LA Times Editorial | http://lat.ms/jtcwwY
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.
What is surprising is that L.A. Unified might already have more power over how layoffs are carried out than it has bothered exercising. For years, district officials have blamed state law for tying their hands by making layoffs depend almost solely on seniority. The report points out vague but important wording in the law that allows districts to lay off more senior teachers for "pedagogical reasons" or to protect students' rights to a high-quality education. L.A. Unified has been using the narrowest possible definition of that wording, laying off more experienced teachers only when they lacked necessary credentials.
But the quality of the teaching is equally important; the district has taken the easy route by letting excellent if inexperienced teachers go while retaining experienced teachers regardless of their skills or effort. The law's meaning isn't entirely clear, but the district should be pushing for a broad interpretation that allows it to keep the best teachers and lay off the weakest ones. The report suggests a balanced solution that respects the years that many teachers have invested in schools while also making sure that only weak teachers are laid off. It recommends a points system in which teachers get points for experience — but more points for effectiveness.
Yet the report's authors are inconsistent on the subject of protecting good teachers, especially regarding those in the so-called must-place pool — teachers who have been displaced from their spots but who have first dibs on any jobs that open. Some were laid off or lost their jobs after charter operators took over the schools where they had worked; others were problematic teachers who weren't fired but who did go through disciplinary procedures that called for them to be reassigned. Obviously, teachers in the last category probably are among those whom principals should not be pressured to hire, but teachers in the other categories have lost their jobs through no fault of their own, and many might be fine instructors.
The report says that none of them should be given any priority in hiring and, in fact, advocates firing them permanently if they cannot find a position at another school within the year. This strikes us as unfair and potentially counterproductive. Just as layoffs should be determined by a combination of experience and excellence, so should rehiring. Otherwise, employment in schools becomes too arbitrary; it's hard to imagine why anyone would want to take a low-paying job in which even excellent performance doesn't necessarily determine future employment.
Until the state revamps its rules for firing bad teachers, though, schools will look for ways around existing restrictions — especially the state law that sets up appeals panels that take years to decide cases and that are weighted heavily toward the teachers' side. It's hard to blame school administrators. Teachers unions, which wield extraordinary influence in state government because of their campaign contributions, go to extremes to protect even their worst members' jobs and to keep merit from having anything to do with pay or continued employment. UTLA even tried, unsuccessfully, to stop L.A. Unified in court from starting a pilot program for evaluating teachers in more meaningful ways, even though the teachers had volunteered for the program, which would give them feedback on how to improve in their jobs.
The way to provide both a superior education for students and a fairer, more stable working environment for teachers is to call an end to shortcuts and evasive measures. Schools should do away with tenure altogether; there is no valid reason to offer secure lifetime employment regardless of how poorly people do their jobs. All teachers should be evaluated regularly, by supervisors and peers who watch them in action. Student achievement as measured by standardized tests should play a part in those evaluations but should not dominate them. Good teachers should be rewarded; mediocre teachers should be given the help they need to improve; and bad teachers should be fired, after a reasonable and balanced grievance procedure.
This is the sensible way in which most of the work world operates. What the new report shines a light on is that for too long, L.A. Unified has established and protected a system that promotes dysfunction.