Altair Maine said he was so little supervised in his first few years of teaching at North Hollywood High School that he could "easily have shown a movie in class every day and earned tenure nonetheless."
Before second-grade teacher Kimberly Patterson received tenure and the ironclad job protections it provides, she said, "my principal never set foot in my classroom while I was teaching."
And when Virgil Middle School teacher Roberto Gonzalez came up for tenure, he discovered there was no evaluation for him on file. When he inquired about it, his school hastily faxed one to district headquarters.
"I'm pretty sure it was just made up on the spot," Gonzalez said.
There is nothing to suggest these teachers didn't deserve tenure, but the district did little to ensure they were worthy.
A Times investigation found that the Los Angeles Unified School District routinely grants tenure to new teachers after cursory reviews -- and sometimes none at all.
Evaluating new teachers for tenure is one of a principal's most important responsibilities. Once instructors have permanent status, they are almost never fired for performance reasons alone. The two-year probation period, during which teachers can be fired at will, offers a singular opportunity to weed out poor performers.
It is a chance L.A. Unified all but squanders, according to interviews with more than 75 teachers and administrators, analyses of district data covering the last several years, and internal and independent studies. Among the findings:
* Nearly all probationary teachers receive a passing grade on evaluations. Fewer than 2% are denied tenure.
* The reviews are so lacking in rigor as to be meaningless, many instructors say. Before a teacher gets tenure, school administrators are required to conduct only a single, pre-announced classroom visit per year. About half the observations last 30 minutes or less. Principals are rarely held responsible for how they perform the reviews.
* The district's evaluation of teachers does not take into account whether students are learning. Principals are not required to consider testing data, student work or grades. L.A. Unified, like other districts in California, essentially ignores a state law that since the 1970s has required districts to weigh pupil progress in assessing teachers and administrators.
"I can't believe that," said Gary K. Hart, California's secretary of education under Gov. Gray Davis, when told of The Times' findings. Tenure "is not something that everyone off the street who wants to be a teacher should be granted."
"The saddest part is that the most critical element of whether our children are successful is being ignored," said Julie Slayton, the district's former director of research and planning and now a USC professor of education. "It's ridiculous and should be changed."
On Thursday, Supt. Ramon C. Cortines announced that change was coming. After hearing The Times' findings more than a week ago, the superintendent pledged to scrutinize probationary teachers more closely so poor instructors are ousted before they become tenured.
"Too many ineffective teachers are falling into tenured positions -- the equivalent of jobs for life," he said.
An easy path to tenure is not unique to Los Angeles. Schools across the country have failed to grade teachers, even their rookies, and rarely dismiss poor performers. In response, the Obama administration has made teacher accountability a key requirement in the competition for $4.35 billion in education grants.
Some of the nation's major school districts, including in New York City and Washington, D.C., have already made significant reforms, such as requiring multiple evaluations by expert teachers or objective evidence of student growth.
A task force in Los Angeles has only begun to consider such sweeping changes, which would go well beyond the pledge Cortines made Thursday.
"It's a sign of how backward things are that the superintendent has to make this kind of clarion call," said Ted Mitchell, chairman of the task force. "There is a little Alice in Wonderland quality in some of this: You mean you haven't been doing that?"
Now is crunch time for principals.
In the fall months, they must evaluate the hundreds of second-year teachers who are up for tenure in the spring. Most administrators and experts say it is difficult to judge teachers on their first year -- often a struggle for even the most gifted. So October through December becomes the narrow window in which most principals must carry out one of their weightiest duties.
The quality of evaluations appears to vary dramatically in the district's nearly 1,000 schools. Some principals say it's hard to find the time to get into classrooms. Others, like Sonia Miller of Samuel Gompers Middle School in the Broadway-Manchester neighborhood west of Watts, make evaluations a priority.
"I arrive at 7 in the morning and don't leave until 7 p.m.," Miller said.
Just after 9 a.m. on a recent Thursday, she slipped into the back row of an eighth-grade English class to observe Daniel Leake, a second-year teacher who bounded around the room, quizzing his 19 students about Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven."
"You have the content of a strong lesson," Miller wrote in her notes. "However, it would be more effective to have a [handout] to help students organize their thoughts/ideas."
