With the list of opponents mounting, the author of a bill to rewrite the state’s 40-year-old teacher evaluation law rushed Wednesday to amend the bill for the third time to try to get it through Senate committees and on to the floor of the Legislature by the end of the session tomorrow.
Meeting hastily Wednesday evening, ambivalent members of the Senate Education Committee approved AB 5 on the condition that Democratic Assemblymember Felipe Fuentes commit to a series of amendments. He agreed, although the wording won’t be ready until today.
Taken together, the amendments would restore districts’ authority to set local standards used to evaluate teachers and explicitly require that state standardized test scores be used as one measure. Sensing that AB 5 is an uncertain experiment in collaboration between unions and districts, the committee is also requiring that the bill be reviewed in five years and sunset in six if found not to work.
But opponents of the bill, which now include an unlikely combination of activist and civil rights groups, the state PTA, associations representing school boards, school administrators, and individual school districts, appear united in their criticisms that the bill has been rewritten too many times in too few days for its implications to be fully understood. And they argue that the amendments don’t overcome two overriding flaws:
- AB 5 will limit districts’ control and prerogatives by subjecting all aspects over teacher evaluations to collective bargaining.
- The bill includes a requirement, not in the Stull Act, that the tests used to measure academic growth be “valid and reliable” for the curriculum, the pupil being taught and for the purpose of teacher evaluation. Calling this a “poison pill” to discourage the use of test data, critics are predicting that unions will challenge bad reviews and teacher dismissals by hiring experts to testify in Public Employee Relations Board hearings that the assessments used in reviews weren’t suitable for teacher evaluations.
“AB 5 will guarantee that rather than improve the system, California will end up with one of the least rigorous, most inconsistent, and most adjudicated evaluation systems in the nation,” said Arun Ramanathan, executive director of Education Trust-West, which represents minority families.
While districts are predicting a litigious and cumbersome evaluation, the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers argue that collective bargaining – guaranteeing teachers a voice – is indispensable to an evaluation system based on best practices. Teachers won’t improve without confidence in the system, Fuentes said, and their participation is vital in setting a combination of criteria that may include multiple classroom observations, use of student portfolios and measures of student progress, and contributions to the school community.
Sen. Alan Lowenthal, a Democrat from Long Beach and chairman of Senate Education Committee, took this optimistic view while suggesting a sunset provision six years after the bill is to take effect. “We are hoping this works out. There is real potential for a robust evaluation process, demonstrating that teachers and administrators can work together,” he said, while acknowledging the possibility that the result may be contentious and unproductive.
But Sen. Joe Simitian, a former longtime Palo Alto Unified board member, abstained on the vote to pass AB 5, saying he wasn’t convinced that the bill represented a step forward and would wait to see the final amendments.
By the end of the evening, Fuentes was calling AB 5 a “pilot program,” although there would be nothing optional about it, and Fuentes resisted the suggestion by Republican Sen. Sam Blakeslee that AB 5 be a pilot only for the 20 percent of low-performing schools that would receive $60 million in funding next year to train evaluators and prepare for the implementation of the law. AB 5 would go into effect for all districts on July 1, 2014, despite uncertain funding for the other 80 percent of schools.
AB 5 has split the parent community, with Public Advocates, the Campaign for Quality Education, and Parent Leadership Action Network Bay Area Plan among the groups who had sought a provision that Fuentes included. It would require that districts seek suggestions from parents on evaluation criteria and then report back to parents after the completion of negotiations with teachers. The presumption is that school board members would at least consider the inclusion of parent and student questionnaires.
What should be negotiable?
The Stull Act has been much maligned, and its mandates have been largely ignored by districts. One reason is that it sets up a pass-fail system with unclear criteria for judging teacher effectiveness. In many districts, 95 to 98 percent of teachers, including probationary teachers, have gotten good reviews. AB 5 would create three performance levels, singling out excellent as well as satisfactory and unsatisfactory teachers, and it would require more frequent reviews for veteran teachers – every three years instead of five. It also would require that districts use the California Standards for the Teaching Profession as objective criteria for evaluating teachers.
Critics agree these are valuable, but AB 5, in explicitly stating that the best practices standards are negotiable, marks a change. The Stull Act requires that districts negotiate evaluation procedures but not the criteria for determining effectiveness.
The Stull Act also includes a key provision that AB 5 eliminated but that Fuentes has now agreed to reinstate: the explicit requirement that districts set academic standards, by subject and grade, for the purpose of evaluating teachers. As Bill Lucia, president and CEO of EdVoice, wrote in a letter to Lowenthal this week, “Establishing expectations for grade level student achievement and linking it to effectiveness of staff is a key feature of accountability” – one that should not be bargained away.
For years, many school boards have ignored the requirement of setting district standards for evaluating teachers; other districts have invited unions to negotiate evaluation criteria. Perhaps signaling a new assertiveness by districts, Los Angeles Unified has said that it alone has the right to create the standards for teacher evaluation. So far, however, it has yet to force the issue, opting for now to create a new voluntary evaluation program.
But if there were doubts about what the Stull Act required, in May, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge ruled that Los Angeles Unified must use student results on state standardized tests as well as assessments based on local standards as part of teacher evaluations. Judge James Chalfant has given the district and union until December to come up with a plan for using test results, and to report back to him about the progress next week.
As originally written, AB 5 would have nullified the decision by permitting but not requiring the use of test scores – one reason both state teachers unions pushed hard for the bill’s passage. Fuentes has since amended the bill to mandate the use of standardized test scores, though it would be up to districts to decide how much weight to give them. And the bill now says that local agreements reached before the July 2014 enactment of AB 5 would be grandfathered in. But Lucia, whose organization filed the successful suit against Los Angeles Unified, and Edgar Zazueta, the director for the Office of Government Relations for Los Angeles Unified, testified Wednesday that AB 5 continues to undermine negotiations with the union and would give the union reason to stall.
The Los Angeles Unified ruling was on the minds of Democratic Sens. Loni Hancock and Carol Liu at the Senate hearing Wednesday. Both said they were wary of passing a bill that might interfere with a court ruling and Los Angeles Unified’s negotiations. Fuentes promised the next set of amendments, which will go to the Senate Rules Committee for approval on Thursday, would eliminate any potential conflict. Lucia disputed that this could be done.