.”

DISAGREEMENT OVER HOW TO EVALUATE TEACHERS

There has been little change in at least a decade in how the district assesses its teachers, though in 2015-16 it added a third category, exceeds standards, to two pre-existing rankings: meeting standards or below standards. Without a third category, the district could have lost federal funding.

Three years ago, during the last contract negotiations, then-Superintendent John Deasy tried to add a category for highly effective teachers. UTLA argued that Deasy was trying to lay the groundwork for merit-based pay and took the issue to the state labor board. A judge ruled in the union’s favor.

The district currently uses the LAUSD Teaching and Learning Framework, which has 61 elements,  to assess teachers. UTLA wants the district to use the California Standards for the Teaching Profession, which doesn’t have teacher rating categories.

As Ekchian explained, that document was created in 1997 and lacks the detail of the current framework: “I think we’ve come a long way since then and we have built a better forum, more detailed, with the student in mind.”

The current “framework is specifically addressing the expectations for effective teaching practices in the classroom, so it’s very detailed in terms as of what one should be able to see in the classroom,” Ekchian said. “The California Standards for the Teaching Profession is also a valuable document, and our work is aligned with that, but it’s not as specific. So you have an overall goal, but it’s not what we’re looking at: We have reflective questions, we have conversations about teaching practice, we also speak to the policies that the teachers have to adhere to in the school district. So ours is far more detailed.”

Board member Kelly Gonez, who was a teacher, said Monday that “we could better differentiate and add a fourth tier,” but she was concerned about the tone of some of the discussions around teacher quality.

“I think it’s important to talk about teacher evaluation. It’s a critical tool for growth,” Gonez said. “I think we know, unfortunately, that there are large gaps in opportunities and in achievement across our district. And so one of the things that we think might be a great way to help improve our struggling schools is making sure that we have high-quality teachers in every classroom,” as well as making sure “we’re supporting them so they stay in the classroom, that we help them develop so they reach their full potential, and that we’re retaining them.

“But it’s also about making sure that teachers see the value in the system, and they have to find it useful in order for that to make an impact in their classrooms. It has to be a fair process, it has to be authentic, and it has to be focused on student outcomes, rather than indicating that we are looking for bad teachers. Because I think the vast majority of our teachers are working really hard to support our students.

“Unfortunately, I hear from some teachers that they feel like they’re not being not feeling valued, and it’s on us. We absolutely want to focus on improving their quality, but we need to make clear that we value our teachers.”

FOCUS ON QUALITY

School board members discussed teacher quality at their meeting last week and were briefed on how teachers are hired and fired. Only the first part of what was supposed to be a four-hour examination of the topic was delivered, with the rest put off until a later date.

The data showed:

  • It takes three years to fire an ineffective teacher.
  • 96 percent of teachers met standards last year, with 22 percent exceeding standards.
  • 4 percent of teachers were below standards.
  • About a third of the district’s roughly 25,000 K-12 teachers are evaluated each year.
  • 400 teachers have not been evaluated for at least five years.

In the last five years, the number of teachers deemed to have “below standard performance” has risen slightly but remains mostly unchanged — roughly 4 percent.

Last year, 295 of the district’s 7,623 teachers, or just under 4 percent, were rated below standard, slightly more than the 242 teachers who received that rating in the 2013-14 school year. By contrast, 22 percent — 1,696 teachers — exceeded standards last year.

One reason for the stagnant number of teachers in the “below standard” rating could be that only about a third of educators are evaluated every year at LA Unified, which is similar to nationwide trends, officials said Tuesday. But in LA Unified, principals and teachers can decide to extend the period between evaluations to five years.

The district interviews about 5,000 teacher candidates each year and has had to hire about 2,700 a year, in part because it’s losing about 1,500 a year. In 2015-16, the district hired 2,545 teachers, and 1,586 left.

INFREQUENT EVALUATIONS

After the presentation, Melvoin asked if the list of the 400 teachers who have not been evaluated for at least five years could be made available to parents, but he was told there is no place for that information to be released. Parents cannot view or weigh in on teacher evaluations, or even see how often educators at their school are rated.

“It takes us three years to evaluate someone out of the district,” board member Richard Vladovic said. “Where is the apology letter to parents? It takes three years, and we’ve destroyed the lives of 150 kids.”

District officials acknowledged that in private industry, most employees are evaluated annually. They said principals have been sent a list of teachers who must be evaluated this year, including those who are untenured, those who were disciplined last year, and those who have not been evaluated for five years.

