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Outing Lemon Teachers at LAUSD

ILLUSTRATION BY FRED NOLAND

Teachers call it "getting stulled." Newbie teachers in Los Angeles classrooms are evaluated once annually for the first two years. Then, with that minimal experience under their belts, they're almost all granted automatic lifelong tenure. After that, evaluations of thousands of these still-green Los Angeles Unified School District teachers become less frequent.

The teacher evaluation is no big deal, a four-page form with categories such as "Uses the results of multiple assessments to guide instruction" and "Regularly arrives on time, starts class on schedule."

Each item offers three check-box choices to indicate the teacher's ability: "Meets," "Needs Improvement" or "No."

No check box exists in the vast LAUSD for "Exceeds."

These teacher ratings, which parents and the public are not allowed to see, are called Stull Evaluations, hence, getting stulled. The ratings are widely seen as a rubber stamp, with 95 percent of the district's 33,000 teachers rated satisfactory. With all that apparently solid teaching going on, only 56 percent of students graduate from high school.

"It's a useless process that doesn't do anyone any good," says former LAUSD Board of Education member Yolie Flores, president of Communities for Teaching Excellence, one of many who says the Stull isn't an evaluation at all.

LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy recently said it's possible to imagine "schools where 3 percent of the students are proficient at math and 100 percent of the teachers are at the top rating performance. That doesn't make sense to me whatsoever. And it doesn't make sense because the rating performance does not actually help teachers get better."

Now, riding on a wave of calls to upend how teacher competence is judged, a group of anonymous parents along with Skid Row educator the Rev. Alice Callaghan are suing LAUSD and its two big employee unions, United Teachers of L.A. and the Associated Administrators of L.A.

Their lawsuit charges that the school district is defying the law by failing to enforce the Stull Act, the 1971 California law that established the teacher evaluations.

"This isn't some hidden piece of the education code. This is one of the centerpieces," says Scott Witlin, an attorney for Barnes & Thornburg, representing the plaintiffs. The anonymous parents and Callaghan had sought an injunction against any new union contract being signed between UTLA and the LAUSD board, which fails to enforce the Stull Act. Instead, the judge set a pretrial hearing for Nov. 21 in L.A. Superior Court.

The parents, who filed suit as Jane Doe et al., said they decided to remain anonymous because of their fear of "real danger of physical or mental reprisal."

The suit demands that the school district immediately institute a system of evaluating its teachers, which measures their pupils' progress.

This idea, dismissed for decades by education unions as fringe thinking, is gaining steam in surprising quarters, creating new alliances among Southern California parent groups, civil rights groups, political groups and education groups. Says Witlin: "It's not really a revolutionary concept in America that when you do a job, the outcomes matter."

The use of children's test scores to evaluate the competence of adults is sometimes called "value-added analysis," and was the subject of a 2010 Los Angeles Times exposé, "Grading the Teachers." Then–UTLA President A.J. Duffy demanded that the explosive newspaper series be unpublished from the Internet, and angry teachers marched on the Times. The Times series attracted more than 1 million online readers and won several awards for reporters Jason Felch, Jason Song and Doug Smith.

In a recent written statement, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa supported the premise of the new lawsuit, saying, "It should be no surprise that the parents and students of LAUSD have chosen to go to court to require the district to at least follow the laws on the books today," which he helped write as speaker of the Assembly.

After years of debate over how to grade teachers and root out the ineffective ones, could a 40-year-old law really settle the matter?

In 1969, a San Diego Republican assemblyman named John Stull was put in charge of the state legislative Subcommittee on Educational Environment. His main task was to deal with mass protests sweeping college campuses all over the state, but in his spare time, he would revamp the way teachers were evaluated.

The Stull Act says that school districts must evaluate "certificated employees" (not just teachers but administrators, principals and nurses) using four specific criteria: pupil progress, instructional techniques, adherence to curriculum objectives and the learning environment.

The first criterion, "pupil progress," predated today's value-added analysis debate by about four decades.

John Mockler, California's unofficial historian of education-reform laws, was a subcommittee staffer who helped craft the original legislation. "It's not exactly value-added, but the idea is the same," he says. "We wanted to see how kids would improve."

The law says that any teacher or administrator found lacking on the four criteria is to be given help. If that fails, the teacher or administrator is to be shown the door. The California Teachers Association, UTLA and other teachers unions fought the Stull Act tooth and nail. But it was approved, and then-Gov. Ronald Reagan promptly signed it into law.

Like Reagan, Stull was a Republican, which meant he didn't believe in the heavy hand of government. "The major debate was, 'Should there be state oversight?' " Mockler recalls. "Stull was adamant: He believed in local control. He thought districts would just comply" with the California law.

Mockler, a Democrat who later served in top education jobs under former Gov. Gray Davis, today adds wistfully: "Stull was right on many things but not on that."

