Teacher evaluation changes threatened by California bill

A long-dormant bill that could significantly impede efforts in Los Angeles and elsewhere to use student test scores to evaluate teachers has been revived and faces a key legislative test Thursday.

If passed, the bill would impose a new requirement that all aspects of teacher evaluation systems be collectively bargained, changing current law that school districts believe empowers them to design performance reviews on their own.

Since teacher unions have vociferously opposed the use of test scores in evaluations, saying they are too unreliable for decisions on hiring and firing, the bill would probably weaken the movement to do so.

Critics decried the bill as a bald attempt by teacher unions to kill the Los Angeles Unified School District’s new voluntary evaluation system, which uses state standardized test scores for the first time to measure how effective instructors are in helping students progress. L.A. Supt. John Deasy has asserted that the district has a right to launch the program without negotiations, a position sharply opposed by United Teachers Los Angeles.

Deasy said the bill, AB 5 by Assemblyman Felipe Fuentes (D-Sylmar) and set for review Thursday in the Senate Appropriations Committee, will jeopardize the new program and weaken efforts to hold teachers and administrators accountable for their students’ academic progress.

“This current bill, if passed, would really weaken the progress we’re making,” he said. “It will end a great deal of it.”

But Ben Golombek, a spokesman for Fuentes, said collective bargaining is critical to developing a statewide system for teacher evaluations.

“We really can’t have a teacher evaluation system without teachers being involved in the process,” he said.

“If you want it to work, they have to be at the table.”

The bill would make several changes to teacher evaluations, including requiring more frequent performance reviews, more training for evaluators and the use of multiple measures of student academic progress — which could include test scores but would not require them, as current state law does.

Fuentes introduced the bill in 2010 but it has not moved forward because of lack of funding for it.

The assemblyman is now proposing that the new requirements be paid for by $89 million in unused funds that had been allocated to low-performing schools to reduce class sizes and make other improvements. Los Angeles Unified could gain as much as $17 million.

Fuentes has said a new system is needed because the current one is inconsistent and unclear, doing little to help either teachers or students.

But the funding scheme has drawn wide concern among many school districts over fear it will not be enough to pay for a revamped teacher evaluation system.

Many advocates for tougher evaluation standards are also worried that the bill will essentially circumvent a recent court order directing L.A. Unified to show proof it was using student test scores in its evaluations by Dec. 4.

Several Los Angeles parents had sued the district, saying that failure to use student test scores in teacher evaluations, as they argued a state law known as the Stull Act required, was violating their children’s’ rights to equal educational opportunity.

In June, L.A. County Superior Court James C. Chalfant agreed.

Some speculated that the looming December deadline was a key reason the bill, which had not moved forward in a year, was suddenly revived.

Critics particularly questioned why the California Teachers Assn. would be open to Fuentes’ proposal to allow school districts to tap funds for teacher evaluations that the union had guarded closely for improvements for low-income students.

“I believe [teachers’ unions] are using the bill as an end run around the judge’s ruling,” said Arun Ramanathan of Education Trust West, an Oakland-based educational policy research group.

But Becky Zoglman, a CTA spokeswoman, denied that the union was making a last-minute deal to circumvent the courts.

Much of the union’s past opposition was based on the lack of funding to implement the new evaluation systems, she said.

Although CTA has not taken an official position on the proposed funding and other amendments, she said many of the bill’s provisions addressed key union concerns, including allocating funding to train administrators on how to perform evaluations.

As for the collective bargaining requirement, Zoglman said it was a critical component of any performance review system.

“The evaluation system has always been subject to collective bargaining,” she said. “If you don’t have teachers involved, you’re missing the people who know what works best in educating kids.”