New lawsuit puts teacher firing practices under the microscope

150 150 Matthew Grant Anson

(photo credit: Bob Cotter)

2013 was a chaotic year for California’s public school system as it burnt the candle at both ends working to implement the Local Control Funding Formula and Common Core at the same time.

While much work remains on both those fronts, add a new wrinkle to the mix: a new lawsuit against the state and school unions which alleges that teacher protection laws in California are handicapping the quality of instruction provided to the state’s students. The lawsuit says that by entrenching incompetent teachers in the classroom, students aren’t receiving high-quality instruction – something paramount to the success of both LCFF and Common Core.

Lawyers inevitably end up having the loudest voice in the room, which is why California Forward reached out to a former California teacher for one person’s ground level view on the lawsuit. Edit Khachatryan taught at both Los Angeles Unified and Glendale Unified, and is now pursuing her PhD at Stanford in teacher education and professional development.

Do students have a legitimate grievance over the instruction they’re receiving in California’s schools?

Students deserve effective teachers in every classroom and the state is responsible for ensuring that they get them, theoretically. However, constituents from each district elect board members, who hire superintendents who in turn hire school leaders (principals). Principals hire, evaluate and fire teachers. Principals have a million things to do, so visiting classrooms and documenting teaching quality isn’t a priority when there are more pressing issues to deal with in schools.

As someone who has experienced evaluations in two California districts, what is that process like? How much stock is put into test results?

The teacher evaluation systems in place don’t provide teachers feedback on teaching, information about what they’re doing well and where they’re struggling. Essentially, most districts create a basic checklist of things principals look for when they visit classrooms and each district’s evaluation system is slightly different. The tools used to evaluate teaching, one example being an observation rating protocol, don’t allow for quality feedback on teaching.

Student growth based on standardized test scores now seems much easier to use to identify “ineffectiveness”. To be clear, I don’t think student test scores are very reliable measures by themselves. One reason: unlike Advanced Placements tests or the SATs, students have absolutely no incentive to perform well on the state standardized tests.

Why does it take so long and cost so much to remove an ineffective teacher from the classroom?

If courts were to subpoena teacher evaluation forms, they’d see that almost all teachers get “satisfactory” ratings year after year. So, when you’ve told a teacher for 10 years they are satisfactory, you can’t just all of a sudden fire them for being ineffective based on student test scores; hence the lengthy and costly process of documenting their ineffectiveness.

Do you think teachers are unfairly blamed?

Teachers are being unfairly blamed for administration not doing their jobs to begin with. The system isn’t set up for administrators to give quality feedback to teachers. To be fair, most administrators don’t have the support, resources, professional development, and the time to be effective “instructional leaders.” Principals’ evaluations aren’t based on the improvement they bring about in teaching at their schools, so they don’t concentrate on that. Many get moved from school to school annually and don’t really have any incentive to do well at any school; it would be interesting to track the movement of principals in LAUSD. Someone should do that.

What do you think would be the most responsible and efficient way to let go of an ineffective teacher?

The most responsible and efficient way to let go of a teacher is to use a rigorous system of teacher evaluation, with multiple measures that provide quality feedback to the teacher about their practice from multiple viewpoints. I imagine principal and peer observations of teaching using observation protocols that look at teaching practice, instead of whether the students are sitting up straight and the content standards are on the board. I also imagine use of student and parent surveys of the teacher, and obviously student outcome measures.

None of these can individually identify effectiveness. The best way to go about this is to base laying off teachers on accurate and reliable measures of the practice they’re enacting. I wish all the money being spent on a lawsuit like this would be used to bring everyone to the table to come up with a rigorous system.


Matthew Grant Anson

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