Don’t Determine California Teacher Evaluation Criteria Through Collective Bargaining

A pair of new California state bills that would grant teacher unions the power to negotiate various aspects in job performance evaluations made their way through Congress this past week. The bills are Legislature’s latest attempt to reduce public union resistance to evaluations that include student performance data by reconstructing evaluation methods as an indicator of teacher effectiveness.

Senate Bill 499, authored by Senator Carol Liu, repeals multiple portions of the current law regulating the evaluation of certificated school employees. The 1971 Stull Act currently requires school districts to conduct teacher evaluations. SB 499 would require school districts and county offices of education to develop and implement a “best practices” teacher evaluation system based on multiple measures of academic growth as well as classroom observations conducted by trained evaluators.

The new legislation lays out seven measures including student engagement, effective learning environments, and subject matter organization for the evaluators to judge during teacher assessments.

The bills counterpart, Assembly Bill 575 by Assemblymember Patrick O’Donnell, stipulates that each of the new criterions must account for at least 10 percent of a teacher’s overall rating, but districts are free to determine the weight of the remaining 30 percent. In each bill unions could negotiate how districts weight their evaluations. SB 499 would give districts the ability to completely determine how much weight to give each of the seven criteria, so the unions would be able to bargain the evaluations entire weighted structure. However, AB 575 would require there to be at least 10 percent weight to each of the seven criteria, but unions would bargain with management in each district over the remaining 30 percent.

The Stull Act already allows certain teacher involvement in evaluation procedures, but not on criteria, such as how to judge teachers’ lesson plans, whether to use student surveys and what tests to use to weigh student academic progress.

Existing law also only ranks teachers with two possible ratings – satisfactory and unsatisfactory. Both AB 575 and SB 499 would create a third rating for teacher performance, but would give districts power to determine that third rating. The lack of a three-tiered rating system is a primary reason why California is one of a handful of states that the federal Department of Education has denied a temporary waiver from the No Child Left Behind law.

Union-backed Democrats face pressure to make significant education reforms after the 2013 Los Angeles Superior Court ruling in Vergara v. California, which rejected state laws governing teacher dismissals, tenure and layoffs based on seniority claiming that they deny students access to a quality public education. All sides agree that the Stull Act is outdated and needs to be revised. However, authors have been hit with criticism about giving more bargaining power to the unions over these evaluations.

Certain school districts already successfully negotiate their evaluation systems with teachers. Long Beach, San Juan Unified and San Jose Unified negotiate most aspects of teacher assessments and produced positive results through local practices. Both San Juan and San Jose incorporate teams of teachers and administrators to evaluate either probationary or all teachers to recommend alternatives for those needing help.

California’s last comprehensive teacher evaluation reform bill failed in 2012 as a result of differences between unions, management groups, and lack of funding. Both SB 499 and AB 575 have no secure funding at this point. It is likely the provisions would create a higher-level of service that would create a “state-reimbursable” mandated program, potentially imposing significant costs on school districts.

Similar legislation reconstructing teacher evaluations is seen in other states, such as New York and Washington. As a result of the criticism from the New York State United Teachers Union and school groups to the approved measure that would require test scores to determine as much as half of a teacher’s evaluation, they have recently extended the new evaluation implementation deadline another year, until Nov. 15, 2016. Washington also introduced a bill that would mandate the use of state test scores in evaluations, but it failed due to teachers’ adamant opposition. All education policymakers seem to face the same hurdle of bridging disagreements between teachers unions and school boards, especially when it comes to using student achievement criteria to evaluate teachers.

While improving teacher evaluations is a critical reform, California’s current proposed legislation give teacher unions too much leverage on the criteria related to student achievement that would benefit teachers at the expense of student learning gains and water down the evaluation process as a whole. It creates incentives for teacher unions to manipulate standards to generate a safety net for a higher salary and better benefits without ensuring improvements in student performance. The bills are a step backward from developing evaluation standards to negotiating them with unions that have an inherent bias against using student performance to evaluate teachers.

Rather than reforming evaluations through vague guidelines set out for teacher unions, a clear uniform method for districts that will incorporate more teacher involvement with school boards is another route for success. Teacher incentive for participation should be recognition for their success through student achievement in addition to fluid communication with administrators.

As teacher unions and school districts fight the power battle over California’s education system, it is necessary to reexamine student data and each schools’ overall success rates for the teacher evaluation system to create a brighter future for the state’s education system.