Breakthrough agreements in two California school districts and a much anticipated report on improving teacher effectiveness have raised expectations that it might actually be possible to amend or rewrite the state’s outdated and ineffective state law on teacher evaluations in a way that can work for both unions and school districts.
Prospects looked bleak four months ago. A frenetic effort to rewrite California’s 40-year-old Stull Act died when Assemblymember Felipe Fuentes, a San Fernando Democrat, withdrew his bill to reform teacher evaluations (AB 5) amid recriminations and a power struggle between labor and management – teachers unions and superintendents. One key sticking point: who on a district level would decide which elements in an evaluation system should be used and how much they’ll count.
The Stull Act requires districts to establish standards of student learning for each subject in every grade and evaluate teachers by them, but most districts have largely ignored the law; in some districts 98 percent of teachers regularly received a favorable evaluation. AB 5 would have tied evaluations to the California Standards for the Teaching Profession, gauging how well teachers understood and presented their material, engaged students and improved learning. It listed a range of options by which student learning could be measured; standardized tests were only one.
Fuentes is no longer in the Legislature, and no one has yet stepped forward to sponsor a new bill, although Joan Buchanan, the new chair of the Assembly Education Committee and a former 20-year trustee of San Ramon Valley Unified, said she is considering doing so. But three developments since August have given those involved in the AB 5 give cause to come out of their foxholes to consider how to write an evaluation law that focuses on helping teachers improve while holding them accountable, by objective measures of student learning, if they don’t.
- The report by State Superintendent Tom Torlakson’s Task Force on Teacher Excellence, co-chaired by Stanford Professor of Education Linda Darling-Hammond and Long Beach Unified Superintendent Chris Steinhauser, included recommendations similar to elements in AB 5. It urged the use of a range of measures of teacher performance, including growth in student performance, while deemphasizing using standardized test results. It said the focus of evaluations should be on improving teacher effectiveness and encouraging collaboration. It also recommended involving teachers in all facets of creating the evaluation system.
- San Jose Unified Superintendent Vincent Matthews and teachers negotiated a progressive and far-reaching evaluation system that would go well beyond what the current state law requires. It still must be ratified by teachers and the school board, but, as proposed, it would tie teacher salary raises to successful performance reviews. Specially appointed “consulting teachers” would be involved with administrators to evaluate new teachers and in hearing appeals of evaluations if requested by veteran teachers. The San Jose agreement could encourage administrators and teachers in other districts to try similar experiments.
- In response to a lawsuit over the Stull Act, Los Angeles Unified and United Teachers Los Angeles agreed that scores on local and state standardized tests will be used in teacher evaluations to a limited, as yet undetermined extent. The litigation cast a cloud over AB 5; the tentative deal, acknowledging that the Stull Act requires using state test results in evaluations, was a critical step, said Bill Lucia, CEO of EdVoice, the advocacy organization that successfully brought the lawsuit on behalf of a half-dozen families.
But what happens in the next several months, as the union and the district work through hard details – which tests will be used, how much they’ll count, how appeals will be handled – will be even more important. “What happens in L.A. could inform what happens legislatively – whether there can be an agreement over what can be bargained and whether there can be a compromise to break the stalemate over AB 5,” Lucia said. If negotiations fall apart, then positions will harden over how explicitly a new evaluations law should dictate evaluation criteria and who on a local level should have the power to decide details.
Two factors will be wild cards in moving forward.
Last month, the federal Department of Education rejected the state’s application for a waiver from the No Child Left Behind law, in large part because the state law on teacher evaluations does not require the use of student test scores as a significant factor. At this point, Gov. Jerry Brown and State Supt. Tom Torlakson haven’t shown any interest in having state law amended to please Washington, particularly over the issue of test scores.
Any significant change to the Stull Act, such as increasing the frequency of evaluations or requiring more classroom observations, could require the state to reimburse local districts for any extra costs. Brown has made it clear he wants more local control and no more mandates from Sacramento. Before getting too far into rewriting the law, the bill’s sponsors would be wise to find out Brown’s perspective.