Long-neglected law on teacher evaluations rises to forefront

Melrose Elementary teachers and its principal, Bernadette Lucas, took part in Los Angeles Unified School District's pilot teacher evaluation program, which factored in student achievement to determine teacher effectiveness.

Credit: Carlos A. Moreno / The Center for Investigative Reporting


 

LOS ANGELES – The road to an agreement on teacher evaluations has been a long and costly one that is not yet finished. But recent litigation has put the Los Angeles Unified School District on a fast track.

The spotlight on teacher evaluations widened last June when Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge James Chalfant ruled that the district was violating California’s longstanding teacher evaluation law, the Stull Act, by not ensuring test scores were used.

The 1971 law, signed by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan and named after a former Republican lawmaker, requires student achievement to be included in teacher evaluations – something Los Angeles Unified, and most districts, resisted for decades. Some districts found they didn’t need to fully comply with the Stull Act to receive millions of dollars from the state designated for linking teacher evaluations to student achievement.

The law was amended in 1999 under Gov. Gray Davis, requiring school boards to evaluate teachers based on state test scores as they “reasonably relate” to a teacher’s classroom performance, a vague term that effectively made it easy for districts to avoid the law.

Now, the little-known Stull Act is having its day after more than 40 years of virtual neglect.

The recent case, Doe v. Deasy, was filed in 2010 by several students in the district and sponsored by EdVoice, the nonprofit education reform group backed by billionaire Eli Broad, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and Richard Merkin, CEO of the Heritage Provider Network, among others.

Chalfant ordered the district to negotiate the terms of test score use with the teachers’ union. All told, the case and bargaining have cost the district more than $418,000 in legal bills to date, district officials said, not including $550,000 in attorney’s fees paid to the plaintiffs.

Los Angeles Unified officials were not displeased with the outcome. The ruling served as an endorsement of the district’s efforts to include student test scores in teacher evaluations. The local union, which has had an acrimonious relationship with the Los Angeles administration, also won something it had been seeking: a voice in the matter.

The judge “was actually causing to happen something we had wanted to have happen for a long time, which is that the teachers and the school board slash administration were in the same room talking about what a system would look like,” said Warren Fletcher, president of the 36,000-member United Teachers Los Angeles union.

The union had opposed the district’s effort to test changes to the system without negotiating the changes in teacher workload that came with it, and it unsuccessfully sought an injunction from the state Public Employment Relations Board to stop the program in 2011.

Following Chalfant’s ruling, the two parties spent months negotiating before reaching a tentative deal in November, ratified earlier this year. By next year, Los Angeles will comply with the intentions of the four-decade-old law.

The deal allows for state test scores and the Academic Growth Over Time measurement, which includes past test scores and demographics like students’ family income, language and ethnicity. But the deal specifically prohibits the use of individual teacher growth scores other than to “give perspective and to assist in reviewing the past CST (California Standards Test) results of the teacher.”

Critically, however, the agreement is silent on how much weight student data has. Los Angeles Unified Superintendent John Deasy has said it should account for up to 30 percent of a teacher’s evaluation; the union responded by saying such a “cookie-cutter” approach violates its agreement with the district.

Although a judge found Los Angeles Unified out of compliance with the Stull Act last summer, the district had received nearly $8.5 million in funds from the state for costs related to compliance with the law dating back to the 1997-98 school year, state records show.

Since 2004, school districts in California have been eligible to obtain certain reimbursements from the state controller’s office for enforcing the Stull Act dating back to 1997. Reimbursable costs include time spent reviewing a teacher’s California Standards Test scores and providing a written performance assessment based on the scores for legally required evaluations.

The flow of money has been unreliable. To date, the state controller’s office has received $236.3 million in Stull Act claims, but not enough funding has been appropriated by the Legislature each year to pay them. One-quarter of the claims for work through the 2010-11 school year have been reimbursed, state data shows.

But the claims from some districts have proved to be suspect.

Eleven years of Stull Act claims, totaling almost $1.3 million, were audited in the Oceanside Unified School District in 2011; $16,536 was found to be allowable. The controller disallowed eight years of staff time claims because the district refused to produce sufficient backup documentation.

Locating the documents now “would be a significant drain on district resources, staff and funds,” Oceanside district staff wrote.

The audit also noted that district was not using state test scores in teacher evaluations during the 11-year period reviewed and that the district’s contract with the teachers union at the time did not allow for it.

The Rowland Unified School District, roughly 30 miles east of Los Angeles, also came up short in its 2010 Stull Act claims audit, public records show. Out of the $2.9 million in reimbursements submitted in the nine years from 1997 to 2006, less than $683,000 was valid, the controller found, primarily due to a lack of supporting documentation.

Los Angeles Unified filed its first Stull Act claim in five years in February. The district is seeking $599,222 in reimbursements for principal and assistant principal staff time spent on evaluations last year, records show.

Alternative reform efforts

Although the Stull Act, and the money that has traditionally flowed from it, has been largely unsuccessful in pressuring California districts to adopt evaluations that measure teacher quality by the performance of their students, recent federal efforts have had more success.

The Obama administration has used federal money for the Teacher Incentive Fund, Race to the Top and School Improvement Grant program to encourage policymakers in states and districts to adopt new teacher evaluations that incorporate student test scores, despite the controversy surrounding them.

And now, the U.S. Department of Education has taken advantage of the threat of upcoming sanctions for schools and districts that don’t meet student proficiency targets under the federal No Child Left Behind law to extract agreements from states that they will overhaul their evaluations and attach them to student growth. Places that agree to make changes can receive waivers from the law’s requirements – and ensure that the federal funds upon which many depend, including Title I, will continue to flow. Thirty-seven states and the District of Columbia have had waivers approved. Nine other states are under review.

Los Angeles is one of nine districts in California applying for a waiver as a group; the waiver was amended last week to make it stronger and clearer, officials said.

It’s still unclear whether the revival of the Stull Act in Los Angeles or the rising federal pressure will lead to new evaluations in other California districts. But on a state level, efforts to change and clarify existing teacher evaluations laws and the use of state test scores have gained some traction in recent years.

AB 5, introduced in 2010 by then-Assemblyman Felipe Fuentes, a Sylmar Democrat, was withdrawn in August before a vote was taken, despite support from the California Teachers Association and California Federation of Teachers. The bill would have made the Stull Act ineffective in July 2014 in favor of local collectively bargained agreements.

Two Republican-backed measures introduced in February faced significant challenges in the Legislature, which is controlled by Democrats.

Republican Sen. Bob Huff of Brea, whose district includes part of Los Angeles County, introduced legislation that would have required districts to use a “rigorous, transparent, and fair multiple-measures evaluation system for teachers based on research-proven measures of effectiveness by the 2016-17 school year. The bill also would have given districts the right to assign or transfer teachers based on effectiveness. Huff conceded defeat in late April after the Senate Education Committee failed to pass the bill.

A bill by Republican Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen of Modesto would take things even further sooner.

Olsen’s AB 430 would require districts to negotiate an evaluation system with their unions by Jan. 1, 2015, that counts value-added scores for at least one-third of an evaluation. If no such deal is reached, 50 percent of an evaluation must be based on pupil progress on a test given at the beginning and end of the school year. The other 50 percent would be based on class observations by the principal and peers. The system would begin in the 2015-16 school year.

“Teachers should have the ability to have organized and meaningful reviews so that professional growth is tangible, not an elusive and arbitrary concept,” Olsen said in a statement. In May, she canceled a scheduled Assembly Education Committee hearing, though it may be taken up at a later date.

Ashly McGlone produced this story for The Hechinger Report and The Center for Investigative Reporting.

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