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L.A. Unified: A report card

A review by the National Council on Teacher Quality highlights some of the district's wasteful, counterproductive practices.

June 13, 2011

Giving raises to teachers who take additional college coursework is a waste of money. Studies have confirmed that taking extra classes has no effect on teachers' instructional skills. Yet in the Los Angeles Unified School District alone, pay raises awarded for such courses, which don't even have to be related to the subject the teacher teaches, cost more than $500 million a year. That money could be used for a thousand more useful purposes, such as hiring more faculty or raising the salaries of great teachers.

It's not just that throwing away $500 million every year strains school finances. It's also that the teachers are wearing themselves out taking these extra courses in their off hours, according to a recent report, because it's the only way they can get a significant salary boost after a certain point in their careers. They are even granted an additional raise if they take the same course over again, as long as it's not within five years.

Sometimes, as in this case, the truths that emerge about wasteful, counterproductive public school practices are stunning. And this is only one of many such policies outlined in the Teacher Quality Roadmap, produced by the National Council on Teacher Quality in conjunction with United Way of Greater Los Angeles. Another example: If principals want to give teachers below-average ratings on more than two aspects of a performance evaluation, they must document why, carefully and painstakingly. But they don't have to offer the same documentation for higher ratings. That provides them with a strong incentive to issue only positive evaluations, which is what they do virtually all the time. Evaluators should have to back up all of their assertions.

Here's another one: Both teachers and administrators agree on one thing about evaluations — that they should include assessments by teachers' peers. But state law doesn't allow that. Only administrators, some of whom haven't stood before a classroom in decades, may assess teachers. That should be changed in Sacramento.

And another: Seniority shouldn't determine which teachers are assigned to certain classes, but it does under an unusual provision in L.A. Unified's contract with United Teachers Los Angeles. That means that the most senior teachers in an elementary school, for example, can often choose to teach the youngest grades, which tend to have fewer students. Or they could opt for first grade, which has no standardized tests at the end of the year.

Even teachers say it's too easy to be hired by L.A. Unified, which usually only requires candidates to be interviewed by a couple of administrators. At charter schools, by contrast, most teachers go through multiple interviews, including with peers, and must teach at least one sample lesson while being observed by an administrator. There's no better way to judge whether teachers can teach than by watching them do it.

Funded in good measure by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the report predictably hews closely to that organization's agenda, and not always in well-studied or beneficial ways. It implies, for instance, that the district should make student achievement, measured in large part by standardized tests, count for 50% of a teacher's performance, an arbitrary and overly high figure that has no solid basis in research. It proposes permanently firing teachers who are laid off by one school but are unable to find an L.A. Unified school to rehire them within a year, regardless of how good those teachers might be. (Why wouldn't other schools rehire the best teachers? Various reasons, including the fact that experienced teachers cost more than new and inexperienced ones.)

And the report faults the school district for not hiring more of its teachers from selective colleges, praising the Teach for America program, which takes its young teacher trainees from the most prestigious schools. Yet it ignores its own survey finding in which L.A. Unified principals were more likely to be dissatisfied with Teach for America recruits than with new hires from any other source.

Overall, though, the report is filled with common-sense recommendations that L.A. Unified and Supt. John Deasy should waste no time adopting — with help from state legislators, who must overturn some nonsensical laws such as the one barring peer evaluations. Some of the suggestions are familiar ones: Teachers should be evaluated regularly, and those evaluations should be meaningful. Layoffs shouldn't be based solely on seniority. It should take longer than two years for a teacher to get tenure (although we would argue that there is no point in keeping the tenure system at all if a school district evaluates its teachers fairly, carefully and reasonably). None of those suggestions are surprising.

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