City Journal Autumn 2014

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Autumn 2014
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California

Larry Sand
Teachers’ Road Map to Nowhere
A new study shows deep flaws in the Los Angeles Unified School District, but the local teachers’ union will resist any meaningful reform.
25 August 2011

A major study on teacher quality makes clear just how sclerotic the Los Angeles Unified School District has become—but while the diagnosis and prescriptions are clear, the prognosis is far from certain. The National Council on Teacher Quality’s 58-page report, “Teacher Quality Roadmap: Improving Policies and Practices in LAUSD,” was commissioned by the United Way and several civil rights groups and paid for by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. While the report focuses on Los Angeles, many of its findings are applicable to other school districts around California, where collective bargaining agreements have hamstrung administrators and state laws supersede local policies.

Such studies are vital because they spotlight problems and prescribe a course of action, but they’re only half the battle. The other half, of course, requires implementing needed reforms. New LAUSD superintendent John Deasy welcomed the report, but he knows as well as anyone that the most effective reforms would require fundamentally revising the district’s collective bargaining agreement with the United Teachers of Los Angeles—something that the union and its bought-and-paid-for board of education are simply unwilling to do.

The report, published in June, urges major changes to the union contract and to state law. Teacher evaluations should be overhauled, along with tenure rules and work schedules. Rules should be changed that assign teachers to particular schools based on seniority considerations. Compensation should reward performance, not just advanced degrees and years of experience. Another prescription would incorporate standardized test scores into teacher evaluations—a reform already in effect in Washington, D.C., Florida, Maryland, and Colorado. And the report recommends delaying tenure or permanent status until a teacher has been in a classroom for four years, instead of the two years the current contract stipulates.

Unlike most other teacher contracts, L.A. Unified’s arrangement with UTLA specifies that though full-time employees must work a full eight-hour day, those eight hours needn’t necessarily be in the classroom with kids, or even at school. According to the contract: “The varying nature of professional duties does not lend itself to a total maximum daily work time of definite or uniform length.” The report concludes that the contract lends itself to abuse and that teachers should be at their worksites for a full eight hours.

The report also advises giving principals considerably more power to hire teachers of their choosing and making it easier for administrators to get rid of incompetents. At the moment, what the report calls “perverse incentives” compel principals to overlook poorly performing teachers, which, over time, makes it even more difficult to get rid of them. “For example,” the report notes, “the online evaluation system includes a pop-up warning telling principals who have selected ‘needs improvement’ for three or more of the 27 indicators to contact Staff Relations and present documentation to reinforce the ratings.” In short, if a principal thinks a teacher needs to improve, he’ll need to receive approval from the district’s human resources bureaucracy before he can act. Who needs that kind of aggravation?

The report is particularly tough on seniority. California is one of only 12 states in which the most recent hires get pink slips first—regardless of teacher quality—when layoffs become necessary. The report proposes that a teacher’s performance should be one of the considerations used to make such decisions.

Teacher compensation is perhaps the most scandalous problem highlighted by the report. The school district pays out $519 million annually to compensate teachers for completing academic coursework toward their master’s degree in education or some other course in “professional development.” Researchers have searched in vain for some correlation between an advanced degree and teacher effectiveness. Not only does L.A. Unified pay bonuses to teachers with advanced degrees, the district will give teachers credits that lead to a salary bump for taking non-graduate classes outside their fields. The only criterion is that the course be in areas “commonly taught in the district.” So a high school algebra teacher may take a class in opera appreciation, say, and move up the salary scale. The report’s recommended fix is to eliminate salary differentials for earning course credits and instead boost the pay of teachers whose students actually advance academically.

Not surprisingly, A. J. Duffy, the recently departed president of UTLA, had nothing but bad things to say about the teacher-quality report and its recommendations. He called the salary-reform proposals “ludicrous,” reaffirming the union’s position that any deviation from the current system of automatic pay raises is off the table. He insisted that “many must-place teachers”—that is, teachers whom principals don’t want but whom they are contractually obligated to give jobs anyway—“are fine teachers.” He faulted the report’s finding that the district wastes money rewarding teachers for taking useless courses, saying teachers should be encouraged to go back to school in order to “improve the quality of education for our kids.” And Duffy charged that reforming teacher evaluation and tenure would be impossible without first addressing deficiencies in teacher training. Many of our schools of education are indeed atrocious, but that has nothing to do with tenure; two years in the classroom should not essentially guarantee a teacher a permanent position. And despite reams of evidence from the private sector, performance pay remains a bête noire for the unions.

“The people that put this report together are non-educators who believe that a market-driven approach is the only way to improve public education and we believe that is absolutely the death and destruction of public education,” Duffy told the Los Angeles Daily News. While insisting that UTLA leaders are willing to revamp the evaluation system, Duffy vehemently opposes any use of student test scores to determine which teachers are the most qualified. Reformers would use standardized test scores as a part of teachers’ evaluations because they are the most objective way to measure student achievement. Duffy’s successor, Warren Fletcher, hasn’t weighed in on the report’s findings, but it’s hard to imagine that he’ll embrace them.

The same resistance to reform is enshrined at the state level. Changes to the education code can only be made through legislation or the initiative process. Revamping teacher-tenure and compensation practices is highly unlikely as long as the mighty California Teachers Association has anything to say about it. According to the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission, the CTA was the biggest political spender in the state between 2000 and 2009, dispensing more than $211,849,298 on ballot measures, support for candidates, political committees, and lobbying. A distant Number Two, the California State Council of Service Employees (also a labor union), spent only about half of that—$107,467,272.

Given political reality, perhaps it’s time for well-meaning philanthropists like Bill Gates to stop spending money on studies that explore “what works” and start spending it on efforts that make reform a reality. From study after study, we know what works: good teachers should be paid more than mediocre ones; the process of dismissing bad teachers should be simplified; teacher seniority should not be used as a way to make staffing decisions; teacher tenure should be eliminated or at least made more difficult to attain. In states where change has begun to take hold, like Indiana and Florida, it has happened because reform was politically viable: those states have Republican legislative majorities and enough reform-minded Democrats willing to stand up to the unions. Even cerulean-blue Illinois passed sweeping education-reform measures despite union opposition. Similar success could be achieved in California if philanthropists countered teachers unions’ political spending with their own. Until that happens, all road maps for improving California’s deteriorating education system will be dotted with NO EXIT signs.

Larry Sand, a retired teacher, is president of the California Teachers Empowerment Network.

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