Less test-iness over L.A. teacher evaluations

Anthony Yom teaches a pre-calculus class at Lincoln High School in Los Angeles.
(Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times)

Sebastian, who goes by one name, takes issue with the new teacher evaluation system in Los Angeles. Her rating has declined, unfairly in her view.

The San Pedro High teacher is hardly the only one with concerns.

Some see the observation-based system — negotiated by the district and unions — as too friendly toward teachers. Others say it’s too cumbersome or too reliant on principals with limited expertise.

Supporters see the district’s approach as breaking ground, even leading the nation. Critics say the kind of political compromise it was born of inevitably promotes mediocrity and fails to help students.


The latest revisions to the one-year-old system are expected to win formal approval at Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting. The pact was achieved with far less acrimony than usually has accompanied efforts here and elsewhere to overhaul how teachers are assessed.

The ultimate test is: Is this having positive, measurable effects on teachers and students?

— Dan Goldhaber, a professor at the University of Washington

But, said Dan Goldhaber, a professor at the University of Washington with extensive experience in teacher-evaluation research, “The ultimate test is: Is this having positive, measurable effects on teachers and students?”

In L.A., it’s still too early to say, even more than six years into a sweeping endeavor to revamp how instruction is measured and improved.

Notably missing in the latest system is any direct reliance on student standardized test scores to determine whether teachers keep their jobs. Test scores now are to be used instead for analyzing student needs, setting goals and reviewing progress toward achieving them.

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Until recently, the Obama administration pushed hard for test-based evaluations, as did well-heeled foundations with an outsize influence on the nation’s education policy. But opponents called them inconsistent and unfair.

Across the country, aligning against them along with teachers were many parents, who objected to the time and emphasis placed on standardized tests.

In L.A., efforts to use student scores to evaluate teachers led to lawsuits and legislative battles and played a central role in highly charged and expensive local and state elections.

But now the district has more or less made peace with the teachers union, which fought against relying on test scores, and the hope is that the new approach will work at least as well.

Goldhaber, however, worries, as do others, that labor harmony has been given priority over student welfare. L.A. Unified, he said, needs to resist the norm of most school systems, which rate nearly every teacher effective.

A good evaluation, he said, reliably separates teachers of different abilities and is used to improve instruction.

In Los Angeles, former Supt. John Deasy pushed for test scores to count for about 30% of an evaluation.

His target failed to survive, though his efforts, including a lawsuit he backed, helped cement the place of student achievement in a more meaningful review process.

L.A. Unified administrators now undergo five days of training in how to provide consistent and fair evaluations. Under state law, data such as test scores must be part of appraising a teacher. But the new L.A. system also can consider students’ progress in learning to read, portfolios of student work, schoolwide attendance, suspension rates and the percentage of passing grades in the school or a class. A teacher rated as below standard can challenge the rating by filing a grievance.

Although Sebastian had reservations about test-based evaluations, she’s not convinced that the new format will greatly improve teaching. Formal observation, for example, which plays a key role, is required only once during an evaluation year. Schools are supposed to evaluate about a quarter of a school’s teachers every year.

“I think even the worst teachers at my school are able to pull off a decent one-hour evaluation,” she said.

Sebastian’s personal quibble, however, is with the limited new ratings categories. The district gave in to union demands and reduced the choices from four to three — eliminating the previous top rating of highly effective.

Now there are three rankings: effective, developing and ineffective. And Sebastian, who previously had been assessed as highly effective, is ranked effective.

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“It kind of, in essence, lowers my rating,” said Sebastian, who teaches moderately to severely disabled students.

This seeming minutiae is part of a larger debate.

The district would prefer a four-level rating system to better identify, among other things, teachers who could serve as mentors. Other districts have used such yardsticks to hand out bonuses.

Teacher unions, however, are concerned that rating systems could trump seniority when layoffs are necessary, or abet the targeting of outspoken or higher-salaried veteran instructors.

That concern prompted one new provision: If a teacher is to undergo a formal evaluation, he or she now must be notified within the first five weeks of the school year.

“We’ve had situations where an educator sometime during the year does something to get on the bad side of an administrator and the administrator in March says: ‘Oh, by the way, I’m going to evaluate you this year,’” said Alex Caputo-Pearl, president of United Teachers Los Angeles.

Caputo-Pearl also noted that an administrator now must provide feedback on an evaluation within 10 working days. Previously, there was no deadline.

Both administrators and teachers have applauded the simplification of the evaluation form, which has far fewer categories. The idea is to delve deep into a few areas rather than get lost in a multitude of superficial details, said Linda Del Cueto, who heads the district’s training and evaluation for teachers and principals.

The new evaluation guidelines are part of a teachers contract revision that also includes extra counseling days outside of the formal school term, an extra teaching position at 55 elementary schools with especially high needs, a cap of 55 students in physical education classes, and an extra teaching position at high schools to help provide more electives or smaller classes in elective courses.

“Our elective classes often make students want to come to school every day and allow for creative expression,” said Caputo-Pearl.


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