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John Affeldt

John Affeldt

The Chicago teachers’ strike is the most recent example of how bloody the ideological debate over teacher evaluation has become in this country. Though not the only issue in Chicago, how to evaluate teachers and the role of standardized tests in that process has been at the core of the contentiousness in the Windy City. In California, we recently saw our own version of the teacher evaluation debate turn toxic with the demise of AB 5.

Assemblymember Felipe Fuentes’ bill sought to significantly reform the Stull Act, the moribund 41-year-old process for evaluating teachers. With one day left in the legislative session, Fuentes pulled his bill after dozens of inside interests and some outside advocates created a near hysteria over the fear of expanded union rights and diminished achievement measures.

AB 5 was not perfect, but for the community groups and advocates who supported it, its demise represents the loss of a much-needed reform of the state’s teacher evaluation system. In its stead, our public schools are left with the status quo of drive-by evaluations under the Stull Act, where teachers go years without meaningful feedback and rarely, if ever, have their professional development informed by the evaluation process. In figuring out a way forward, it’s worth examining the loudest arguments opposing AB 5 and whether and how to address them.

First, it’s interesting to note that 10 days after AB 5’s defeat, State Superintendent Tom Torlakson’s Task Force on Educator Excellence released its Greatness by Design report, proposing the most significant overhaul of teacher quality in a generation for California. The Task Force that Torlakson convened was a cross-section of superintendents, principals, teachers, researchers, labor, student advocates, and policymakers. Among its recommendations on teacher evaluation were many of the exact reforms AB 5 had come so close to enacting, including ensuring districts adopt systems that:

  • utilize multiple measures to examine both student learning and teaching practice but without relying on unstable and unreliable state standardized test scores;
  • must be based on the California Standards for the Teaching Profession;
  • are sophisticated enough to distinguish between excellent teaching and merely satisfactory (versus only the current satisfactory vs. unsatisfactory distinctions);
  • feed into professional development and support for educators who need assistance; and
  • necessarily grow out of a collective labor/management vision for improving instructional quality.

Not enough testing?

The two primary arguments opponents asserted against AB 5 were that it watered down the role of standardized tests in measuring student learning and that it dangerously expanded union rights to collectively bargain evaluations. Though some opponents never stopped repeating the testing-dilution straw man, in fact the bill was amended to ensure that it did no more or less than the Stull Act or the recent Doe v. Deasy decision in Los Angeles as regards the use of standardized tests.  The bill required that state and local standardized tests be used in measuring student learning but left the precise role of such tests to local discretion.

In fact, for some opponents increasing the use of ill-suited state standardized tests for individual teacher evaluation is a major piece of their agenda. Groups like Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst and Democrats for Education Reform want to see students’ scores on state standardized tests make up as much as 50 percent of a teacher’s performance rating. A key goal for many so-called “education reformers” these days is to require not just the use of some type of appropriate standardized test for evaluating teachers, but the significant use of state standardized achievement test scores. When I have had frank conversations with some, it’s clear to me that being able to compare teacher quality judgments across a given state is more important to them than making sure each district actually has in place a meaningful, high-quality evaluation system.

Yet, as pointed out in the Educator Excellence Task Force report, leading research organizations like the National Research Council strenuously warn against using state standardized test scores to evaluate any unit lower than school-level performance. These tests prove entirely too unreliable and variable when measuring individual teacher performance. About half of top performers one year score below average the next, and the same proportion of the bottom performers simultaneously jump to average or above. Also, teachers of students with disabilities and new English Learners are systematically penalized with low ratings based on state standardized test scores, no matter the supposedly sophisticated statistical machinations employed to control for such factors. The fact that teachers who are effective with such students can still be penalized for teaching them creates a huge and troubling disincentive for serving in our neediest classrooms.

Finally, many state tests, like California’s, are not “vertically aligned,” which is a psychometrician’s way of saying they only tell you if a student is proficient or not at a given grade level and are incapable of illustrating a student’s growth outside that grade span.

As an advocate for kids, I’d really like to make teacher quality comparisons across districts too, but the technology just isn’t there yet. Our highest priority, instead, has to be on developing good systems for districts rather than first promoting comparable but questionable metrics to satisfy someone’s reform agenda.

Too much bargaining?

