Only a few years ago, the Los Angeles Unified School District's system for evaluating teachers' job performance was the subject of legal disputes, full-blown lawsuits and bitter fractious debate between district leaders and the teachers union.
Not anymore. Last weekend, the rank-and-file of United Teachers Los Angeles overwhelmingly approved new contract terms for a teacher evaluation system — and unlike in the past, both sides agreed the talks had gone smoothly.
"One of the things [the union's] chief negotiator said was that the entire process was one that had been very collaborative in nature," said Gifty Beets, co-director of labor relations for L.A. Unified.
"It was a collaborative effort on both ends," said UTLA vice president Cecily Myaert-Cruz, who was on the bargaining team for the union.
The amity didn't come about by accident. As a prelude to this last spring's contract negotiations, representatives for UTLA, the district, and the principals' union all met over six months in 2015 to discuss how to handle evaluations.
The new contract language contains few blockbuster changes to the evaluation system itself. Still, the tone of the debate over the system's future has shifted dramatically, according to Ama Nyamekye, executive director of the teacher advocacy group Educators For Excellence-Los Angeles.
"We went from an age where teachers weren’t getting feedback on their practice to a national spotlight on the teacher evaluation effort," said Nyamekye, whose organization tends to provide a counterweight to teachers unions in policy debates.
"Suddenly," she continued, "everyone wants to come into your classroom and give you feedback. And there are a lot of warring perspectives on how to evaluate teachers, from academia, from districts, from unions, from reformers."
Now? "It feels less politicized," said Nyamekye.
But did the harmonious talks between union officials and district leaders produce a better teacher evaluation system? For Bootsie Battle-Holt, a math teacher at Marina Del Rey Middle School, the agreement is a mixed bag. On one hand, she feels the changes make for a process that's less about a "gotcha evaluation" and more about professional growth.
But "the evaluation process right now," Battle-Holt added, "is still the dog and pony show [based on] the one lesson [principals observe] … It needs to be a big, collaborative picture rather than this one teacher, one principal, one day type of situation."
In the past, much of the acrimony between UTLA and the district rooted in substantive disagreements between union leaders and then-Superintendent John Deasy about major elements of the evaluation system.
In 2012, Deasy applauded a judge's ruling that students' statewide standardized test scores must play a role in L.A. Unified's teacher evaluation process. Union officials questioned the validity of the data. When UTLA urged members not to participate in early trials of the new system, Deasy accused union leaders of dragging their feet.
"I'm very disappointed we don't seem to have a partner within leadership" at UTLA, Deasy said during a KPCC interview in 2012.
The saga evolved in 2013, when Deasy rolled out changes to the evaluation system union leaders said they'd never approved. He added a fourth tier to a three-tiered rating scale for the observation portion of teachers' evaluation; principals would be able to rate top teachers as "Highly Effective" during the observation process.
District officials point out the change followed rubrics they used to advise teachers, but many teachers worried this was part of a plan to pay educators based on their evaluation results. But in October 2014, Deasy left the district, and in December, a state labor board reversed the changes Deasy had made unilaterally.
By April 2015, L.A. Unified and union leaders had essentially agreed to take the evaluation system back to the drawing board, empaneling a study group of representatives from L.A. Unified, UTLA, and the principals' union — the Associated Administrators of Los Angeles. That decision, AALA president Juan Flecha said, is now paying dividends.
"I think this approach is more organic and more authentic," he said of the evaluation system UTLA members approved this weekend.
The most substantive change district and union officials agreed to: they would shorten the list of "performance focus elements" against which principals evaluate teachers. Measuring performance in seven areas, instead of the current 15, will help both teachers and district officials set clearer priorities about areas where teachers can improve.
(Central office administrators will designate three of the seven elements to be used district-wide, and Flecha says the success of the new system depends in part on administrators choosing well.)
One proposal that didn't make the final agreement provides evidence that some of the Deasy-era anxieties about evaluations linger: district negotiators proposed reviving the rating of "Highly Effective" in the teachers' observation rating scale; it would've been the fourth and highest rating level in the scale. (Teachers' final evaluation scores would've come on a separate, three-tiered scale.)
The union opposed that proposal throughout the talks. But UTLA's Cecily Myaert-Cruz said the district and union will keep discussing this and other points of disagreement in an evaluation working group that's also part of the agreement.
Middle school teacher Bootsie Battle-Holt said many teachers' observation results tend to "come out mostly at the top" of the rating scale.
“I think now, principals are willing to go down to the developing rating more than they used to be. But I remember that everyone’s evaluation said ‘Effective.’ On everything,” said Battle-Holt, who was a policy fellow with the group Teach Plus.
It's a common frustration, according to a 2015 study by a TNTP, a nonprofit think tank and educator training provider. The group found "the vast majority of teachers" in districts it studied "are rated Effective or Meeting Expectations or higher, even as student outcomes in these districts fall far short of where they need to be."
Teacher evaluation systems, the study reads, "are not helping teachers understand how to improve—or even that they have room to improve at all."
Rob Samples, co-director of L.A. Unified's Office of Labor Relations, noted that only a few years ago, the district only had two levels in its evaluation system. The third level to the evaluation system was implemented in the 2015 contract.
"We're still in the same place we were, in terms of the levels, from the year before," Samples said. "But I think there's a much greater momentum and belief that we can put together an evaluation system that will really be effective for our teachers, and really spur professional growth and help our students."
L.A. School Board members are set to vote on the new contract language at their June 14 meeting.