A missed opportunity to reform teacher evaluations

October 3, 2012

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:

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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