Friday, July 06, 2012


By Rob Kuznia Staff Writer, Daily Breeze |

07/06/2012 08:14:09 PM PDT  ::  Teachers unions in California tend not to be big fans of tying teacher evaluations to test scores or linking pay increases to performance ratings - a concept often referred to as "merit pay."

One exception is the teachers union at Green Dot Public Schools, a cluster of 18 charter schools throughout Los Angeles County, including two in the South Bay - Animo Leadership High in Lennox and Animo Inglewood Charter High.

That union recently ratified a contract that incorporates both provisions, and appears to be taking tentative steps toward eventually replacing seniority pay with performance-based pay.

The new contract, approved by 54 percent of Green Dot's 500-plus teachers in mid-May, officially took effect July 1. It doesn't do away with seniority pay - known in the education world as "step and column" - but it does amount to an agreement to continue pursuing the possibility.

More concretely, the new contract means that, come fall, the wheels will be set in motion for teachers to receive bonuses of up to $2,000 a year for strong performances.

Their performance evaluations will be based on a comprehensive rubric that includes principal assessments; surveys from students, parents and fellow teachers; and, most controversially, test scores measuring student growth over time, often referred to as the "value-added" model of assessment. The last measure will account for about one-third of the score for teachers of subjects - such as math, English and science - that are assessed in the California Standards Tests taken by students every spring.

William Heuisler, the union's secretary, said he understands the reticence on the part of many teachers, but believes Green Dot is simply changing with the times.

"I'm very excited to be part of what I believe is progressive reform," he said. "At the end of the day, this is going to happen, and you can either be at the beginning or you can follow it."

Also moving forward with a plan to integrate test scores as a measure for evaluating teachers is the Los Angeles Unified School District. But at LAUSD, there has been no agreement between the union and administration. Instead, a Superior Court judge last month issued a ruling mandating the practice, though with the caveat that the district must work closely with the union in doing so.

United Teachers Los Angeles President Warren Fletcher said that the union fully intends to abide by the ruling. But he added that teachers tend to be leery of the value-added model because it's unstable: a teacher's rating can swing from highly effective to highly ineffective in just one year.

"If I'm going to be evaluated and my pay and even my ability to remain a teacher is based on this system that has a 25 percent accuracy rate ... you can see how I as an employee would be uncomfortable with that," he said. (Fletcher was careful to note that he was speaking only for LAUSD, and not Green Dot's new contract.)

Broadly speaking, school districts across California have been slow to adopt the practice, said Marco Petruzzi, CEO of Green Dot Schools.

"But the rest of the nation is forging ahead at a fast speed, and we are happy to be as fast," he said.

About half of the states in the nation now link teacher evaluations to tests, according to an October study by the National Council on Teacher Quality, an advocacy group for teacher reform. (California is not among them.) That's up from 16 just two years ago.

As for merit pay, the Obama administration is an aggressive proponent. The new bonus program at Green Dot is being funded largely by a grant from the federal Teachers Incentive Fund, as well as a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Known as TIF, the federal program - which rewards districts that adopt merit-pay policies for teachers - began late in President George W. Bush's second term but has been beefed up by the current administration.

Among the public school districts in California to adopt a TIF-funded program is Lucia Mar Unified in San Luis Obispo. But it happened over the objection of the teachers union, which voted against the program in June even though it came with a $7.2 million grant.

In contrast, Green Dot's teachers not only approved the concepts of merit pay and using test scores as a factor in teacher evaluations, but also had a hand in the development. About a third of them participated in the lengthy design phase.

"The idea here is to professionalize the profession," Heuisler said. "The merit pay and evaluations get the most press but at the end of the day the goal is to get better teachers in the classroom."

The Green Dot organization has already evaluated the bulk of its teachers using the new method.

In the fall, teachers will begin the year knowing that a bonus awaits them at the end if they perform well. Teachers who fall in the top of five tiers will receive an extra $2,000. (Currently, about 5 percent of the district's teachers qualify, Heuisler said.) Teachers in the second highest tier will receive $1,000; and the third, $500.

Heuisler, who teaches at Animo South Los Angeles Charter High, envisions a day when teachers will move up the salary schedule based solely on performance, and not seniority. Under the current schedule, it takes about 20 years of seniority to reach the $80,000 salary mark.

"If you can become a highly effective teacher in five years you should be paid that much in five years," he said.

Conversely, he added: "If you've been on the job five years and are not (meeting expectations), maybe this isn't the profession for you."

Green Dot officials say merit pay and linking evaluations to test scores are not the only noteworthy aspects of the new contract.

It also includes modest pay hikes and zero furlough days - something few public school districts in California can boast.

They also tout a new method for principal evaluations designed to minimize subjectivity.

Heuisler's school participated in a program piloting the new evaluation method.

"It was more helpful and more productive than in my previous eight years of teaching," he said. "The observation procedure when I was at LAUSD was a joke. I was maybe observed once my first year and that was it. I never had an evaluation or a coach."

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