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Bar set low for lifetime job in L.A. schools

Los Angeles Unified often hands out tenure with little or no review of novice instructors' ability or their students' performance.

December 20, 2009|By Jason Felch, Jessica Garrison and Jason Song

Altair Maine said he was so little supervised in his first few years of teaching at North Hollywood High School that he could "easily have shown a movie in class every day and earned tenure nonetheless."

Before second-grade teacher Kimberly Patterson received tenure and the ironclad job protections it provides, she said, "my principal never set foot in my classroom while I was teaching."

And when Virgil Middle School teacher Roberto Gonzalez came up for tenure, he discovered there was no evaluation for him on file. When he inquired about it, his school hastily faxed one to district headquarters.

"I'm pretty sure it was just made up on the spot," Gonzalez said.

There is nothing to suggest these teachers didn't deserve tenure, but the district did little to ensure they were worthy.

A Times investigation found that the Los Angeles Unified School District routinely grants tenure to new teachers after cursory reviews -- and sometimes none at all.

Evaluating new teachers for tenure is one of a principal's most important responsibilities. Once instructors have permanent status, they are almost never fired for performance reasons alone. The two-year probation period, during which teachers can be fired at will, offers a singular opportunity to weed out poor performers.

It is a chance L.A. Unified all but squanders, according to interviews with more than 75 teachers and administrators, analyses of district data covering the last several years, and internal and independent studies. Among the findings:

* Nearly all probationary teachers receive a passing grade on evaluations. Fewer than 2% are denied tenure.

* The reviews are so lacking in rigor as to be meaningless, many instructors say. Before a teacher gets tenure, school administrators are required to conduct only a single, pre-announced classroom visit per year. About half the observations last 30 minutes or less. Principals are rarely held responsible for how they perform the reviews.

* The district's evaluation of teachers does not take into account whether students are learning. Principals are not required to consider testing data, student work or grades. L.A. Unified, like other districts in California, essentially ignores a state law that since the 1970s has required districts to weigh pupil progress in assessing teachers and administrators.

"I can't believe that," said Gary K. Hart, California's secretary of education under Gov. Gray Davis, when told of The Times' findings. Tenure "is not something that everyone off the street who wants to be a teacher should be granted."

"The saddest part is that the most critical element of whether our children are successful is being ignored," said Julie Slayton, the district's former director of research and planning and now a USC professor of education. "It's ridiculous and should be changed."

On Thursday, Supt. Ramon C. Cortines announced that change was coming. After hearing The Times' findings more than a week ago, the superintendent pledged to scrutinize probationary teachers more closely so poor instructors are ousted before they become tenured.

"Too many ineffective teachers are falling into tenured positions -- the equivalent of jobs for life," he said.

An easy path to tenure is not unique to Los Angeles. Schools across the country have failed to grade teachers, even their rookies, and rarely dismiss poor performers. In response, the Obama administration has made teacher accountability a key requirement in the competition for $4.35 billion in education grants.

Some of the nation's major school districts, including in New York City and Washington, D.C., have already made significant reforms, such as requiring multiple evaluations by expert teachers or objective evidence of student growth.

A task force in Los Angeles has only begun to consider such sweeping changes, which would go well beyond the pledge Cortines made Thursday.

"It's a sign of how backward things are that the superintendent has to make this kind of clarion call," said Ted Mitchell, chairman of the task force. "There is a little Alice in Wonderland quality in some of this: You mean you haven't been doing that?"

Wide variations

Now is crunch time for principals.

In the fall months, they must evaluate the hundreds of second-year teachers who are up for tenure in the spring. Most administrators and experts say it is difficult to judge teachers on their first year -- often a struggle for even the most gifted. So October through December becomes the narrow window in which most principals must carry out one of their weightiest duties.

The quality of evaluations appears to vary dramatically in the district's nearly 1,000 schools. Some principals say it's hard to find the time to get into classrooms. Others, like Sonia Miller of Samuel Gompers Middle School in the Broadway-Manchester neighborhood west of Watts, make evaluations a priority.

"I arrive at 7 in the morning and don't leave until 7 p.m.," Miller said.

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