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 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.