Why unions are livid about L.A.'s new teacher-evaluation experiment

The Los Angeles Unified School District is testing a pilot program for teacher evaluation that includes parent feedback and peer review. But unions are not happy.

After years of frustration with its own teacher-evaluation system, the second-largest school district in the country is pilot-testing a new idea against the wishes of its union.

With the Obama administration offering incentives for school systems to revamp how they evaluate teachers' effectiveness, the episode with the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) carries important lessons nationwide, analysts say.

The fresh approach in Los Angeles meshes with the Obama administration's efforts to use more systematic and data-driven approaches to evaluate teachers. It includes parent and student feedback, students' standardized test scores, and more detailed observations given by peers – who watch teachers and then type their observations and questions into laptop computers, then discuss their impressions the next day.

Two- to five-day training sessions have occurred throughout the district over several weeks, involving almost 1,000 educators who are paid to participate.

To some, the Los Angeles pilot program is a good one with positive lessons for the rest of the country.

“This is actually a great initiative in Los Angeles because rather than adopting a policy on teacher evaluation, they are actually developing one,” says David Plank, executive director of Policy Analysis for California Education, an independent, nonpartisan research center based at Stanford University, the University of California at Berkeley, and the University of Southern California.

But union officials say they are disappointed that the LAUSD has moved forward without their input.

“They are plowing on without consulting with us first, which is very unfortunate,” says Marla Eby, spokeswoman for United Teachers Los Angeles.

She and others tick off a list of problems that include: the inclusion of teachers and evaluators who are not up to par, focusing on individual teachers rather than on collaborative approaches, computer programs involved in evaluations that need bugs worked out, and evaluation categories that are too broad.

“This should be about trying to improve teachers rather than evaluating and judging them,” Ms. Eby says. “Everyone agrees that the current system is no good, but they just unilaterally barreled forward on this without our input and paid people to participate. We are calling it a bribe.”

Unions have tried to stop the program via the courts but have so far failed. The district has countered that there are no stakes for employees because the program is only a pilot test.

But to critics, the pilot project seems too entwined with outside interests and politics.

They worry that superintendent John Deasy, who was appointed in January, is pushing an agenda from his close ties with the Bill & Melinda Gates and Broad Foundations, which they see as pushing education reforms that could harm teachers.

Moreover, they are concerned about Mr. Deasy's role in a education plan by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who has called unions an "unwavering roadblock to reform." Deasy’s contract includes a $10,000 annual bonus if he can achieve performance goals laid out in his three-year contract.

“This is a political action.... If he were creating a system to improve the quality of education, he wouldn’t be doing this,” says Janet Davis, a teacher and adviser who works in professional development for the LAUSD. “I was in sessions where principals and other administrators are not quite ready to let go of their judgment role."

She also worries that the sample size is too small. The LAUSD has more than 40,000 teachers. “If they generalize this to the whole district from such a small sample, they will destroy the whole system. It has to be built on trust,” says Ms. Davis. “I think [Deasy] is pushing this through out of pressure from Broad and Gates, and if you push something through, it just won’t work.”

To Becky Zoglman, a spokeswoman for the California Teachers Association, the whole enterprise appears rushed.

“Everyone knows that the only way to build a successful evaluation model is to have educators involved from the beginning," she says. Deasy "missed an opportunity to look at how this could be rolled out and really be crafted for the long term. They are catching mistakes as they go, but if they had taken the time to review the project from the beginning, they could have made it even better before starting.

"The lesson to me is that if you are taking a pilot program off the shelf just to meet a federal mandate, then you are apt to create something that is less than what is needed,” she adds.

Supporters of the idea, however, say the unions need to be more flexible. “It’s really a shame that the union has decided to stonewall on this rather than make it work for them," says Mr. Plank. "Both sides agree that their current way of evaluating teachers doesn’t work, and this is an opportunity to open the door to better policy.”

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