Ask students what made the most difference to their education and chances are they will point to an especially good – or bad – teacher. Ask parents about the quality of their child’s education and one of the first topics they’ll discuss will be the quality of their child’s teachers. Every California student deserves a high-quality teacher.

The bad news is the current legislative session is ending without a new teacher evaluation bill. The good news is Assemblymember Felipe Fuentes and others have made important progress over the past year through Fuentes’ proposal, AB 5 (PDF version). He has brought important constituencies – not just teachers and administrators, but parents and students, too – to the table to weigh in on the bill and make suggestions for improving it.

Now that AB 5 has become a two-year bill, we have some additional breathing room to develop this ambitious policy reform, but it is imperative that state policymakers act next year to make this reform happen.

The need for change

There is broad agreement that our teacher evaluation system – if you can call it that – is broken and needs to be fundamentally reformed. Under current law and practice in California, evaluations are conducted for compliance purposes, rather than as a foundational component of a professional development system. Such a system would accomplish two goals:  (1) support all teachers so they can continually improve their practice, and (2) identify ineffective teachers for remediation and, if they fail to improve quickly, dismissal.

Sadly, the status quo is failing to achieve either end. Large numbers of teachers capable of improving are not being supported to achieve their greatest potential, and some ineffective teachers are remaining in the classroom year after year without improvement. How are low-performing students and schools supposed to improve when ineffective teachers are getting tossed around their districts like the proverbial hot potato?

Getting ahead of federal mandates

Reform might finally be on its way. The federal government is prodding states and districts to adopt meaningful teacher evaluation systems. Both Race to the Top and the School Improvement Grant program encourage adoption of teacher evaluation systems, and the eventual reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is expected to ramp up the pressure to do so. Given that federal policymakers will likely defer to state systems already in place, California would do well to get ahead of the curve and adopt a system before its options are unduly limited by federal parameters.

We would have hoped to have seen more support from the teachers unions for AB 5 by now. They have been willing to engage in the discussion, but remain fearful (we think unduly so) that the bill will result in an overly punitive evaluation system, too reliant on standardized test scores rather than on the multiple measures that we and our grassroots partners have advocated for.

The fact is, though, that teachers on the ground want better evaluation systems. They’re not happy with continually carrying their underperforming colleagues or inheriting those colleagues’ underprepared students. Outspoken, highly effective classroom teachers are some of the most articulate spokespersons on how teacher evaluation should be reformed. Accomplished California Teachers, or ACT, a California coalition of National Board Certified teachers, has released a thoughtful set of recommendations for reforming teacher evaluation in California. These progressive teachers have felt the need to raise their voices because improving our teacher evaluation system is so critical to building their professional capacity and enabling them to continue the excellent work they do.

Most importantly, the students and parents who are served by our public education system are clamoring for teacher evaluation reform. Ask any parent whose child has ever been taught by an ineffective teacher, forced to let the broken evaluation system run its lengthy course as the months of the school year ticked by.

The student and parent members of grassroots community organizations, such as those in the Campaign for Quality Education, have worked hard to pursue a legislative solution through AB 5, and have even included teacher evaluation reform and equal access to prepared and effective teachers in their lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of California’s school finance system. All students in California deserve to be taught by effective teachers, and it’s inspiring to be working with so many students and parents who are demanding that the state take action.

AB 5’s benefits

AB 5 is a strong step toward reforming teacher evaluation in California. The bill would require school districts to adopt and implement a teacher evaluation system grounded in best practices. It would also require that teachers be evaluated based on evidence of student academic growth (using multiple measures) and evidence of effective teaching practice (as measured through multiple classroom observations by trained evaluators).

The bill sets defined parameters for what a local teacher evaluation system must include, but is purposefully designed to allow districts to experiment and pilot different systems, much as Los Angeles Unified is currently doing. This is appropriate. Nobody has yet figured out what works best in terms of teacher evaluation (though there are important lessons to be drawn from limited experiments, such as the TAP system). Other states that have recently passed statewide teacher evaluation requirements are just in the beginning stages of implementation. It makes good sense for California to foster experimentation at the local level within certain fixed parameters (like requiring the evaluation measure be significantly based on student learning or, as we propose, that it include student and parent input) and then evaluate which systems are most successful, and why.