After 11 minutes, Miller left. She saw room for improvement: Leake hadn't called on enough students, and he'd answered most of his questions himself. The room was clean, but its sky blue walls were nearly bare.
Still, Leake was doing better than in his first year, Miller said, when he struggled to control his class. She said she would drop in several more times before doing a formal evaluation but thought Leake would merit tenure.
Evaluation is an especially heavy burden at Gompers, where Miller says 31 of 73 teachers are "probes," as probationary teachers are known. Choosing the right teachers will be essential to stabilizing a campus plagued by low test scores and staff turmoil, including seven principals in the six years before she arrived in 2008, Miller said.
Probationary teachers are not distributed evenly throughout the district: Most schools with the highest number of probationary teachers are in poor areas, an analysis of district data found.
"You're putting new teachers who are struggling in with the kids with the highest needs," Miller said.
Last year, Miller said, she told three of 13 teachers up for tenure that they wouldn't get it. Other schools with lots of probationary teachers are less selective.
Consider five academically struggling elementary campuses in South Los Angeles: 118th Street, 116th Street, 75th Street, 66th Street and 24th Street schools.
In the last three years, 88 teachers at those schools have been up for tenure, district data show; only one, at 24th Street last year, was let go by the school board.
District officials noted that other teachers may have known they were going to get a bad evaluation and quit before being fired. At least 15% of teachers leave voluntarily after their first year.
Teacher evaluations at L.A. Unified are known among staffers as "drive-bys."
Not just quick and infrequent, they are also vague and subjective. Both tenured and non-tenured teachers are rated on a four-page checklist with such criteria as "provides an effective classroom environment." The form has three options: meets standards, needs improvement or falls below standards.
There is limited room for an evaluator's comments, but they are often absent or sparing, teachers say. The findings are required to be discussed with teachers in a conference but often aren't.
District data show that probationary teachers pass evaluations at about the same rate as tenured instructors, despite new instructors' inexperience. They are made permanent automatically unless tenure is vetoed by the principal and ultimately the school board -- something that happened an average of 35 times annually in the last four years.
Gonzalez, the Virgil Middle School teacher who this year won a prestigious Milken award for teaching science, said his new principal carries out rigorous evaluations. But when he earned tenure in 2005, he got nearly no feedback.
"It's the culture," he said. "It did make me angry. It still does."
Maine of North Hollywood, who now leads the school's science Olympiad team, could recall only one observation by an administrator in his first few years, "and that was a couple of minutes."
"Being quickly satisfied that no riot was in progress, he departed," Maine said in an e-mail.
Two teachers elsewhere told The Times that their evaluation forms were falsified to show an observer was present when he or she was not. Both declined to be identified for fear of retribution.
The dearth of feedback has only worsened in recent years, as budget cuts have thinned the ranks of assistant principals, who are often responsible for evaluations.
Michelle Ereckson, a third-grade teacher at 24th Street and the school's union representative, said some administrators don't even show up for scheduled evaluations.
When evaluators do show up, Ereckson said, some teachers are well-prepared because they practiced the lesson with students the day before. Evaluators don't seem to notice, she said, even when students know all the answers.
Ereckson said she had reported her concerns up the ladder, all the way to the local superintendent. "No one does anything about it," she said. "Nobody cares."
She thinks it's no accident that the school's state test scores fell last year. "If the principal doesn't know what's going on in the classroom, you can't offer support to the people who need support, you can't offer praise to the people who need praise," she said.
Michelle King, District 3 superintendent, said she investigated the matter, attending a meeting at the school in which the entire faculty aired concerns about evaluations and other issues.
"The principal was able to demonstrate to me that she was following district policy," King said.
Glenn Parness, the union representative at Berendo Middle School in Pico-Union, cited other weaknesses in the system. One probationary teacher at Berendo was chronically late, couldn't control the class and rarely planned lessons, he recalled.
But the teacher knew that a tenure review was coming up and "shaped up for six months," Parness said.
After getting permanent status, the instructor backslid into old habits and is now "pretty much the same" as before, Parness said.
Forty-four percent of L.A. Unified principals said they don't always try to remove probationary teachers who they think don't belong in the profession, according to a 2008 survey conducted for the district by the New Teachers Project, a nonprofit.
