Suspended charter teacher cites student test scores in his defense


A teacher at the center of a dispute at a well-known charter school has launched a novel defense to save his job and that of a fired colleague: They’re too good to be dismissed based on their students’ standardized test scores.

Biology teacher Mark Friedman has been suspended, and history teacher Sonia Del Pino has been dismissed from Animo Leadership Charter High School in Inglewood, which is operated by Green Dot Public Schools.

Friedman was suspended because of allegations by one or two co-workers that he bullied colleagues, negligently supervised students and inappropriately involved them in personnel decisions, and created a “negative and hostile work environment,” according to a letter sent to him this month. Del Pino was fired for undisclosed reasons apparently related to her teaching.

Green Dot officials declined to discuss the two teachers, citing personnel confidentiality.

But Friedman links their situations to opposing a new evaluation system. Even though it is more objective than the current one, which is based on classroom observations alone, Friedman maintains that teachers still could be wrongly targeted on subjective grounds.

Under the new method, students’ test scores will count for 30% of a teacher’s performance review and classroom observations will count for 40%. For those who teach subjects that are not tested, classroom observations will count for 55%, along with other factors.

Charter schools are independently managed and are exempt from some rules that govern traditional schools. Green Dot has used that flexibility to craft the new evaluations with support from the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Advocates contend that test scores offer a more objective measure of a teacher’s performance than most evaluations currently in place, which rarely consider student progress and rate nearly all teachers as successful.

Opponents, including leaders of the L.A. teachers union, argue that standardized tests are unreliable, unfair and should not be used for high-stakes personnel decisions.

Friedman said he has received good reviews and that he has led Green Dot’s teacher training sessions in biology. He said he could be subject to dismissal in as little as 90 days for reasons he said could be disguised as teaching deficiencies.

“The teachers have no recourse [in evaluations] if you disagree with the administrator’s assessment,” said Friedman.

He provided test results showing that two-thirds of his life science students scored as advanced or at grade level in 2011. Results he provided for Del Pino had 54% of her history students reaching those levels, doubling her success rate from two years before.

The head of the local chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, a liberal advocacy group, called Friedman a victim of retaliation for exercising free-speech rights.

The guild leader, Jim Lafferty, originally entered the fray on behalf of students, after a Green Dot principal confiscated their petitions supporting Del Pino in May. The local ACLU affiliate also wrote to express concerns.

Green Dot’s top officials quickly directed staffers not to interfere with students protesting outside of school.

About 50 students and several parents descended on Green Dot’s downtown headquarters Tuesday. Friedman provided a statement of support for the rally from Del Pino, who he said is traveling outside the country. “This fight is not over,” her statement said.

Green Dot allowed teachers to approve the new evaluations, as part of a revamped employment contract.

“We were not going to just impose this on teachers,” said Green Dot Chief Executive Marco Petruzzi. “How teachers get evaluated has always been designed with teachers.” He added that the goal is to provide fair reviews, which could include videotaping classes to settle disputes.

Teachers approved the contract in May. About 78% of teachers cast ballots, and 54% voted in support.

The vote was close because “there’s an overall fear that exists around what’s going to happen in public education, and there’s kind of a resistance to changes,” said Arielle Zurzolo, president of Green Dot’s teachers union. The unease over the fate of Del Pino and Friedman also might have affected some voters, she said.

Zurzolo said she supports the new reviews. “We think we’re leading California in these teacher evaluation systems, and we created it with teachers,” she said.

The union is pursuing a grievance on behalf of Del Pino, but it would be premature to do so for Friedman until Green Dot’s internal investigation is complete, Zurzolo said.

The Los Angeles Unified School District also is grappling with installing a new evaluation system. A Los Angeles Superior Court judge ruled last week that the school system is violating state law by failing to include student performance in teachers’ evaluations. LAUSD Supt. John Deasy supports that approach as one measure of teacher effectiveness and wants to see such a system in all schools.