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California

Larry Sand
A 40-Year Shame
A lawsuit against Los Angeles Unified School District could shake up how California evaluates teachers.
19 January 2012

For nearly 40 years, the Los Angeles Unified School District has broken the law—and nobody seemed to notice. Now a group of parents and students are taking the district to court. On November 1, a half-dozen anonymous families working with EdVoice, a reform advocacy group in Sacramento, filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court against the LAUSD, district superintendent John Deasy, and United Teachers Los Angeles. The lawsuit in essence accuses the district and the union of a gross dereliction of duty. According to the parents’ complaint, the district and the union have violated the children’s “fundamental right to basic educational equality and opportunity” by failing to comply with a section of the California Education Code known as the Stull Act. Under the 1971 law, a school district must include student achievement as part of a teacher’s evaluation. Los Angeles Unified has never done so: the teachers union wouldn’t allow it.

In 1999, the state legislature amended the law, named after the late Republican state senator John Stull, to require that “the governing board of each school district shall evaluate and assess certificated employee performance as it reasonably relates to: the progress of pupils toward the standards established pursuant to subdivision (a) and, if applicable, the state adopted academic content standards as measured by state adopted criterion referenced assessments.” In plainer words, a teacher’s evaluation must be based at least in part on how well her students perform on state tests.

This is hardly a radical notion, as 23 states and the District of Columbia now use student performance on standardized tests as part of teacher evaluations. But in California, what pass for “teacher evaluations” are little more than dog and pony shows. Typically, they consist of a rare (and brief) visit from a principal who usually has helped plan the lesson to be observed. The principal notifies the teacher well in advance of when the observation will take place. And the teacher, of course, prepares her kids to be at their absolute best when the principal visits. Invariably, everything goes swimmingly, and the teacher gets a perfect rating. So consistently good are the results of these phony “evaluations” that 99 percent of all teachers receive satisfactory ratings.

The parents filed their lawsuit at a delicate moment in contract negotiations between the district and UTLA. Lawyers gathered for a hearing on November 21, where a judge set the trial date for next June. Just before the hearing, the judge removed Deasy and the teachers’ union from the suit as defendants but ruled that they will remain “real parties” and still be part of the case. Eight days later, on November 29, district and union leaders reached a tentative agreement on a new collective-bargaining agreement in which the teacher-evaluation provision was conspicuously absent. Negotiations are ongoing, and it’s anyone’s guess whether the parents’ lawsuit will have any effect on the outcome. But the lawsuit will almost certainly have an impact statewide. According to EdVoice CEO Bill Lucia, only a handful of the state’s more than 1,000 school districts are in full compliance with the Stull Act.

Why has this sad charade been allowed to go on for so long? In part, because teachers’ unions believe that linking student performance to a teacher’s evaluation would be a grave injustice. They have fiercely opposed all efforts to do so. This is an understandable position for the union, which exists to protect the jobs of adults, not serve the interests of children. But the people on the other side of the bargaining table have no such excuse. The failure of the Los Angeles Unified School District to follow the law might be ascribed to incompetence, corruption, or simple ignorance. But explanation is not exoneration.

With a court now poised to intervene after four decades of neglect, LAUSD and the union may face some accountability at last. Trouble is, the state education code doesn’t stipulate how much weight to give student performance in evaluations. No doubt the union will negotiate to minimize the student-performance component to near zero, with little or no consequence for bottom-performing teachers. (“Bad teacher” does not appear in the union lexicon, and the “due process” required for firing a poor performer has made such an outcome about as common as an appearance of Halley’s Comet.) A plaintiff victory and enforcement of the Stull Act would have a major impact in a state where one-third of all students drop out before completing high school and where a great majority of those who do graduate and go on to college need remediation. Will school boards finally take action to reverse a 40-year shame—or will they once again cave to union demands and turn their backs on California’s children?

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