This is what one of Los Angeles Unified's most ambitious reform efforts looks like: about 30 people gathered in a Gardena school auditorium, watching a video of a teacher trying to get her young students to understand a John Updike poem.
The viewers furiously type their observations into laptop computers and discuss their impressions of the lesson the next day. They ask open-ended questions — "What are some possible explanations for the lack of understanding of the vocabulary?" — all aimed at helping the teacher improve.
These training sessions are the school district's first concrete steps toward replacing its age-old teacher evaluation system, which is widely regarded as a failure. The new version is based on more detailed observations, student and parent feedback, and students' standardized test scores.
Officials have not figured out how much each component will count in a teacher's performance review; that, they say, will depend on feedback from participants.
"Our message is: 'You're going to help us to do this,'" said Supt. John Deasy.
Currently, 104 schools are participating in a voluntary trial of the evaluation system. Deasy wants to have a permanent new evaluation in place by the 2012-13 school year.
Spurred by the Obama administration, which has partly tied some federal grants to states' willingness to use data to judge teachers, districts around the country have begun changing their evaluation systems. Many have also begun incorporating a "value-added" analysis, which measures students' test scores against their past performance, theoretically providing districts with a more objective way to measure teachers' effectiveness.
L.A. Unified officials have issued public value-added scores for schools and privately provided thousands of teachers with their scores. The scores have not been incorporated into evaluations.
The Los Angeles teachers union would have to agree to a new evaluation system and has tried to block the pilot program in court, arguing that the district failed to negotiate it. The district countered by saying the program is meant as a test and will have no stakes for employees and therefore does not need union consent.
A judge did not grant the union's request for an injunction, but the district and union are scheduled to submit arguments in the case in September. A judge is expected to rule shortly afterward and could order the program stopped.
The union also asked for — and received — the names of all teachers and administrators who applied to participate in the program. Union officials wanted to have the teachers' names in case they suffered future job discrimination, according to a union spokeswoman.
The two- to five-day training sessions have been spread throughout the area in recent weeks to accommodate the nearly 1,000 educators who took part. Teachers were offered a $1,250 stipend, paid for professional development days and promised detailed feedback. Administrators will get $1,500 for participating.
Participants learned how to fill out the Web-based evaluations, watched videos and role-played. Most of the discussions were loaded with such educational terms as "matching instruction to meet standards," until even the humor took on a wonkish flavor.
During one exercise, a trainer pretending to be a teacher was asked why his students weren't understanding a lesson.
"Well, I have this pacing plan — " he said before the room erupted in laughter. (A pacing plan is a schedule teachers are supposed to keep to ensure that they cover all the curriculum. Many say the plan makes it difficult to help students who fall behind.)
None of the sessions focused on value-added analysis, the most controversial aspect of the proposed evaluations. District officials have said observations should be given the most weight and that student test scores should count for 30% of an evaluation or less.
Many of the teachers and administrators who attended found the training helpful.
"I'm really getting a deep working knowledge of what they're going to be using to observe us," said Regina Remley, a third-grade teacher at McKinley Avenue Elementary in Florence.
Remley took part in a five-day program in Gardena for employees who will be observing teachers. As part of the new evaluation program, each teacher will be evaluated by an administrator and another person, who could be a fellow instructor.
L.A. Unified includes Gardena, Carson and several other smaller cities.
Cynthia Hunter, a sixth-grade math and science teacher at Curtiss Middle School in Carson who took a two-day course aimed at teachers, said she found the sessions useful. During the training, Hunter and others went over how to prepare lesson plans, manage the classroom and make sure that state requirements were reflected in lessons.
"From what I see, it's going to help me become that much better," she said.
Hunter said she volunteered for the program because she wanted to help shape the new evaluations.
"I wanted to get in on the ground floor and make sure if you're evaluating teachers, that it's reasonable," she said.
Because the new evaluations could require more work on the part of administrators and teachers, Hunter also said she "wanted to make sure the district gives us the resources to do it right."
Hunter said she plans to share her experience — good or bad.
"I will be a mouthpiece on my campus," she said. "If I believe in it, I'm going to say that. If I don't, I'm absolutely going to share that too."