Link to revenues needed

There is still room to strengthen AB 5 to ensure that our new teacher evaluation system helps the vast majority of capable teachers become even better and identifies the relatively few who need remediation and, if necessary, removal.

Some have rightfully criticized the current bill because it ties implementation to improved revenues (i.e., elimination of the “deficit factor”). Like others, we want to see teacher evaluation reform happen sooner rather than later. But we also recognize that a teacher evaluation system must be funded to succeed.

Administrators, for example, must have the training and the time to conduct multiple evaluations of their teachers – not simply have additional responsibilities heaped on their plates in an era when districts are slashing administrative positions. (Before the budget cuts of the past three years, California already ranked 48th out of 50 states in terms of its ratio of students to principals.)

Districts will need training, technical assistance, and support in order to collect and analyze data on student growth from multiple indicators across subject areas and grade levels. We would be putting the cart before the horse and setting ourselves up for failure if we mandated teacher evaluation reform without providing the resources districts need to implement it. The coming months should be spent figuring out how to pay for teacher evaluation reform.

Empowering key stakeholders

Others have criticized AB 5’s requirement that some aspects of a district’s teacher evaluation system be locally bargained, fearing that this would create an opening for strong local unions to seek a toothless system. We disagree. We think AB 5 properly balances requiring key elements – like having the system be based on student learning and good teaching practice – with a recognition that teachers must take ownership of their evaluation system if they are going to put stock in its results and support the consequences.

Parents and students should be included in a public process of designing and implementing a local teacher evaluation system. As with teachers, their support is critical to the legitimacy, sustainability, and effectiveness of the new system. They will be the ones holding both the district and the union accountable for results.

The feedback of students and parents should be a required component of the teacher evaluations as well, as other states, like Massachusetts, are pursuing and as districts like LAUSD are now piloting. After all, they are the clients the system is intended to serve. Research from the Gates-funded Measures of Effective Teaching Project shows that students know good teaching when they see it, and can provide meaningful data on teacher effectiveness through student surveys. Fuentes has agreed to incorporate student and parent input, but important details remain to be worked out.

Push now, refine later

In the year ahead, we must work together to get AB 5 to a place where it can be passed and implemented quickly and meaningfully. As with other states, we are venturing into uncharted territory in developing a system for fairly and rigorously measuring teacher effectiveness and then using the results to improve the teaching force.

Let’s push ahead, and refine later as necessary. As any child whose education has been hijacked by an ineffective teacher will tell you, we have waited long enough. Implementing a new, well-funded evaluation and support system could be our best hope for ensuring that the vast majority of teachers unleash their full potential for effectively educating all our children.

John Affeldt is Managing Attorney at Public Advocates Inc., a nonprofit law firm and advocacy organization that challenges the systemic causes of poverty and racial discrimination by strengthening community voices in public policy. A leading voice on educational equity issues, he has been recognized as an Attorney of the Year in California by both California Lawyer Magazine and The Recorder and also as a Leading Plaintiff Lawyer in America by Lawdragon Magazine.

Melia Franklin

Melia Franklin

Melia Franklin is Executive Director of Parent Leadership Action Network (PLAN), a regional network in the Bay Area working to unite and strengthen diverse parents and organizations to promote racial justice in public education. Melia is also a member of the Coordinating Committee of the Campaign for Quality Education and a mother of three children in Oakland public schools.

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  1. CarolineSF says:

    Of course parents should have input, though the potential impact of the “if you flunk my child I’ll make sure you’re fired” obvious effect could be devastating to the quality of education, to say the least.

