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Judge: LA Unified must include student performance data in teacher evaluations

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L.A. Unified must include student progress as a measure in teacher evaluations in order to abide by state law, a judge ruled at a hearing Tuesday.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge James C. Chalfant affirmed his 25-page tentative ruling (with minor modifications) that was issued Monday in a more than hour-long court hearing today after a bevy of attorneys representing the district, United Teachers Los Angeles, Associated Administrators of Los Angeles, and others, made their final arguments in Doe vs. Deasy.

Chalfant left the details of how the district must comply with the "pupil progress requirement" primarily to its discretion. He said details such as the system of measurement, how that plays into a teacher's evaluation and how much it is weighted, may all require collective bargaining.

"You've got to do it, you have to consider pupil progress both based on CSTs [state standardized tests] and whatever assessments you want to rely on for district standards in evaluating teachers," Chalfant said. "Now how you go about doing that is a matter of your discretion, how you want to collectively bargain that is a matter to you and your unions."

The suit was filed in November by the Sacramento-based nonprofit EdVoice on behalf of seven unnamed parents. The core of the brief centers around the 41-year-old “Stull Act,” which requires school districts “evaluate and assess certificated employee performance as it reasonably relates to the progress of pupils” on standards established by the district of expected achievement in each subject area at each grade level. 

In 1999, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, then the speaker in the state Assembly, sponsored an amendment to include that the Act require evaluation based on student progress on state standardized tests.

In an amicus curiae brief filed on Villaraigosa’s behalf, his attorney states that LAUSD is not complying with the Stull Act and that it needs to incorporate student progress as one of multiple measures of teacher effectiveness. 

Villaraigosa held a press conference after the hearing to applaud the judge's decision. He said he hoped similar suits would be taken up against districts across the state in order to promote this type of evaluation reform.

"This decision today sows the seeds of change for the state's public schools," Villaraigosa said. "The idea that we are all responsible for where students start and where they end up. That's not a radical notion...

"Better evaluations alone won't cure everything that ails our schools...We have to better fund our schools. But we have to tie that funding to success, we have to tie that funding to improvement."

The ruling was relatively warmly received by most parties involved in the case who agreed that teacher evaluations should include some measure of student progress, just not on how that should be done or how it should inform the evaluation process.

United Teachers Los Angeles attorney Jesus Quinonez argued during the hearing that the judge's order was unnecessary since the district already takes into account student test data in how it evaluates teachers. He said afterward that the union would engage in "good-faith negotiations as required to."

"We think the evaluation system has to be improved no question about it, but I think the court very clearly preserved the obligation to negotiate and also preserved the district's discretion with respect to most of these matters," Quinonez said.

The union has no issue with having student progress be a measure in teacher evaluation, Quinonez said, but the issue is how much weight performance on tests is given.

"We haven't figured out how to deal with this," Quinonez said. "There's the danger of having a high stakes impact when there's so much question about the reliability and credibility" of such a measure.

Judith Perez, president of the administrator's union, was also present in court to watch the proceedings. She said she was "encouraged" by the judge's support of the collective bargaining process. Perez said the union has been trying to negotiate the evaluation process with the district for the last six months and disagreed with characterizations by district officials that the union is dragging its feet.

"We want an excellent evaluation process," Perez said. "We feel the current process could be improved. We feel we're uniquely situated to do that. It is a fundamental responsbility of our members to evaluate teachers, and we want that to be fair, equitable, and support teachers in improving their professional practices."

L.A. Unified attorney Barry Green argued during the hearing that Chalfant needed to give the district more discretion on meeting substantive issues of the Stull Act without having to resort to collective bargaining, otherwise he said the issue could be dragged through more court hearings to actually implement. But Chalfant declined to widen his ruling, agreeing instead to setting a deadline of some sort. "We're not going to have 40 years go by without compliance," Chalfant said.

Superintendent John Deasy sat in the third row during the hearing as attorneys presented their comments on Chalfant's tentative ruling. Though the suit names Deasy, the district and the school board as defendants, Deasy largely agreed with a tentative ruling by the judge that reached the same conclusion Monday. Deasy's deposition greatly informed the judge's opinion in the case, according to his preliminary ruling Monday.

"Superintendent Deasy agrees that the District's current evaluation system does not comply with the Stull Act," Chalfant wrote. "Thus, he testified that there is not uniform process to include any student achievement in teacher evaluations...His admissions underscore the above conclusion that the District is not complying with the Stull Act."

L.A. Unified has developed a pilot program involving 700 teachers who have volunteered to try having student progress included as a measurement in their evaluations. The district's "Academic Growth over Time" measurement system based on state standardized test scores formed a great part of the district's defense that it has worked, and is working, to include student performance in the evaluation process.

While district attorneys appeared in court today on Doe vs. Deasy, school board member Steve Zimmer introduced a resolution to the board that asked it to reject the "Academic Growth over Time" model as a system for evaluating the school district's teachers.

"Results matter. But the question is which results, how are they measured, and what is the balanced role in the whole of the equation," Zimmer said. "The danger, because it's a hot political issue, is that the use of standardized test scores becomes the equation..."

UTLA President Warren Fletcher has said the union is willing to discuss with the district a way to include student progress as a measure in teacher evaluations as long as it does not "deform instruction" so that people are incentivized to teach to the test. He said the pilot program was created without input from the union and that the system put in place needs to be bargained.

Deasy was unable to comment immediately after the hearing because he had to go to a school board meeting, but issued a statement later in the day. He said he was "very pleased."

"Teacher quality is critical to academic success," Deasy said. "...This requirement strengthens how teachers will be evaluated, and certainly is in the best interest of our students."

Attorney Scott Witlin, who represented the parents suing the district in the case, said he was glad about the judge's ruling but that this was "not the end."

"We're going to press this case, because we're concerned the district and the teachers' union and administrators' union will be resistant to comply with the law," Witlin said.

Chalfant said the parties must meet to discuss a timeline by when the district must be in compliance before its next hearing July 24.

Former LAUSD teacher Mike Stryer, who is director of Teachers for a New Unionism also sat in on the hearing. Stryer is a member of Our Schools, Our Voice, which is a group of teachers and parents that recently unveiled its own proposal to have student test scores be included in teachers' evaluations.

The ruling "really gives impetus to UTLA and LAUSD to negotiate an agreement that does include wise, sensible use of test data," Stryer said. "I’m hopeful that really the union and LAUSD can come together and work on this. There’s certainly a lot of support by teachers, parents and community for sensible use of test data among other measures including observation and studet feedback, parent feedback."

This story has been updated.

Tami Abdollah can be reached via email and on Twitter (@latams).

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