A former superintendent of the El Monte City School District today became the latest defense witness in Vergara v California to describe how school administrators can work within state laws to craft policies and strategies for dealing with ineffective teachers.
Jeff Seymour, who spent 25 years as the superintendent, told the court that a well-defined teacher evaluation system, including what the district calls “compelling conversations” and “performance plans,” allows administrators to monitor teachers’ progress and eliminate the ineffective ones from the classroom.
“If teachers are struggling one way or another and they need support, we make sure teachers get what is needed to be successful,” he said.
Seymour’s testimony added one more voice to the defense’s strategy in the case, calling on a witness from yet another California school district to describe innovative strategies that enable districts to overcome the laws plaintiffs charge protect ineffective teachers and deny children a quality education.
The case has been brought by nine students against the state, with the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers joining the defense. It is focusing on statutes that govern tenure, dismissal and seniority as the sole criterion for layoffs.
Seymour testified that the El Monte district, which is east of downtown Los Angeles, implemented a number of policies to track and monitor both teachers’ and students’ performance, all with the goal of preventing teachers from becoming ineffective.
One policy, he explained, has students, parents and the teacher sign a contract that articulates performance goals for the student. In another teachers and principles meet three times a year to discuss teacher performance, the so-called “compelling conversations.”
He also said the the district carefully monitors probationary teachers, telling the court that new teachers receive two formal observations during the year along with a number of informal observations each semester.
As part of the evaluation process, he said, principals must observe new teachers once a week. When asked by defense lawyer Glenn Rothner, “Do site administrators have too much to do to devote that kind of time,” Seymour said, “No.”
Seymour’s testimony also helped support the defense’s position that the contested tenure law doesn’t provide for enough time to make an informed decision on a teacher’s potential for success.
Rothner asked “If you had doubts about a teacher’s effectiveness what would you do?”
“Generally,” he answered, “we would not retain a teacher if we had doubts about her effectiveness.”
In a series of questions about the state’s dismissal laws, and whether they serve a useful purpose, Seymour agreed that they do, saying they help “protect teachers from arbitrary decisions that might be made by a principal or district for reasons not related to their teaching competence.”
Seymour also said that using reverse-seniority for layoff considerations served the district better than teacher evaluations based on student standardized test scores.
With such a change, he said, “teachers would be far less willing to work together cooperatively.”
In his cross-examination, Marcellus McRae, took aim at Seymour’s assertion that the district didn’t use test scores to make employment decisions on teachers and that despite the district’s innovative policies, achievement gaps between ethnic groups persisted.
He also tried to undercut the former superintendent’s testimony that school administrators had sufficient time to make tenure decisions, pointing out that most of the teachers whom Seymour evaluated were already experienced teachers, which required less time.
After Seymour, the defense shifted its focus to the Oakland Unified School District, attempting to show that inadequate resources was a primary reason for ineffective teachers.
Betty Olson-Jones, a teacher and former President of the Oakland Education Association, the city’s teacher union, testified about poor working conditions in the district and the high rate of teacher turnover and burnout.
When asked by defense attorney Eileen Goldsmith about the district’s system of teacher evaluations, Olson-Jones said it was “inconsistent at best,” and more recently “spotty.”
But on cross examination, plaintiffs’ attorney Josh Lipshutz attempted to show that poverty and lack of money are no excuses for ineffective teaching. Olson-Jones conceded the district needs additional funding as well as effective teachers.
Before court concluded, the defense called Theresa Clark, Director of Professional Services with the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing.
Through her testimony, Deputy State Attorney Nimrod Elias attempted to show that teachers who go through the state two-year induction program and receive their teaching credentials, are considered effective.
The defense contends the induction period gives school administrators another tool to determine whether to grant tenure to new teachers within the statutory framework of two years.
But plaintiffs maintain that acquiring a teaching credential doesn’t ensure a teacher will be effective, especially because the induction period runs beyond the March 15 date in a probationary teacher’s second year of teaching when school officials have to decide whether to offer tenure.
Plaintiffs’ attorney Kyle Withers, on cross examination, asked Clarke whether any of the strategies in the induction program guaranteed a teacher will achieve student learning gains.
“No,” she said.
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