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Opinion

Teacher quality must be Job 1 of education reform in L.A.

The crisis in Los Angeles public schools — where only about half of the students graduate from high school and fewer than 30% of those who do are college-ready — can’t be solved until we make excellent teaching a top priority. Teacher quality alone can’t solve the problem, but every child in every school in every neighborhood must have an effective teacher.

A study released last week by the National Council on Teacher Quality calls attention to just how dramatically we are failing when it comes to recruiting, training, evaluating and compensating teachers. Great teaching doesn’t just happen. Great teachers — and the Los Angeles schools have many of them — are made, not born, and public education needs to support, encourage and reward their development. But there are impediments to doing so.

According to the report’s findings, both state policy and the current collective bargaining agreement between the Los Angeles Unified School District and United Teachers Los Angeles are standing in the way of fostering good teachers and good teaching. The report cited such things as layoff policies, job protections and a lack of rigorous teacher evaluations as serious obstacles to reform.

One area of concern, for example, was the “must-place” list for teacher hiring. Principals are often required to choose from among teachers who have been laid off at other schools rather than considering all internal and external applicants, which too often means hiring inferior candidates. Nearly three-quarters of the principals surveyed for the report said the policy has forced them to hire teachers who weren’t a good fit for their schools.

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Another problem cited in the report is that layoffs must occur almost solely by seniority, without any regard for job performance. California is one of just 12 states that handles layoffs this way.

The report also focused on teacher evaluations, noting that they are too infrequent and too limited in the criteria they employ. Of the thousands of teachers surveyed, a majority said they would most value the input of in-class observation by peers or supervisors with expertise in their field. Instead, California’s Education Code actually prohibits teachers from evaluating one another.

These are just a handful of examples from the report’s findings.

The good news is that we are beginning to see indications of change, with new leadership in the district that seems committed to reform. I am pleased that John Deasy, the district’s new superintendent, is intent on negotiating a new contract that puts teacher quality at the top of the agenda. And the report identified other reforms that the LAUSD central office can implement without negotiating a new contract or legislating change in Sacramento. In fact, some of those critical reforms are already underway.

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This year, LAUSD is piloting a new teacher evaluation system rooted in multiple measures, including in-class observations and measurements of the academic growth of students. For the first time in the district, teacher evaluations, at least partially, will be based on how well students learn. This pilot program is being rolled out initially at 100 schools on an opt-in basis, and the results will be used to build a meaningful evaluation system that treats teachers as professionals.

This is promising, but there is more work to be done. Last year, only 13% of teacher applicants were required to teach a sample lesson before being hired, and less than a third of all LAUSD teachers were evaluated. The district needs to establish a rigorous interview process and ensure we evaluate every teacher, every year.

Another issue is tenure. LAUSD no longer awards tenure automatically after two years — a big step in the right direction — but it needs to go further. Tenure, which provides significant job protections, needs to become something that is earned. Teachers and principals should be required to present evidence in support of the initial award and to engage in periodic tenure renewal. Even more important, non-tenured teachers must be provided with more feedback and mentorship so that they can develop into successful educators worthy of tenure.

District and UTLA leaders must put aside their differences and commit to negotiating a new contract that embraces real reform. As a city, we must also demand reform of a system that gives more than 97% of teachers the same rating and replace it with one that doesn’t stamp every teacher with an oversimplified “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory” grade. Only then will we be able to compensate teachers for demonstrated effectiveness, not just years of service or course credits.

There is also a role for the state. The governor and the Legislature must prioritize both education funding and reform, because either is useless without the other. Excellent schools are crucial to the state and shouldn’t become fodder for partisan politics.

Education reform can’t focus narrowly on any single issue. We need to find ways of strengthening school leadership, of engaging and empowering parents, of cutting through red tape and of strengthening academics, the arts and after-school programming. We need to fund schools adequately, employing sensible formulas that put more dollars where they belong — in the classroom.

But ultimately, as the National Council report makes clear, students will only get the education they deserve if we put teacher quality at the front of our reform effort.

Antonio Villaraigosa is mayor of Los Angeles.


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