So local school districts like LAUSD were left with wiggle room when it came to how to enforce the Stull Act. There was no state oversight or enforcement mechanism. and no punishment if a school district ignored the law. Until, perhaps, now, in court. "In the 40 years since the California Legislature passed the Stull Act, the LAUSD has never evaluated and assessed the performance of any of its certificated staff in compliance with the Stull Act," states the lawsuit. "Sadly, the district has abdicated its duty to the children."

Judith Perez, president of the Associated Administrators of Los Angeles — the union whose 2,100 LAUSD administrators are accused in the lawsuit of failing to hold L.A. teachers to any serious benchmark — insists that's not fair.

"The lawsuit is leaving out major chunks of what's done," Perez says. She argues that teachers are evaluated by principals in many ways, often informally, adding, "The most important thing between a teacher and a principal is the actual conversation."

David Tokofsky, a former LAUSD board member who is now a consultant to the administrators union, argues that measuring student progress in order to rate teachers doesn't necessarily require considering how well, or how badly, kids do on tests: " 'Assessment' does not have to be 'test,' " Tokofsky says. "It does not have to be these reductionist test scores."

But Bill Lucia, president of EdVoice, a Sacramento advocacy group providing technical assistance to those who are suing, says the plain language in a Villaraigosa-sponsored 1999 amendment to the Stull Act requires that school districts use student test scores when judging how the teacher is doing.

"You have to use an objective measure," Lucia says, to know whether the children under a specific teacher are able to read, write and compute math problems at the level expected of students their age.

The UTLA (which declined to comment for this article) and administrators union are insisting that any change in judging the effectiveness of teachers be hammered out as part of the teachers union contract negotiations — under way right now.

Attorney Witlin finds that absurd, saying, "The district shouldn't have to cajole its workers into compliance with the law."

Superintendent Deasy, who ducked the Weekly after saying he'd love to talk about the issue, has appeared to indicate he may agree with Witlin. The lawsuit quotes a speech Deasy made at Occidental College in which he said the current system of evaluation "is fundamentally useless. It does not actually help you get better at [your] work and it doesn't tell you how well you're doing."

But it's one thing to say that in a speech, and another to say it in a courtroom.

Lawsuit opponent Tokofsky, suggesting that Deasy might be "collusive" with those suing, throws down a political challenge to the LAUSD Board of Education: "I think the board should ask [Deasy], 'On the scale of 1 to 10, how hard is the district gonna fight this [lawsuit]?' "

The district has, under Deasy's leadership, taken a few baby steps toward fixing the rubber-stamp evaluations of the district's 33,000 teachers. The antiseptically named "three-year three-phased plan" (also called the "pilot program") is a program in which willing teachers and principals are evaluated using students' test scores.

The pilot program hasn't exactly drawn a throng of teachers hoping to find out how they measure up. Only about 3 percent of certificated employees have decided to participate.

The lawsuit derides the pilot program as too little, too late, stating: "A pilot may have been appropriate 39 or even 35 years ago but not after decades of dereliction of duty and child neglect."

Even the timid, all-volunteer step represented by the pilot program was met with fierce resistance by UTLA. The teachers union hauled LAUSD officials in front of the Public Employment Relations Board, arguing that the district was not negotiating in good faith by enacting the pilot program without the union's say-so.

"It became apparent when the district instituted the pilot program and the union fought even the pilot — something is very wrong here," Witlin says. "Administrators and teachers — neither group wants to be held accountable for what they do."

Witlin, a commercial and employment litigator who's fairly new to the school-reform wars, is representing parents who've asked to remain anonymous. Perez, representing the principals union, says, "I wonder, who is Barnes & Thornburg representing? Who are the clients? Who is funding the lawsuit?"

Witlin refuses to discuss who hired him. Unions charge that the suit is funded by such 1 percenters as Eli Broad, Frank Baxter and Bill Gates (education-reform proponents Broad and Baxter sit on the board of EdVoice, while Gates is the biggest giver to education-reform efforts in the country).

The named plaintiff, Callaghan, who founded and runs Las Familias del Pueblo, a community center for poor, Latino children and their families on Skid Row, now also runs Jardin de la Infancia Charter School. The school was profiled in the July 22, 2010, L.A. Weekly cover story "Educating Maria: On L.A.'s Skid Row, a generational war over how to teach the American children of illegal immigrants."

Callaghan started her Skid Row charter school, which churns out disadvantaged minority kids who can read, write and compute as well as suburban kids, after watching for years as the LAUSD Ninth Street School down the street dumbed down the children with ineffective teaching and lax academics. Ninth Street is rated by California as among the worst of the worst schools statewide. Yet Ninth Street School's principal and district officials insisted to the Weekly that all was well.

As to reforming the Stull evaluations, Callaghan, the last person to join the lawsuit, says, "It seems like such an obvious thing to do. Can you imagine an insurance company saying, 'I don't care if you sell insurance, just as long as your desk is clean?' I'm sort of amazed they got away with it for this long."