LAUSD Ruling Clear on the Law, Won’t Shake Up the State
One week ago, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge James Chalfant issued a ruling on the use of student test scores in teacher evaluations. Reformers are crowing, unions are complaining, and most of the state’s teachers and students, heading off to summer break, are not yet aware of the ruling and the changes it might bring. For a good overview of the case and the ruling, and some interesting exchanges of comments on the ruling, see John Fensterwarld’s post in Thoughts on Public Education.
What does the judge’s ruling mean for the future of teacher evaluation? It appears to me to a rather narrow but clear ruling that will compel districts and unions to comply with California’s teacher evaluation law, widely known as the Stull Act, and in reading the judge’s summary and analysis, it’s hard for me to see any other logical outcome to this case. Districts and unions simply have not been complying with state Education Code Section 44662:
(a) The governing board of each school district shall establish standards of expected pupil achievement at each grade level in each area of study.
(b) The governing board of each school district shall evaluate and assess certificated employee performance as it reasonably relates to:
(1) 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.
On the question of whether or not the law undercuts collective bargaining, the judge writes that such an argument confuses the question of whether the district must follow the law with the question of how the district follows the law (page 14 of the ruling). In the aftermath of the ruling, the issue now becomes how districts, starting with LAUSD, will comply with the law when pressed by court order, and in that matter, the teachers and unions should still have some say. As the judge notes,
The specific means by which LAUSD complies may well be a matter subject to collective bargaining. Thus, some or all of the following may be subjects for which the District must collectively bargain: (1) whether the District adopts the AGT [Academic Growth over Time] System, uses student grades or pass/fail rates, or uses some other means of measuring student performance; (2) how student performance criteria are incorporated into teacher and administrator evaluations – e.g., as an express provision on a Stull final evaluation form or some other manner; (3) the importance of student progress in relation to the other factors for teachers and administrators are evaluated; and (4) the training requirements for principals and assistant principals in how to use student progress in teacher evaluations. (page 14)
Judge Chalfant adds in a footnote, “The court offers no opinion on which issues must be collectively bargained.” So while certain education reformers who supported the suit are sounding confident that they will get what they want out of this ruling, there is actually still much to discuss about implementation, not only in LAUSD, but any other district that sees this ruling as an impetus towards change. In fact, regarding just how much “relief” his mandate offers, the judge notes that
Petitioners may be overreaching for some of the relief they are requesting, but this does not mean they are not entitled to any relief at all. The court cannot tell the District how to implement changes to its evaluation process, but this would be true even if the unions had no labor interest in, and [the Public Employment Relations Board] had no jurisdiction over, collective bargaining issues. Mandamus [a court order] will not lie to force a public entity or official to exercise its discretionary powers in any particular manner, only to compel the agency to act in some manner.
The judge also noted, and I agree, that student learning is the goal of teaching, and therefore evidence of student learning ought to be part of a teacher evaluation. Accomplished California Teachers (ACT) included evidence of student learning as one of the core principles in our report on teacher evaluation reforms. (So, please, spare me your “defender of the status quo” retorts). However, standardized test scores are the weakest evidence of student learning, and even for some of us in tested subjects, they are poorly correlated with the standards we use in our teaching.
Now, looking ahead, are California school districts all going to fall in line and adopt something like the AGT model or other methods for using student test scores as a significant part of teacher evaluations?
I wouldn’t hold my breath. And here’s why. Despite the enthusiasm of some reformers and administrators for value-added measures in evaluations, the resistance is not going away, nor should it. Ask yourself, if the law is so clear, why have so many districts avoided real compliance with that law? Surely, if student test scores had real value in teacher evaluation, more superintendents and school boards would have used the law to force the issue earlier. This particular suit came thirteen years after the passage of the relevant provision in the Stull Act.
But use of test scores and value-added measures will actually fail to improve teacher evaluations, and many educators and educational leaders already know this. If we look to international comparisons, none of the leading nations has adopted this approach to improving education. Private schools, unencumbered by unions and educational codes, have still eschewed such measures of teaching quality.
One of our state’s most lauded superintendents is Chris Steinhauser of Long Beach Unified School District. He has been in his position for a decade (almost forever, in superintendencies) and in that time he and the district have been recognized for outstanding work and “sustained and significant improvement” by state and national leaders in education. They even took the Broad Prize for Urban Education in 2003 (and were finalists several other years). Steinhauser is now the Co-Chair of California’s Educator Excellence Task Force. What does he say about using test scores for teacher evaluation? Look at this EdWeek Commentary by Linda Darling-Hammond:
Chris Steinhauser, the superintendent in award-winning Long Beach, Calif., where schools have been nationally recognized for progress in closing the achievement gap, refuses to include state test scores in teacher evaluations. He points to one of the district’s expert veteran teachers, who routinely takes the highest-need 4th graders. Because she can move such students forward where others often cannot, they gain much more than they otherwise would. Meanwhile, other teachers who have easier classes can experience greater success, and everyone wins.
Penalizing such a teacher for taking on the toughest assignment does not make sense. Rather, Steinhauser has spread this model to other schools, allocating the best talent to the neediest students and supporting teacher collaboration.
So, I don’t imagine that this court order in Los Angeles will transform evaluations around the state. It may force some shift in focus towards an area of policy where districts and unions have seemingly agreed not to comply with a state law. If intelligent analysis, solid research, and practitioner wisdom prevail, some new contracts may emerge that meet the minimum requirements for compliance with the Stull Act, without placing undue emphasis or value on state test results. Some other contracts will undoubtedly move too far in the wrong direction. There’s still plenty of variability in local districts and collective bargaining.
Coming on Wednesday – more thoughts and reflections on this topic in light of the LAUSD ruling.