The most understandable fear of many AB 5 opponents was that it would have subjected the evaluation process to collective bargaining in new and untold ways. There is more than a little greyness under California law about what exactly must be bargained in the teacher evaluation process.

Personally, I did not read AB 5 as expanding the reach of collective bargaining beyond existing law, which requires evaluation processes be bargained and allows districts to set performance standards, but admittedly the statute was not a model of clarity on the point. Still, AB 5’s collective bargaining language was placed in the bill in the summer of 2011, and no one claimed the provision would alter the education universe as we know it. Only when the bill was close to passing last month did the collective bargaining doomsday scenario suddenly surface. When Fuentes agreed to amendments in the last few days that sought to placate district concerns, it was too late to unpoison the atmosphere. The safest future course would seem to be language clarifying that the existing bargaining balance in the Stull Act should continue.

On the merits of the collective bargaining question, I have to ask, though: Is all the fuss really well-considered? Long Beach Unified is thought to have a model teacher evaluation program; it has been collectively bargained. I now sit on the Emery Unified school board. District relations with the teachers union have generally been good but have seen tensions rising lately. Nonetheless, I don’t see how it makes any sense for a district to impose an evaluation system unilaterally on a workforce that hasn’t bought into it. How are the underperforming teachers in any such district going to believe in the judgments that say they need to improve?

The fact is AB 5 fell victim, in significant part, to the standoff between John Deasy and United Teachers Los Angles over whether and to what extent state standardized test scores should be part of LA teacher evaluations. But the answer for those districts where labor relations are sour can’t be to give one side all the power to impose a system or the other side all the power to resist one. There have to be some middle ways to facilitate conciliation between distrustful parties. Perhaps this should be an area of focus for the next run at an evaluation bill.

Status quo forever?

AB 5 had room for improvement. We and our grassroots partners in the Campaign for Quality Education and PICO California would have preferred that it had required that the multiple measures of student growth be a “substantial” part of the teacher’s evaluation and that appropriate student and parent input be a part of every evaluation. But passage of AB 5 would have enabled us to argue for those refinements on a district-by-district basis as well as in future statutory tweaks to apply statewide.

Having missed the opportunity to accomplish the heavy lift, I fear the pro forma Stull Act evaluations that our state’s hundreds of thousands of teachers are currently subject to will continue for the foreseeable future. I pray the education community will rise above the fears and even fear mongering of recent weeks. I hope we can focus next year on passing a bill that again promises to reform our state’s teacher evaluation system in a way that produces truly robust evaluations that support teacher development and a higher standard of instructional practice. Our students deserve nothing less.

 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. He is a leading voice on educational equity issues and has been recognized by California Lawyer Magazine as a California Attorney of the Year, The Recorder as an Attorney of the Year, and a Leading Plaintiff Lawyer in America by Lawdragon Magazine.

 


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  1. el 4 years ago4 years ago

    I think the next best step is to model and encourage districts to have good evaluation practices. That can be done on a much shorter timescale than legislation, and with much less potential for damage. Let’s take this time to try voluntary efforts and understand better the obstacles to quality evaluations faced by various districts with different circumstances.

  2. Sergio Cuellar 4 years ago4 years ago

    Thank You John for breaking this down. It was a very messy process at the end, and for many it left us with the question of where do we go from here and with who. As you stated the Campaign for Quality Education saw AB 5 as an opportunity to have parents and students weigh in on the design of the evaluations system and push for meaningful student participation in providing feedback about … Read More

    Thank You John for breaking this down. It was a very messy process at the end, and for many it left us with the question of where do we go from here and with who. As you stated the Campaign for Quality Education saw AB 5 as an opportunity to have parents and students weigh in on the design of the evaluations system and push for meaningful student participation in providing feedback about the classroom environment as only students can. Its frustrating to hear ed reformers push for the overuse of standardized testing. The push to use standardized testing doesn’t tell us about what is happening in the classroom and pushes three bad assumptions. 1) That Standardized Tests effectively measure ALL students learning. 2) That learning means doing well on these tests and 3) and that great teaching means raising these scores.. We don’t want to create a generation of good test takers, we need generations of critical thinkers, students prepared for college and meaningful careers that will build up our communities.

