LAUSD's Leader Wants To 'Manage Out' Bad Teachers. But Does The District Know Which Ones Are Bad?

Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Austin Beutner visits an automotive classroom at Van Nuys High School on Tues., May 15, 2018. (Photo by Kyle Stokes/KPCC)

Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Austin Beutner said last week that it's time to find a way to "manage ineffective teachers out" of the district's classrooms.

Figuring out how to remove those teachers will be difficult enough for district administrators already engaged in high-stakes contract negotiations with the teachers union.

But Beutner's team may need to tackle a different challenge first: identifying precisely which teachers are "ineffective." In taking on that task, the superintendent could reignite a years-long fight over how teachers are evaluated and how those evaluations are used.

LAUSD officials shared new data with the district's school board Tuesday showing the vast majority of the district's teachers receive positive evaluations.

In any given year, roughly one-third of the district's teaching force of 24,000 gets evaluated. In each year since 2015, more than 95 percent of evaluated teachers have either "met" or "exceeded" LAUSD's expectations, the data show.

For years, educators and advocates have debated how to interpret numbers like these.

It's possible that those numbers truly reflect how many of LAUSD's 24,000 teachers aren't cutting it — that in any given year, only 250 to 300 educators in the district deserve the negative evaluations they receive.

But it's also possible to challenge the district's teacher evaluation system itself, as researchers and advocacy groups across the U.S. have in recent years — as burdensome for administrators, unhelpful for teachers and blind to how well their students perform.

As one 2016 advocacy report argued, "A system that rates close to 100 percent of teachers effective is probably not accurate."

TEACHER EVALUATIONS: A NATIONAL ISSUE

Critiques of teacher evaluations are not new, and they're not unique to L.A. Unified.

In 2009, advocacy groups nationally began to question why as many as 99 percent of teachers earned effective ratings — which, critics said, both obscured truly-excellent teaching and hid a lot of truly awful teaching.

Teachers had their own gripes. Many believed principals saw completing their evaluations "as a compliance requirement," as one 2011 report from the advocacy group Teach Plus put it, "instead of an opportunity to provide meaningful feedback to improve teaching and learning."

Between 2009 and 2015, dozens of states enacted changes to their teacher evaluation systems, according to a report from the think tank Bellwether Education Partners, with many of them introducing new rating scales designed to make the great teachers stand out from the good.

TEN YEARS LATER, WHAT HAS CHANGED?

California was not among the states to overhaul its teacher evaluation system in recent years. But LAUSD officials have enacted changes.

In 2013, then-Supt. John Deasy's attempt to unilaterally add a fourth tier — for "highly effective" teachers — to the district's three-tiered evaluation scale sparked battles with leaders of the United Teachers Los Angeles union. But in 2016, LAUSD and UTLA leaders worked out a new teacher evaluation policy — after what were, by all accounts, remarkably amicable talks.

Some teachers have watched this push warily, concerned that adding more nuanced ratings beyond "effective" and "ineffective" could be misused, perhaps as a means of punishing teachers who don't measure up. Teachers union leaders see the addition of rating categories like "highly effective" as laying the groundwork for teacher merit pay, which the unions generally oppose.

Teachers had other reasons to be suspicious. In 2010, the L.A. Times touched off a firestorm when the newspaper calculated its own job performance ratings for more than 11,000 individual LAUSD elementary school teachers, which left many educators feeling humiliated. The 2014 Vergara case, which targeted the state's teacher tenure protections, added to teachers' sense they were being singled-out.

But even after a decade of overhaul, on average, many states' evaluation systems still only identify between 3 and 5 percent of teachers as ineffective, according to one 2017 study. In LAUSD, even in schools where student performance is lowest, most teachers received positive evaluations last year, according to a report by the advocacy group Parent Revolution.

"We're 10 years into teacher evaluation reform," said Teach Plus California's executive director Sarah Lillis, "and there are some rumblings that it didn't work — it wasn't the lever people had hoped for."

'NO COMMENTS, NO NOTHING AND WE PUT IT IN A FILE'

Lillis, however, says judging whether teacher evaluations have improved is "more complicated" than looking at the final evaluation ratings; we have to pop the hood and look at who's doing the evaluating, how the evaluator is providing feedback and how much both parties believe the process is about improving the quality of teaching.

In LAUSD, for example, the process district officials and union leaders negotiated in 2016 attempted to reorient the evaluation around more coaching and mentoring for teachers.

But the changes have also put more on principals' plate. Evaluation is time-intensive, as district officials said during their briefing for school board members on Tuesday. That means, since new hires must be evaluated annually, some veteran teachers may go as many as five years without an evaluation.

As former LAUSD high school principal and current school board member George McKenna said Tuesday, sometimes overworked administrators view that evaluation as just another piece of paperwork to finish.

"I'm just going to check it off: 'Satisfactory, satisfactory, satisfactory' — no comments, no nothing, and we put it in the file," McKenna said. "And then before you know it, we get a person who has problems and you say, 'How'd they get satisfactory evaluations for nine consecutive years?'"

WHEN THE PROFESSION ISN'T A FIT

After that first "below standard" rating, district administrators said Tuesday, it can take another two years and further sub-standard evaluations for a teacher to be dismissed for poor performance — to say nothing of the disciplinary notices and evidentiary hearings.

This is the process Beutner appears to want to streamline.

Even if only a relative handful of the district's 24,000 teachers aren't cutting it, the superintendent said in an interview with KPCC/LAist last week, "That doesn't mean we can ignore the issue. What do we do about the few people who wound up in a profession that doesn't best suit them?"

LAUSD board members agreed Tuesday to reconvene their conversation about the district's teacher evaluation results and discipline procedures at a future date.

It's a conversation UTLA believes to be a distraction from the current contract talks. As one union officer said following Tuesday's speech, addressing "ineffective teachers" is "a policy narrative that has come and went."


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