A landmark parent lawsuit aimed at forcing the Los Angeles Unified School District to use student test scores in teacher evaluations received its first court hearing Tuesday in a case that could transform the way California instructors are reviewed.
The lawsuit demands that L.A. Unified follow a state law, known as the Stull Act, that directs school districts to use evidence of student learning in job performance reviews, including state standardized test scores. Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge James C. Chalfant delayed ruling on the case but said he expected to issue a tentative decision Monday.
L.A. Unified Supt. John Deasy, although named as a defendant, said Tuesday that he agreed with the lawsuit's major assertions: that state law requires the use of student test scores in evaluations and that the district does not use them except in a limited voluntary program involving 700 teachers and principals.
He said a successful lawsuit would accelerate efforts to make the voluntary program mandatory districtwide, as he is aiming to do over fierce union opposition, and clear the way for more effective teacher evaluations throughout California.
"It would affirm state law and move at a much more deliberate speed the appropriate inclusion of [test scores] in a teacher's evaluation," he said. "This defines what has been debated at least for years and years and years."
Warren Fletcher, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, was not available for comment. But the union has long argued that standardized test scores are too unreliable for use in such high-stakes decisions as firing, hiring and granting tenure.
In court papers, the union also argued that changes in the teacher evaluation process must be negotiated through collective bargaining agreements and that any disputes should be reviewed by the state Public Employment Relations Board. That board, along with the Associated Administrators of Los Angeles, also opposes the lawsuit for similar reasons.
Scott Witlin, attorney for the unidentified group of parents, said L.A. Unified has failed to effectively evaluate its teachers for years, depriving children of their rights to equal educational opportunity. His legal team's analysis of 599 random teacher evaluations provided by the district found that only three linked student achievement to teachers' job performance. Only 2% of those teachers were found to be unsatisfactory.
The district's current evaluation form covers 27 different criteria involving a teacher's classroom performance, lesson planning, support for student learning, professional development and attendance and punctuality — but not how well students are learning the material the state requires them to know. The vast majority of teachers typically have been granted tenure and rated as satisfactory.
"Teachers are not being evaluated on the reason they have their jobs, which is whether they're helping the kids learn," Witlin said.
The lawsuit was initiated and funded by EdVoice, a Sacramento-based educational advocacy group, on behalf of the parents. Board members include arts and education philanthropist Eli Broad, former ambassador and education supporter Frank Baxter and healthcare company executive Richard Merkin.
The lawsuit is part of a growing effort to use litigation to overcome union opposition to changes in the way teachers in the nation's second-largest school district are assigned, retained, evaluated and granted tenure. School districts across the country are revamping the way teachers are evaluated, with many using test scores as one measure of effectiveness; the Obama administration has also backed such moves.
Under Deasy, L.A. Unified is testing a voluntary evaluation system that uses test scores in reviews of teachers and principals, along with classroom evaluations, student and parent feedback and community contributions. Although it has not settled on how much to weigh the test scores, the L.A. school board has proposed 30%, Deasy said.
EdVoice President Bill Lucia said the district's efforts are too little and too late.
"Kids don't have a shelf life," Lucia said. "Parents are concerned about their kids having an effective teacher for the rest of their academic careers."
Two separate education groups, which include teachers, parents and activists, last week endorsed the use of student test scores as one measure of instructors' effectiveness. Their goal is to break what they see as a stalemate between the district and the union.