An L.A. Unified road map

There are big differences in how well Los Angeles’ teachers help their students learn, a new study shows — bigger variations than in other districts, where teaching quality appears more even. The study also indicates that teachers in the L.A. Unified School District who receive advanced degrees aren’t more effective than others, but those with national board certification are. The district’s program for training teachers, pulling mostly from its ranks of classroom aides, produces more effective teachers than those who come from traditional teacher colleges, and they’re much more likely to stay with the district than recruits from the prestigious Teach for America organization.

This six-year study of L.A. Unified depends on reliable, robust test data — using it to measure classifications of teachers rather than individuals — to provide a wealth of sometimes surprising information on how to recruit, assign, pay and, when necessary, lay off teachers in ways that help students most. Often the obstacle to doing so is the contract with the teachers union — but not always. The study was conducted by the Harvard-affiliated Strategic Data Program, which is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Despite the study’s link to that reform-minded foundation, though, its conclusions don’t always mesh with a reform agenda.

For example, it found that teachers who were laid off in recent years were no more effective than their colleagues who weren’t laid off. That weakens the argument of those who contend that the seniority-based layoff system keeps less effective teachers on the job while better ones are leaving. But seniority rules can cause harm, the study found, when more senior math teachers are allowed to pick their schools rather than being sent to schools where students most need their skills — and inexperienced math teachers are assigned to students who already begin the school year behind academically. That’s a bad system because math teachers with a few years of experience can give their students months of extra progress in a single year.

The study found that the district’s Career Ladders program, which educates teaching aides to become credentialed teachers, is producing superior teachers. The program deserves more financial support, and the district clearly shouldn’t be paying extra to teachers who obtain advanced degrees.

Teacher contract negotiations generally involve a long wrangle over competing education philosophies. It’s harder to argue with facts. Contract reforms in L.A. Unified should be based on what works best for students, and this study provides the most specific road map so far to getting there.