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L.A. schools chief orders weak new teachers ousted

Supt. Ramon Cortines wants the educators removed before they get tenure. He acknowledges that the district has largely failed to adequately evaluate teacher performance.

December 18, 2009|By Jason Song and Jason Felch

Los Angeles schools Supt. Ramon C. Cortines ordered administrators Thursday to weed out ineffective new teachers before they become permanent, acknowledging that the nation's second-largest school system has largely failed to adequately evaluate teacher performance.

"This district can be rightly criticized for the promotion of ineffective teachers over the years. That is about to change," Cortines said. "We do not owe poor performers a job."

Taking aim at weak probationary teachers now could spare the district from firing others who are more effective but have slightly less experience next summer when there will probably be another round of layoffs. Teachers must be let go by seniority, according to state law, which has forced the Los Angeles Unified School District to ignore performance in its dismissals, officials said.

The announcement came a week after The Times presented L.A. Unified with the results of an investigation that found the district often doesn't meaningfully assess new teachers before they are granted tenure. The story is scheduled to appear in Sunday's paper.

Cortines said The Times' inquiries to district staff had prompted him to look into the issue.

"I think you helped get their attention and helped me," he said.

Cortines urged district officials to scrutinize the 404 probationary teachers who received a "needs improvement" on one or more criteria on their evaluations last year. Under state law, instructors are at-will employees for two years before being made permanent, a status that renders them all but impossible to fire.

The superintendent also urged greater monitoring of 339 administrators who have not yet become permanent and 175 tenured teachers and other employees who received negative evaluations last year.

"The days of coddling ineffective teachers, or allowing them to be moved to another school, are over," he said. "No more excuses."

Cortines acknowledged that his order is more a change of district culture than policy. "I'm just trying to enforce what we're supposed to be doing," he said.

Some experts say employees shouldn't be fired on the basis of an evaluation system that even Cortines admits is broken. He said that it would take time to fix the performance review process, which would require changes in state law and union contracts, but that it's high on the district's priority list.

"I may not live that long," said Cortines, 77.

As far back as 2004, an internal district report found that "very few teachers are rated negatively" and "the majority of ineffective teachers are probably misidentified as meeting standard performance."

The school board votes to fire about 35 probationary teachers a year, though more leave for other reasons, including being counseled to find other employment.

A series of stories by The Times last spring found that the district fires only about 20 permanent teachers annually and that many of those decisions are overturned by a state panel that has final say on instructor dismissals.

Several school board members said they did not understand why the district had not placed more emphasis on evaluations in the past.

"It seems like we should have been doing this all along," said Tamar Galatzan.

Julie Slayton, the district's former head of research and planning, said the move appeared to be more of a knee-jerk reaction to outside pressure than a thoughtful approach to a complex problem. She said Cortines' action makes evaluations punitive, rather than a process to help teachers improve.

"This is where it's easiest to focus attention," said Slayton, who now teaches at USC. "But the real challenge is improving the overall quality of instruction, including permanent teachers who could be better but need help."

A.J. Duffy, president of the teachers union, questioned how effective the new initiative could be.

"Administrators are not properly trained in how to evaluate teachers," he said.

Judith Perez, president of the administrators union, applauded Cortines' order but said that, historically, principals haven't received enough support on evaluations. Her members, she said, need help determining who should be cut and who can improve. "It's not simple," she said. "How do you draw the line?"

Other districts have taken far bolder steps in recent months. Washington, D.C., recently revamped its teacher evaluation system to require a minimum of five classroom visits, two conducted by master teachers with experience in the subject matter being taught. That district will also consider a teacher's success in raising student test scores.

In L.A., probationary teachers are granted tenure automatically -- as long as their principal does not move to prevent it. Cortines proposed that administrators actively recommend tenure, an issue that is already being deliberated by an L.A. Unified task force, headed by Ted Mitchell, president of the state Board of Education. The task force was formed to build support and consensus among district officials, the teachers union, parents and outside experts on ways to increase teacher effectiveness.

Mitchell said he did not feel preempted because Thursday's announcement was mostly Cortines staking out "a moral position" on the issue.

"I think this is the beginning and not the end," Mitchell said. "Its probably the beginning of the beginning."

jason.song@latimes.com

jason.felch@latimes.com

Times staff writer Jessica Garrison contributed to this report.

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