EdWatch 2013: Teacher evaluation law will be taken on again

January 7, 2013

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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teacher effectiveness have raised expectations that it might actually be possible to amend or rewrite the state’s outdated and ineffective state law on teacher evaluations in a way that can work for both unions and school districts.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.

(Photo courtesy of cybrarian77)

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.

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.

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