Now is crunch time for principals.
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.