  3. Jerry Heverly 4 years ago4 years ago

    I wonder if you could elaborate on this sentence: When I have had frank conversations with some, it’s clear to me that being able to compare teacher quality judgments across a given state is more important to them than making sure each district actually has in place a meaningful, high-quality evaluation system. What do you mean by "across"? Do you mean that reformers are so hell bent on using tests that they are willing to sabotage the … Read More

    I wonder if you could elaborate on this sentence:

    When I have had frank conversations with some, it’s clear to me that being able to compare teacher quality judgments across a given state is more important to them than making sure each district actually has in place a meaningful, high-quality evaluation system.

    What do you mean by “across”? Do you mean that reformers are so hell bent on using tests that they are willing to sabotage the efforts of compromisers to improve local evaluation systems?

    Replies

    • John Affeldt 4 years ago4 years ago

      I mean that, if given the policy choice between having high quality but distinctive evaluation systems in the state’s districts or lower quality and less valid systems but ones with some comparable statewide metrics, many “reformers” would choose the later.

  4. john mockler 4 years ago4 years ago

    WOW Finally a rational and reasoned explanation of a most complex and contentious issue. As one who was part of the original Stull Act and who has followed this issue for more than 40 years I want to thank John Affeldt for his work. Maybe this will give some of the silly journalists that have mischaracterized this issue from the start a blue print for better reporting in this area.

  5. David B. Cohen 4 years ago4 years ago

    LAUSD is like Jupiter. It’s the largest planet in the system, but the overwhelming majority of the planets in the system are not Jupiter. It exerts a disproportionate gravitational pull on education policy debates.

  6. Paul Muench 4 years ago4 years ago

    I’m missing some details about California law. What if anything in California law prohibits any district from adopting the recommendations put forth in Greatness by Design for teacher evaluatins?

    Replies

    • John Affeldt 4 years ago4 years ago

      Paul, There’s nothing to stop individual districts from implementing the Greatness by Design report’s recommendations on teacher evaluation as, by way of example, Long Beach has in many respects. That said, there remains an important role for the state here to require districts to take action to strengthen what are currently–in most California districts–broken evaluation systems, and provide the broad framework under which they must do so.

      • Paul Muench 4 years ago4 years ago

        I can understand that its hard for people to do what's good even when they know its good for them. And given the broad representation on the task force that created the Greatness by Design report I would guess our districts know what's good. What I don't understand is how AB 5 would have made it easier for districts to do what they already know is good. I could understand if this … Read More

        I can understand that its hard for people to do what’s good even when they know its good for them. And given the broad representation on the task force that created the Greatness by Design report I would guess our districts know what’s good. What I don’t understand is how AB 5 would have made it easier for districts to do what they already know is good. I could understand if this was a money debate, but AB 5 only provided funding for a small number of districts. ( At least that’s what I remember. There were so many “last minute” changes to that bill ot was not easy to follow )

        • John Affeldt 4 years ago4 years ago

          AB 5 would have obligated the state to support districts' implementation of the new evaluation system in 2014-15 and beyond. As it was, AB 5 provided $60 million to districts for 2013-14 to plan for implementation of the new evaluation system when it became operational July 1, 2014. That planning was expressly to cover all decile 1-2 schools in the state (some 1.24 million students) or about 1/5 of the state's students. … Read More

          AB 5 would have obligated the state to support districts’ implementation of the new evaluation system in 2014-15 and beyond. As it was, AB 5 provided $60 million to districts for 2013-14 to plan for implementation of the new evaluation system when it became operational July 1, 2014. That planning was expressly to cover all decile 1-2 schools in the state (some 1.24 million students) or about 1/5 of the state’s students. The fact is, much of the planning required to implement a new evaluation system in the decile 1-2 schools would have applied district-wide (e.g., the negotiations with the local union re evaluation). The state would have had to figure out in future budget years how to pay for the evaluation system for 2014-15 and going forward; and, if it didn’t, would nonetheless have been obligated to pay districts for their evaluations as part of the mandate process. The fiscal question you raise, which I didn’t even touch on above, is just another notch in the argument that this was a major reform opportunity lost. Prior to its last-minute derailment, the politics were aligned to pass AB 5 despite the possibility it might create new cost pressures on the state in these times of fiscal uncertainty.

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