  2. CarolineSF says:

    Replying to @el: Re “teacher assignments to schools can be made without the person doing the assigning knowing the teacher and without the input of the receiving principal…”
    Well, this is part of a seniority system — something that if worded one way sounds irrational and if worded another way makes sense, not that it will necessarily win universal approval. Say one school in a district has to cut a teaching position due to budget crisis or dropping enrollment. The position is cut, but the teacher who actually has to leave is the lowest-seniority teacher rather than the teacher occupying the position that was cut, and teachers will be rotated by seniority to backfill (if the teachers so choose). In a large district, this can involve many schools and can  mean teachers rotating into a school without the input of the principal. For that matter, in my district, San Francisco Unified, the secretary/clerk/typist level is part of a pool with the City and County of San Francisco, so in cases of staffing cuts, secretaries can rotate into a school from the Department of Public Health or from a school into airport operations or whatever.
    One problematic effect is that teachers may arrive at a school without the approval of the principal. We probably all know the arguments for and against such a system.

  3. el says:

    I would say also that good principal evaluations – and/or evaluations of the team doing the evaluating – are just as important, perhaps more important – than teacher evaluations. Does AB 5 address that?

  4. Mary Johnson says:

    I think it about times that all stakeholders have a say in teacher evalution. I think a parent of students of teacher and a colleague of teacher. plus student should be part of evaluation. It was never fair that one individual can make a decision about person abilities/skills.  More insight is needed  such as feed back from students on what goes on in classroom every, and from parents on how the teachers  outreach/engage parents in their child education. This method seem more fair than one individual deciding the faith of  teachers. Principals and teachers bump head alot and I wouldn’t want some doing my evaluation that I have different with. This is the biggest barrier on school campus is evaluation . There a wall principals on one side and teachers on the otherside, it times to bring the wall and include all voices , that would allow students and parents have voices in what we need in our schoos, High Quality Teachers with high expectation for all our children of color.

  5. el says:

    I think LAUSD may just be too freaking big. I also think that the solution for LAUSD may not be the solution for other districts where administrators are closer to staff and students. In particular, one of the things that concerns me, if I understand correctly, is that teacher assignments to schools can be made without the person doing the assigning knowing the teacher and without the input of the receiving principal.
    I want the person evaluating to drop in on a class multiple times a year, and I want the whole venture to be seen as a cooperative effort — that is, everyone should understand that the evaluator’s job is to provide feedback and discussion and ideas and to be something that the teacher welcomes and enjoys, not fears and loathes. It needs to be a constructive discussion between professionals, and less of the idea of a lioness looking for the weakest member of the herd to cull.

  6. TransParent® says:

    @el, yes, strong professional development helps but who determines what that is or what it looks like? Who aligns, monitors and evaluates the myriad of programs paid for with so much federal and state money year after year? I have been asking this question As an example, we have improved our efforts to do this somewhat in LAUSD but there is enormous waste in the sourcing and provision of these programs and all too often, the teachers (I’ll include the students and parents here, too) are not given the latitude to determine what would (or should) work best for THEM. In California, we are about to make yet another huge promise to support – fiscally and otherwise – a move to national standards.
    Years ago, as a part of a proposal for policy and accountability recommendations that I submitted to LAUSD, I included the following – which is still true today only more so when considering the weight of budget realities and employment seniority policies:
    Teacher Quality and Training. The District is struggling with being able to recruit, train and retain quality teachers. Is LAUSD able to keep all of its teacher training programs straight? How do we know that we’re actually making any progress with all of the various training and professional development activities. We don’t even make an effort to comply with the “sunshine” provisions of the Rodda Act. How do we align teacher training resources and programs at the federal, state and county level with those of LAUSD?
    Recommendation: Tie integration of professional development (PD) to performance evaluations. Create a system to evaluate PD and to hold participants accountable for implementation of what they learn. Qualify PD during collective bargaining discussions and include parents and high school students as a part of those discussions. >>

    Here’s what came out of the LAUSD Superintendent’s Accountability Task Force…. in 1998… 13 years ago.
    “Reinvent the employee salary compensation structure so as to support new teachers and other employees with an emphasis on knowledge and skills. This principle is taken from other successful compensation models in government and the private sector. It recognizes initiative and the special skills and experience each employee brings to the job.”

  7. el says:

    Of course, there is nothing in current law that prevents districts from creating and implementing their own teacher evaluation programs now. And they should: it’s part of a strong professional development program, and great professional development builds a great team of teachers.