The controversy over how to grade the performance of teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District has been brewing for several years and came to a head when the Los Angeles Times published a ratings list of “value added” schools and teachers in the district nearly two years ago.

The school district and United Teachers Los Angeles, the union that represents the majority of LAUSD’s educators, differ strongly on what should be included in a teacher’s evaluation. In an effort to bridge that chasm, LAUSD Board Member Steve Zimmer is proposing an alternate method that he believes is in the best interests of those who should benefit the most: LAUSD’s 700,000-plus students.

In an exclusive interview with The Argonaut, Zimmer revealed a proposal that he will present to his colleagues Tuesday, June 12.

“I think that we’ve gone too long without having an authentic teacher evaluation system that people buy into and it has not helped teachers move forward in their professional growth,” said Zimmer, who represents the Westside communities of Westchester, Del Rey, Venice and Mar Vista.

The school board member’s resolution, entitled “Commitment to Honor Teaching and Learning in the 21st Century,” asks the board to recognize the importance of Peer Assistance and Review for assisting and intervening when teachers struggle or need additional resources. The proposal also requests that LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy impanel a group of experts, educators and community stakeholders to study the quality of teacher education and alternative certification programs in Los Angeles with recommendations to be submitted to the board by the end of the year and to reject the use of Academic Growth Over Time measures, among other things.

The Academic Growth Over Time is an LAUSD-backed initiative that focuses on how students have progressed on standardized tests from one year to the next as a way to grade teacher performance.

The value-added model, also known as value-added assessment, measures the teacher’s contribution in a given year by comparing current test scores of their students to the scores of the same students in the previous school year.

While favored by much of LAUSD’s administration, institutions such as the National Research Council have criticized the valued added model.

In 2009, the council’s board of testing and assessment wrote that they have concerns that some school districts using value assements “place too much emphasis on measures of growth in student achievement that have not yet been adequately studied for the purposes of evaluating teachers and principals and that face substantial practical barriers to being successfully deployed in an operational personnel system that is fair, reliable, and valid.”

Zimmer, who taught at Marshall High School for several years, is not opposed to test scores as a part of the evaluation of an educator but rejects what he thinks is an over reliance on these tests. He also believes in instituting a system that relies more on collaboration between educators and less on competition between students and teachers, the latter approach that is favored by many value-added and standardized testing proponents.

“If you’re a fourth grade teacher under the competitive approach and you’re being evaluated against your partner fourth grade teacher, why are the two going to work together?” the school board member asked. “What’s the incentive? There’s none.

“And believe me, if adults feel that way, the students feel that way to,” Zimmer added.

Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of education at the Stanford University School of Education and a recognized national expert on teacher evaluation and education inequity, is not a fan of the value-added system. “It has been found to be extremely unstable and unreliable,” she told The Argonaut.

Zimmer said his resolution reflects a departure from the prevailing groups that are at loggerheads over teacher performance and how it should be assessed.

“I come down in a different place than the union and from Dr. Deasy,” he said. “If you’re not going to look at student outcome, you’re limiting yourself to a very narrow way of evaluation.”

Darling-Hammond, who was the education adviser to then- Sen. Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008, is the former executive director of the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching, an organization that documented highly successful school models and supported a range of school reform initiatives in New York and nationally.

She consulted with Zimmer on his resolution and believes a collaborative approach will yield better results.

“I would underscore the importance of a collaborative model and not a competitive one,” said Darling-Hammond via telephone from Baltimore. “We’re really wasting a lot of energy with this individualist and competitive model.”

Once rumored to be considered in the running for the president’s secretary of education in 2009, Darling-Hammond has developed performance assessments that allow teachers to demonstrate their classroom teaching skills as they are applied in practice, as an early member of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

Zimmer said grading teachers should not be a contentious matter. “Whether a teacher should be evaluated is not a controversial matter,” he said. “What’s controversial is how they should be evaluated.

“And what’s also controversial is whether student outcomes with all of the variables that affect student outcomes, should be part of that evaluation,” Zimmer added.

A newly formed parent/teacher group on May 31 released a plan to revise LAUSD’s method of grading teachers.

The group, called “Our Schools, Our Voice,” calls for student data, or the results of standardized tests, to be one quarter of a teacher’s performance reviews.

“We had a lot of conversations about this,” said Sujata Bhatt, a fourth grade teacher at Grand View Boulevard Elementary School in Mar Vista and a member of “Our Schools, Our Voice.” “What we wanted was a number that was a significant determinative.”

Other members of the organization include Jeneen Robinson, a parent at Loyola Village Elementary School in Westchester, Kate Anderson, a member of the Mar Vista Community Council whose twin daughters attend Mar Vista Elementary School and Michael Stryer, the group’s director.

Stryer lost to Zimmer in 2009, when both were competing to replace Marlene Canter on the school board.

Bhatt said one of the primary reasons that “Our Schools, Our Voice” submitted their recommendations to the school board was due to the existing lack of trust between UTLA and LAUSD on teacher evaluations. “The fundamental issue is that trust has to be rebuilt,” she said.

A lawsuit filed against the district, Doe vs. Deasy, seeks to force LAUSD to evaluate teacher performance with data including “reasonable measures, among other criteria, whether or not the students under an employee’s charge are actually learning,” state court documents.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa jumped into the fray surrounding teacher evaluations as well as the court case.

“Having a good teacher at the front of every classroom, and an excellent principal at every school, are the two best things the district can do to improve student performance,” the mayor said regarding Doe vs. Deasy. “And having an effective evaluation system – one that includes student performance – will allow the district to identify those teachers and administrators who are successful, and to provide feedback and assistance to those who need additional training and support.”

Zimmer thinks the chasm is widening between teachers and school administrations, especially in LAUSD, and they are rapidly approaching a crossroads on how educators should be evaluated. He feels the consequences of maintaining the status quo can be dire.

“If we’re not careful, we could do irreparable harm to our teachers and eventually to the entire profession,” he warned.

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