Interviews by The Times suggest several explanations: Principals are afraid they'll get someone worse; it's time-consuming to prepare and unpleasant to deliver a negative evaluation; they learned not to be picky during teacher shortages that ended years ago; or they simply can't tell who deserves a permanent job and who doesn't.
Most important, L.A. Unified officials say, is a district culture that views struggling teachers almost as "pupils" who always have the capacity to improve.
Some officials also say principals have grown gun-shy from fierce battles with permanent teachers -- who are rarely fired and even then, can spend years on the payroll as their cases wind through a byzantine appeals process, as The Times reported in May.
By force of habit, some new teachers are treated with similar deference -- even in the face of alleged misconduct.
In 2000, Matthew Kim was a probationary special education teacher at Grant High School in Valley Glen when an aide complained that he had made inappropriate comments and touched her breast during class, state documents show. Several similar complaints followed from students and staff.
About the same time, Kim's principal sent Kim, who is severely disabled by cerebral palsy, a memo stating that the teacher had trouble communicating with students and that some students and aides refused to be in his class.
He got tenure anyway.
In 2002, as complaints mounted, Kim was removed from the classroom, and a year after that, the school board voted to fire him. Kim denied any impropriety.
Nearly a decade after complaints first emerged, L.A. Unified estimates it is out $2 million in salary and legal costs, and the case remains on appeal.
In California, tenure arose in the 1920s as an effort to protect schoolteachers -- at the time mostly women -- from unfair terminations. Back then, getting married, wearing a skirt with bare legs or failing to clean a classroom's lamps and chimneys were firing offenses.
Eventually, many California politicians and education officials came to believe that the protections provided made it nearly impossible to fire poor performers. But their reforms have had limited success.
In 1971, Assemblyman John Stull, a Republican from San Diego, wrote a law requiring districts to evaluate teachers and administrators based on pupil progress, instructional technique and the classroom environment.
Many districts across the state have apparently ignored the first criterion. No one monitors enforcement of that law "at the state level or otherwise," said Hilary McLean, spokeswoman for state Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell.
A 1983 law stripped probationary teachers of employment protections, so they could be dismissed without cause. In exchange, teachers unions persuaded legislators to reduce the probationary period from three years to two.
Most states require three, while some mandate as many as five.
In 1999, Gov. Gray Davis offered struggling teachers more training, creating a path to remove them if they did not improve. That program has essentially failed, according to former state education secretary Hart, who was its architect.
It has suffered from chronic budget cuts and inconsistent use, he said.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger took his own stab at the issue in 2005 with Proposition 74, which would have extended the probationary period to five years and curbed some protections for permanent teachers. It was soundly defeated after the California Teachers Assn. and others spent nearly $17 million to oppose it.
These days, some critics of tenure say it is an outmoded concept, more appropriate to a university setting where it is earned over years, granted more sparingly and serves to protect academic freedom. Teachers unions counter that it is key to protecting instructors from incompetent or vindictive administrators, some of whom have never taught.
Others say the law is not the problem: Officials should just make evaluations a bigger priority and give principals the training and support to carry them out.
"If we changed the law but didn't change the management at schools, we wouldn't be much better off," said John Mockler, former executive director of the state Board of Education.
Ironically, many bad teachers are hard to fire because they can point to years of positive evaluations by principals who did not do their jobs, Mockler said.
A tougher stance
Even without changes in Sacramento, schools around the district have found ways to set a higher bar for new teachers.
Gompers, the Broadway-Manchester middle school, is controlled by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, which requires principals to spend three hours a day in classrooms.
Miller said she observes teachers routinely to provide useful feedback, not just an up or down vote on tenure.
As for those who still aren't making the grade, she said she wants them out before it's too late.
Miller took a visitor to the classroom of a tenured veteran who was not in school that day. Students were out of their seats and chatting while a substitute stood by helplessly.
The teacher "never comes to work, leaves no lesson plan for the sub, and has a file as thick as everything," Miller said, her eyes welling. "Students are falling behind. . . . Colleagues are upset. They come to me and say, 'Why aren't you doing anything?' "
Miller said she has been documenting the teacher's failings almost every day for more than a year. "I'm told it will take another year of writing to get [the teacher] out," she said.
By that, she means out of her school.
Instead of being fired, she said, the tenured instructor will almost certainly land on another L.A. Unified campus.
Doug Smith, The Times' director of database reporting, contributed to this report.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times