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What makes a teacher 'ineffective'? California's education officials and advocacy groups can't agree

Student Beatriz Vergara testifies in the Vergara vs. California case in Los Angeles County Superior Court on Feb. 11, 2014. (Los Angeles Times)
Student Beatriz Vergara testifies in the Vergara vs. California case in Los Angeles County Superior Court on Feb. 11, 2014. (Los Angeles Times)

For all the noise, infighting and litigation over teacher evaluations and tenure, California currently has no definition for what a good teacher — or a bad one — looks like.

As one way to measure equity, the federal Every Student Succeeds Act requires that states report on whether disadvantaged students have a higher proportion of ineffective, out-of-field and inexperienced teachers than do their peers. But to report on that metric, the state needs to define, concretely, what an "ineffective" teacher looks like.

In materials prepared for Wednesday's meeting, the State Board of Education has proposed defining ineffective teachers as those who are improperly assigned or don't have full credentials. This language that mirrors the Local Control Funding Formula law, as well as a proposal from the California Teachers Assn. union. The definition would not include any measure of student performance, an omission that is drawing criticism from some.

"We are very concerned," the Education Trust — West, an Oakland-based nonprofit focused on closing the achievement gap, wrote in a letter. "It refuses to consider teacher effectiveness as something apart from certification and instead as something related to performance and impact on students."

Similarly, the Assn. of California School Administrators wrote that the definition misses "a teacher who is fully credentialed but ineffective in instructional practices."

Others, meanwhile, are worried that they'll be punished for hiring teachers with less experience in the classroom. Several charter school groups, including the California Charter School Assn. and KIPP L.A., wrote into the board to ask that "intern-credentialed teachers," which includes Teach for America corps members, not be categorized as "ineffective, out-of-field, or inexperienced."

Some, including EdTrust — West's Carrie Hahnel, have suggested looking at teacher turnover rates and teacher absenteeism as a way to getting at how teachers are doing without using controversial, quantitative teacher evaluation systems.

Research shows that credentials and certifications can be a good proxy for whether teachers are helping students learn, Linda Darling-Hammond, a Stanford professor and president and CEO of the Learning Policy Institute, a research and advocacy group, pointed out in a letter.

The group recommended a definition that included the metrics proposed by the state, but also suggested looking at things like the percentage of teachers who have National Board for Professional Teaching Standards certification, teacher collaboration and stability of school leadership.

Despite several requests, officials at the State Board of Education would not discuss this issue on the record.

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