Give parents and students a voice in teacher evaluations

August 15, 2012

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Liz Guillen

On Thursday, the Senate Appropriations Committee will decide the fate of AB 5, a long overdue legislative proposal to reform California’s dysfunctional teacher evaluation system. Unless significant amendments are added to include the voices of students and parents in the development and implementation of this new system, the proposal risks losing the support of the critical constituency it is meant to benefit: students and families served by California’s teachers.

We are pushing for these amendments as advocates and representatives of parents and students across California. PICO California is composed of 19 congregation-based community organizations representing 450,000 families in 48 school districts, from Los Angeles and San Francisco to Stockton and San Bernardino. We believe that those most directly affected by

James Hopkins

effective or ineffective teaching, the students and their families, have knowledge that is critically important, and should be included as full partners in the teacher evaluation process. We are joined in this effort by the Campaign for Quality Education, a statewide alliance of grassroots, civil rights, policy, and research organizations committed to educational equity for all communities served by California’s public schools.

AB 5 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 purposely designed to allow districts to experiment and pilot different systems, much as Los Angeles Unified is doing.

Students and parents: An essential link

The problem with the current proposal is that it excludes the voices of students and parents from the conversation. We believe AB 5 should require each school district to involve parents and students in developing its teacher evaluation system and use their feedback as one of the multiple measures used for evaluation.

This seems intuitive. After all, feedback from clients or customers is a common practice in today’s world, broadly recognized as essential to providing better service. College students provide feedback on their professors, patients on their doctors, buyers on online retailers, and customers on restaurant wait-staff. Shouldn’t schools similarly consult the students and their families directly served by a teacher when that teacher’s effectiveness is being evaluated?

Research supports this common-sense notion. The Gates Foundation-funded Measures of Effective Teaching Project studied classroom observations, student surveys, and standardized tests for 3,000 teachers in six regions. It concluded that students know good teaching when they see it and, when asked the right questions, can provide meaningful data on teacher effectiveness. Especially when combined with standards-based classroom observations by trained and calibrated evaluators and evidence of student achievement gains, student surveys can be a powerful tool for measuring teacher effectiveness that provides immediate, useful feedback to teachers – one that is cost-effective and available for all subject areas (unlike standardized tests).

Some teachers union leaders have expressed concerns about the confidentiality of these surveys. But there are ways to ensure that student feedback is kept confidential so it fosters the necessary candid responses. And there is no disagreement that confidential personnel matters, including evaluation results, should continue to remain confidential under any new evaluation system.

Learning from others

California would not be the first state to give students and parents a voice in the teacher evaluation process. Alaska has required input from students and parents since 1996, with many other states following suit. Georgia piloted the use of student surveys during the 2011-12 school year. Idaho requires that teacher evaluations incorporate parent input. Massachusetts will require that evaluations include student feedback beginning in 2013-14, and is currently studying the feasibility of including parent feedback. Iowa requires both parent and student input into the teacher evaluation process.

Nor would including student and parent feedback be an entirely new practice in California. As part of the pilot of its new teacher evaluation system, Los Angeles Unified School District administered student stakeholder feedback surveys in grade 4-12 classrooms of participating teachers. The Mountain View-Los Altos Union High School District uses student surveys as part of the evaluation process for non-tenured teachers.

 Fostering a local dialogue

Opponents of AB 5 express concern that some aspects of a district’s teacher evaluation system would be locally bargained, fearing this would create an opening for strong local unions to seek a toothless system. We disagree. AB 5 properly balances requiring key elements – like having the system be based on both evidence of 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.

In the same way, parents and students should also 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.

Certainly each school district’s final agreement on a new evaluation system will be locally bargained between the district and teachers union. We propose a three-part process of including parents, students, and the community in this process.

  1. Before the district’s and union’s negotiation begins, the school board should establish an advisory committee of community stakeholders to review best practices in teacher evaluation and make recommendations to the board.
  2. The school board should receive public comment and input concerning these advisory committee recommendations.
  3. After the negotiation between the district and the union, the board should publish the draft of what’s being considered and take public comment so it has the community’s feedback before the board makes its final decision on the contract.These modest safeguards to gather student, parent, and community input would in no way infringe upon the collective bargaining process.

Additional hurdles

To be sure, AB 5 faces other hurdles as well. Assemblymember Felipe Fuentes has acknowledged that finding $21.5 million to fund the system of best practices he envisions will be a challenge. And there remains considerable disagreement about what role students’ standardized test scores should play in any evaluation system. Some education reform groups have pressed for “objective measures” like standardized tests to comprise 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation. But while evidence of student learning should be included as a significant factor in a teacher’s evaluation, we believe that student learning should be measured based on multiple sources of evidence capable of measuring the full spectrum of learning, from student work products, final portfolios and exhibitions, to district assessments, to state or national standardized tests (provided they are valid and appropriate for the students and curriculum being taught). AB 5 does just that.

California desperately needs a new teacher evaluation system that can meet the dual goals of supporting all teachers in continually improving their practice while also identifying ineffective teachers for remediation and, if necessary, dismissal. We admire Fuentes for leading this policy debate, and seeking to include many stakeholders. And we think it is on the right track. But unless the final legislation guarantees students and parents will have a voice in the process, we will not support it.

Liz Guillen is Director of Legislative & Community Affairs 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. The Rev. Dr. H. James Hopkins is the pastor of Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church and the Oakland representative to the PICO National Clergy Caucus. He has been deeply involved in passing a local policy that puts decision making over budget, hiring, curriculum, and schedule into the hands of parents and educators at the school site.

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