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L.A. teachers strike unlikely

They’re both large, urban school districts under fire from teachers unions for pushing to incorporate student test scores into instructors’ evaluations.

But few observers expect tensions over performance reviews to ignite a strike in Los Angeles, as it did in Chicago, because of myriad differences in conditions surrounding the two cities’ school districts.

Chicago teachers and the school district reached a tentative agreement Friday after a five-day strike by 26,000 instructors. Labor negotiations are underway in Los Angeles over similar issues involving evaluations.

“I don’t think there’s the remotest chance of a walkout here,” said L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy. “I am anticipating a breakthrough with teachers, and I would say very soon.”

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Warren Fletcher, president of the 31,000-member United Teachers Los Angeles, said a strike was always a last resort, but that no option was off the table. The union vociferously argues that test scores are too unreliable to use for firing and other high-stakes decisions.

Several key differences in Los Angeles could temper the political climate for a labor walkout, said Deasy and others. They say there is more openness to L.A.'s new evaluation system, more deliberation in rolling it out, more avenues for teachers to push their priorities and less pressure to immediately resolve the most controversial issue -- how much student test scores should count in an instructor’s evaluation.

In Chicago, teachers railed against the school district’s system that counts student academic growth, as measured by test scores, for 25% of a teacher’s overall rating the first year and 40% by the fifth year. Illinois state law requires school districts to count student progress for a minimum of 25% and as much as 50%.

Los Angeles has more wiggle room, since neither state law nor a recent court order prescribes how much to use test scores or even how to incorporate them into a teacher’s evaluation.

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The district has not pushed the issue in its new voluntary evaluation system, which rates teachers based on classroom observations, community feedback, contributions to the school and how much they help students progress according to a measure tied to test scores known as Academic Growth Over Time.

Fletcher said it was easier to negotiate the issues when no specific percentage weight on test scores was being pushed. “Arguing over a percentage misses the point,” he said. “The point of teacher evaluation is to improve instruction.”

Still, the issue will eventually come to a head -- the Board of Education agreed to a 30% weight in its application for a federal grant a few years ago. That is almost certain to be rejected by the union.

Fletcher and other union leaders are critical of the district’s rating system for teachers but their view is not universally shared by UTLA members. Some members have begun advocating for student growth measures in a development not apparent in Chicago.

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One of them, Mohammad Choudhury, said such measures can give teachers useful information about how much they are helping students progress, controlling for factors such as poverty and parent education levels.

Choudhury and fellow teacher Karl Hunsberger are members of TeachPlus, a new group of district and charter school instructors who recently recommended counting student achievement for an initial 10% of an instructor’s evaluation, increasing that share only as teacher concerns are addressed. Without such compromises, Hunsberger said he feared a walkout could potentially occur.

“This is an emotionally charged issue and people are feeling strongly about it,” he said.

Several civil rights and community organizations have also backed the use of student achievement in teacher reviews, shifting the political landscape in Los Angeles to a greater extent than in Chicago.

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Their most striking advocacy came last month, when more than 40 organizations rallied against a proposed bill that would have rewritten teacher evaluation rules in ways they feared could make it more difficult to use test scores. Opponents included local chapters of the Urban League, Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and United Way. The bill was withdrawn despite the support of the powerful California Teachers Assn.

In Chicago, most civil rights and community-based organizations have not taken up the fight on teacher reviews, according to Andrea Zopp, president of the Chicago Urban League. She said the league is one of the few to do so.

But momentum may be shifting in California. A task force convened by state Supt. of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson rejected any link between students’ standardized test scores and teachers’ performance reviews in a report issued this week.

Another key difference between Los Angeles and Chicago is the political power equation, according to L.A. school board member Steve Zimmer.

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Teachers in Chicago in large part have few alternatives within the political structure, he said. The mayor there appoints the school board and the superintendent.

In Los Angeles, the union is able to push its priorities by backing candidates for the city’s elected school board. But winning a school-board election -- let alone a board majority -- takes precious time, money and manpower. That subtracts from the resources available for a strike, Zimmer said.

Since July, L.A. Unified and the union have met 14 times on the evaluation issue. Deasy and Fletcher share a professional relationship and have been respectful of each other. In Chicago, tensions flared between the mayor and union leadership.

At a noisy UTLA rally in support of Chicago teachers Friday, however, several union members said they would not rule out a strike if the district pushed them too hard on the evaluation issue.

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But how much is too hard varied widely among some of the rally’s participants, about 100 of whom marched down Wilshire Boulevard with megaphones and signs reading “UTLA Stands With Chicago.”

Phillip Brimble, an Overland Elementary School teacher, said he would be willing to count test scores for 10% of his evaluation -- adding that anything more than that would be one reason for a walkout.

“Test scores are something that can be looked at, but they are not the crucial determinant of how a child is doing or how a teacher is doing,” he said. “They are one part of a much larger picture.”

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teresa.watanabe@latimes.com

Times staff writers Howard Blume and Stephen Ceasar and Chicago Tribune reporter Hal Dardick contributed to this report.


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