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California bucks U.S. trend on teacher evaluations

A report released by the National Council on Teacher Quality finds most states have made significant changes in recent years. Many now consider student achievement when determining instructors' tenure or dismissal.

October 26, 2011|By Howard Blume, Los Angeles Times
  • Brent Smiley is a social studies teacher at Lawrence Middle School in Chatsworth.
Brent Smiley is a social studies teacher at Lawrence Middle School in Chatsworth. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles…)

About two-thirds of states have made significant changes in teacher evaluations in the last two years, with many for the first time taking into account student achievement in such high-stakes decisions as granting tenure protections and dismissing instructors for poor performance.

California is a notable exception. Critics insist the state is trailing the nation in this area while others applaud California for resisting unproven strategies.

The nationwide snapshot comes from a report released Wednesday by the Washington-based National Council on Teacher Quality, which compiles data and advocates for policies it favors.

These include teacher performance reviews that take into consideration students' academic growth and use this as the primary criterion for evaluating teachers, in addition to weighing other evidence of student learning.

Thirteen states now make student achievement growth — typically measured by test scores — the most important factor in teacher evaluations, up from four states two years ago. In these states, a teacher cannot be considered effective unless students in their classrooms are making sufficient progress. In the last two years, 11 states decreed that teachers cannot earn tenure protections without showing such gains.

Such efforts "are a marked improvement on evaluation systems that find 99% of teachers effective … and offer little meaningful information on teachers' strengths, weaknesses and professional development needs," the researchers wrote.

There are unanswered questions regarding the best ways to measure progress and how best to use the data, said Sandi Jacobs, the vice president of the teacher quality group.

The research was funded by the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Joyce Foundation in Chicago.

The growing focus on data-based teacher evaluations has been spurred by the Obama administration. It pushed this policy, and others, in selecting states for the competitive Race to the Top grants. More recently, the administration has encouraged states to commit to using data in teacher evaluations when they apply for relief from the strict federal No Child Left Behind law.

California has changed direction on this front. Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger embraced key Obama administration policies; his successor Jerry Brown is more skeptical.

The views of state Supt. of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson align closely with the California Teachers Assn. They and others note that the current standardized tests were never intended to evaluate teachers. The tests are invalid instruments for that purpose, Deputy Supt. Deborah Sigman said.

Other states, however, are using tests this way.

Tennessee makes student achievement 50% of a teacher's evaluation. Probationary teachers in Colorado must earn three consecutive "effective" ratings to earn tenure protections that have been nearly automatic nationwide. Indiana, Michigan and Florida require notifying parents when their child has a teacher rated as ineffective.

And in hard economic times, the first teachers to be laid off in Indiana will be those judged least effective — rather than those with the least experience. In Rhode Island, five years of low ratings will bar teachers from renewing the credential that allows them to hold a teaching job.

And in Washington, D.C., 663 top-rated teachers received a $25,000 bonus. At the other extreme, 341 teachers lost their jobs over two years.

Without state endorsement, L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy is pressing for academic achievement to be part of teacher evaluations. He said that state law gives school systems more latitude than they've exercised. Union leaders disagree.

The district, the nation's second-largest, is in negotiations with its teachers union over evaluations. United Teachers Los Angeles has supported using test data to improve instruction, but not for teacher evaluations.

howard.blume@latimes.com

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