“We recognize that there’s no other place that we’re aware of, in private industry in particular, where someone’s evaluation process is every five years,” Ekchian responded. She said the district is “working toward more streamlined (evaluations), and more often.” Long Beach uses evaluations as a tool for professional development, “and that’s our next step, to be aligned with that.”

Vladovic questioned whether the current evaluation system was actually making things better.

“Does it result in better teaching?” he asked. “No, it hasn’t made a difference. The perennial schools are still failing. It hasn’t produced the results we want. It has not produced improved student achievement. It hasn’t made us more accountable. And it’s killed off our principals who are now gun-shy from doing it.”

FEWER EVALUATIONS AT LOWEST-PERFORMING SCHOOLS

If the district’s average evaluation rate is low compared to the private workforce, it’s even lower at the 44 LA Unified schools with the worst test scores.

At the district’s lowest-performing schools, more than two-thirds of teachers were not evaluated last year, according to Parent Revolution, a nonprofit advocacy organization that in June released an analysis of three years of teacher evaluation data at LA Unified.

Only one of those 44 schools evaluated more than half their teachers, and only 17 teachers were rated below standards. From 2014 to 2017, 23 of the schools gave every teacher who was evaluated a satisfactory rating, even though the schools had the lowest test scores in the district.

After Parent Revolution released the data, Melvoin called for more regular evaluations of teachers.

At Tuesday’s school board meeting, Melvoin asked if there was a way to incentivize teachers to teach in the highest-needs schools. Ekchian said the contract doesn’t prohibit it and that the district can offer $3,000 for a teacher to go to a high-need school, another $3,000 if he or she stays there for five years, and $5,000 if the teacher earns a master’s degree.

But she pointed out that the challenge was “not just recruitment, but retention.”

Melvoin also asked about the requirement that teachers be hired first from a “must-place” list. Last year, the “must-place” teachers, who have been displaced from their schools but not rehired at another school, cost the district about $15 million, and an independent review panel has urged LA Unified to end the pool.

In June, the board unanimously passed a resolution that exempts the principals of the lowest-performing schools from having to hire off the must-place list, and officials reported Tuesday that those schools are now taking advantage of that freedom.

• Read more: LAUSD board frees principals of struggling schools from having to hire teachers sent to them by the district

But at Tuesday’s board meeting Ekchian raised the question of cost. When schools hire teachers who aren’t already on the payroll, the district would have to cut other things to be able to afford it, she said.

A 2011 survey found that “the majority of principals in LAUSD were rarely or never satisfied with the teachers they were forced to hire from the must-place list,” said Kency Nittler, manager for teacher trends at the National Council on Teacher Quality, a research and policy group. Its survey found that 3 in 4 principals said they were unable to hire their teacher of choice because they needed to hire from the must-place list and that those teachers were rarely, if ever, a good fit for their school.

PARENTS AND TEACHERS MEET

The parent advocacy organization Speak UP has been organizing a series of collaborative meetings between LA Unified parents and teachers to discuss ways to create a contract that both values teachers and puts kids first.

There was broad consensus in the group that teachers should be evaluated and given productive feedback more frequently, that stakeholder feedback and student growth should be a part of evaluations, and that teachers should be rewarded for excellent performance. The group has been discussing its findings with district officials ahead of mediation.

“Parents and teachers agree that more frequent and meaningful evaluation benefits both teachers and kids,” Lisa Stevens, a teacher at Sotomayor Center for Arts and Sciences who facilitated the meetings, wrote in an email.

“We also agree that teachers who are doing a great job should be able to move up the pay scale more quickly without having to take so many classes that may not have anything to do with the subjects we teach. Overall, we found it constructive to hear each other’s perspectives, and we’re encouraged that parents and teachers can work together, have a productive dialogue and find so much common ground,” Stevens said.

“As we start to ensure that there’s an effective teacher in every classroom, which I think is the key to raising the district from 30 percent proficiency in math to 100, and 40 percent proficiency in English to 100, and 47 percent A-G graduation to 100 — the key to that is a great teacher,” Melvoin said last week. “We want to understand where they are, who they are, how they became great, and figure out how to learn from them. My hunch is that there’s so much great teaching and learning going on within the district that sometimes we just have to learn from what’s happening as opposed to just reinventing the wheel.”

He added, “Parents should know where are these teachers, and is there an equitable distribution. Are there certain schools with none of the highly effective teachers, are there certain communities where there are less of them?”

Eckhian said the issue of teacher evaluations is not the only area where the two sides differ, “but at the end of the day, human capital is very important, and our building competencies amongst our teachers is very important to the district. It’s not interpreted as punitive, it’s not interpreted as a hammer, it is really truly building the capacities and commitment of teachers who are serving our students.”

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