Veronica Marquez teaching her 5th grade students at Harmony Elementary in South Los Angeles. Image by J. Emilio Flores
LOS ANGELES – As California tries to come up with a more robust way of evaluating teachers,
the biggest hurdle could be something educators don’t have any control over: the state’s increasing socioeconomic disparities.
“The work that teachers do in Watts cannot be compared to [the work done by] teachers that teach in Beverly Hills,” says Morgan Polikoff with the University of Southern California’s Center for Education Policy Analysis. “Evaluations should be based on factors [that teachers] can control in their classrooms, not on things they don’t have any control over … issues like poverty and other socioeconomic limitations.”
According to the latest data, some 60 percent of California’s six million public school students come from minority communities. Half of them live in low-income households, while one in four is a designated English Language Learner.
Academically the state ranks near the bottom in nationwide assessments, including the 2012 National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the Nation's Report Card, in which California placed 47th.
While some of the blame has been given to anemic funding – in 2012 California ranked near bottom in per-pupil spending – the bulk has increasingly fallen on teachers’ shoulders, leading to a growing chorus of calls for a more effective evaluation system than the one currently in place.
But as Polikoff notes, the path forward is far from clear. “The current system is not working for anyone,” he acknowledges, adding the “main reason is that there’s no structure that defines what an effective teacher is.”
Satisfactory or Unsatisfactory
In late December, California was denied a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind program in large part because it had failed to establish a teacher evaluation system that includes the use of standardized tests. The decision means that by 2014 the state will be required to meet NCLB goals – including 100 percent literacy in English and math -- that most agree are unattainable.
The rejection was welcome news to StudentsFirst founder Michelle Rhee, whose Sacramento-based advocacy group recently released its nationwide scorecard on state education policies. California received an F, in part for its lack of an adequate measure for teacher effectiveness.
The current evaluation -- based on requirements in the now 40-year-old Stull Act -- consists of a visit from the principal to the teacher's classroom once a year for new teachers and once every two to five for veteran teachers. It seeks to ensure that teachers are meeting basic standards as set by standardized test results, and grades teachers as either satisfactory or unsatisfactory.
In some districts, 98 percent of teachers regularly received a favorable evaluation.
"An evaluation based on an observation once or twice a year in 180 days of instruction cannot be effective,” argues Darrick Smith, a former educator and administrator in public schools in Oakland and San Francisco.
Smith is currently the center director of Learning Works, a non-profit working to strengthen student achievement in California’s community colleges. He says school administrators need to be trained on how to do assessments that take into account “classroom diversity … [and] the big achievement gap that exists among minority students.” California currently has the largest achievement gap in the nation.
Veronica Marquez agrees. A fifth grade teacher at Harmony Elementary in South Los Angeles, she says she values the information that comes from standardized tests, “but when I hear that teachers should be evaluated only based on [those] results and paid based on how well they do on their evaluation, I simply cannot agree with that.”
Marquez was one of five educators named by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson as a California Teacher of the Year for 2013. A majority of her students come from low-income households where English is often a second language.
"When you work with students in a community like mine,” she says, “these children bring so much baggage from their lives at home that it’s very difficult for them to do well on tests. Their results cannot be compared with other students who do not have the same problems."
Last In, First Out
“Teachers need to consider that some students need an extra push in order to learn, because they come from a poor background, being surrounded by gangs or drugs,” says Luis Moran, an eleventh grader at The Accelerated School, a charter school in South Los Angeles. He says discipline in the classroom and awareness of a student’s social environment is key.
Moran’s classmate, Kimberly Flores, points to her own Spanish teacher, Mr. Lee, as an example of what makes a good teacher. “He is always available before and after class … He also has high expectations of us and pushes us to do better.”
For students like these, the debate over how to measure teacher effectiveness is less central than ensuring that quality teachers remain in traditionally underserved schools. Thanks to a state policy known as Last In, First Out (LIFO), teachers with fewer than two years experience are the first to be let go when layoffs occur, regardless of whether or not they’ve received positive evaluations. A majority of these teachers end up in low performing districts.
Jonathan Moss, a teacher in the Compton Unified School District, gained recognition for helping his fourth-graders at McNair Elementary School achieve the highest test scores at their grade level in the district. Still, the 27-year-old says he received a pink slip every year he was there.
Between 2008 and 2010, according to the California Department of Education, some 20,000 teachers received pink slips annually. While most were hired back, it was often to another school in the same district. A study released in 2011 by the advocacy group EdTrust West showed that low-income students were 65 percent more likely to see a teacher fired.
Moss, now a substitute teacher in the district, says he’s contemplating leaving the profession entirely. As for LIFO, he puts the blame squarely on the teachers union. "I pay my union dues but I’m not part of the union because I feel they’re protecting bad teachers.”
Last September, Assemblyman Felipe Fuentes, a San Fernando Democrat, withdrew a bill that sought to rewrite portions of the Stull Act. The bill, AB5, presented a range of options for measuring student learning, including standardized tests.
Unions lined up in opposition.
"We are not opposed to a new evaluation system,” says Juan Ramirez, vice president of United Teachers Los Angeles. “What we are opposed to is that the new evaluation will be used to take away our rights.”
In November, however, the union and LAUSD reached a tentative agreement to include student scores in teacher evaluations, following a court ruling that found the district in violation of the Stull Act. How the data will be used and how much weight will be given to test results in the evaluations, however, remains unclear.
While UTLA is expected to vote on the agreement next week, Ramirez says that if administrators get their way, teachers in districts with high numbers of English Learner (EL) students could suffer from the new evaluations, 30 percent of which would be based on standardized test results. “Most of the students [in LAUSD] struggle, not because they lack the ability to learn, but because they are ELs," he argued.
Nearly one in five students in LAUSD are considered English Learners.
Drew Furedi, executive director of talent management at LAUSD, says that beyond the negotiations and lawsuits, “teachers in this district want an assessment to help them grow and perform better in their profession."
But, he admits, the district will not to be able to match the most effective teachers with the students who need them most. "We have no structure, legislation or the budget to make that decision about a better distribution of teachers in schools."
Statewide, the question of devising a standard model for evaluations remains elusive. Polikoff with USC says researchers are continuing to study what might constitute an effective system.
“We’re learning more and more how test scores can be used in combination with observation based in high quality rubrics,” he says. “My approach would be to try all and see how it works … it will certainly work much better than what we have right now.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly attributed the statement by LAUSD Jonathan Moss to the Los Angeles Times. The correct attribution is Esmeralda Fabian of La Opinión.
Esmeralda Fabian is a Los Angeles-based education reporter with La Opinion newspaper, the leading Spanish-language newspaper in America. She covers both national and state issues, as well as local stories in the greater Los Angeles area.
This story was produced as part of New America Media's 2012 education reporting fellowship for ethnic media journalists in California, with support from the California Education Policy Fund (CEPF) and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.
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