The day after a judge ruled L.A. Unified must include student test data as a measure in teacher evaluations, a group of teachers unveiled a proposal for their own system on how to do just that.
The proposal by Educators 4 Excellence was presented in an evening event to LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy and about 70 teachers. The gathering, which included satay chicken sticks and grilled veggies, was a rare opportunity for teachers to talk directly with the superintendent in a more casual atmosphere and trade thoughts on what works for an evaluation system, and what they think doesn't.
"Why is it so hard for us to get there? Well, I suspect we could be there tomorrow night," Deasy said. "I don't get it. I guess my question, I get to ask the question. Where's the struggle for what to me is painfully obvious for some very bright minds?"
Many teachers, including Huntington Park High School biology teacher Michelle Thayer, said it comes down to trust.
“You don’t trust the people that are coming to evaluate you, you don’t trust them as a competent person," Thayer said. "You don’t trust that they know current teaching pedagogy, and you don’t trust that they know your content. So how can you trust that your evaluation will be equitable? And that’s our situation.”
"That’s not an issue of trust, that’s a fact," Deasy said to her in response. "You haven’t been teaching for 15 years. So you don’t know current pedagogy. And you don’t know actually Spanish. It’s not like I don’t trust you, you can’t speak Spanish. So how are you going to evaluate me teaching Spanish?”
Deasy's remarks drew laughter. And though he had to leave just before the close of the event to make a graduation ceremony, he won over much of the teaching audience by listening to them, and frankly and directly addressing their concerns.
“I would not imagine a system I would ever sign off on, where teachers do not tell principals how well you did at evaluating me," Deasy said. " And so the process of making sure there's a feedback loop. 'You know what I accept this but you don’t know what you’re doing. And here’s the reason why. I would be so much better if you knew what you were doing around this.' Because my obligation is to be better.”
The Educators 4 Excellence proposal would have 40 percent of a teacher's evaluation be based on student performance on standardized tests and district standards. The district portion would be determined on a more local level and determined by the school's teachers and administrators so as to personalize it around the character of a school. Another 50 percent of the score would come from classroom planning and instruction, which includes an observation component.
Deasy said it’s impossible to expect a principal to have perfected every single subject a school teaches, particularly at the high school level. So the question, he asked, is should the principal be the one doing the evaluations?
"We're going to figure out who's going to do that, and that's just being totally honest," Deasy said.
He also said classroom instruction should probably be higher than 50 percent of the assessment.
"Classroom practice has to be more than 50 percent," Deasy said. "I think at the end of the day that is only where students learn to think on complex critical tasks they can do in front of you...50 percent seems low for the most important act that occurs in the school system."
Deasy said students also need to have a stake in how well they do on state tests.
“It’s not because it’s punishment, but because actually, we think you should know this stuff," Deasy said. "The state standards are not bad standards…People say, how do students take it seriously? It matters, it counts. There’s a stake to it. It’s like, not a big deal in my mind to think through that.”
Deasy said educators have no time to waste in addressing competency, or the lack thereof.
“There’s this term called mitigated conversation," Deasy said. "There’s no mitigated conversation in the cockpit of the airline. 'Well I really respect how you’re flying this, and I think you probably see the mountain in front of us, and I really don’t want to be offensive to you.' No. 'You’re going to go into the mountain! Like this is a problem! This plane is flying too low!' Or, 'hey dude you left a sponge inside that open wound. You've got to take that out before you zip up. And clean that up.'
"So professions where there’s things at stake, particularly humans, like transportation and medicine. They do not waste time on that, so they have ways to be really clear about that. We are a high reliability organization. You either learn to read with fluency by the end of third grade or you do not. So that’s like really clear, I can’t waste time on if you know and how to help you make me get better at that.”
Many of the teachers were energized by Deasy’s conversation. Afterward they gathered together abuzz, sipping from champagne flutes and continuing the discussion.
Bianca Nepales is a special education teacher at William & Carol Ouchi High School. She and three other teachers stood around trying to digest what they'd just heard.
“Why is teaching so different [than other professions]?" Nepales said. "If you’re not meeting fluency levels by the end of this grade, why is it OK to just say we’ll just pass them on? I think this is an opportunity for us to grow.
"Especially as a new teacher, I want to grow as a leader too. I’m nervous knowing that we don’t have a good system in place to really develop our skills because no one realy knows what our skills should be looking like. It’s so difficult to talk to the right people at schools, and why aren’t we working more as a team?”
Ana Nyamekye, who heads Educators 4 Excellence, said the group put out their proposal to help spur conversation. It wants teachers talking about a plan that might work and be fair, and one that’s ultimately good for — and for the good of — the students.