Teaching Profession Opinion

Calif. Legislation Would Require Schools to Negotiate Evaluations

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — May 06, 2015 8 min read
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The Democratic leadership in both the California Senate and Assembly is backing bills to restructure teacher evaluation, bring it within the scope of collective bargaining, and connect it to test scores. The debate rekindles a historic divide and raises the question of whether either teachers or school administrators are prepared for the consequences of the new law.

A history lesson illustrates.

Poway, CA, Circa 1990

On a warm afternoon a quarter century ago I sat with the peer review council of the Poway Unified School District. The district and the Poway Federation of Teachers had negotiated a peer review agreement, and I was listening to the consulting teachers report on the novices they had assisted and evaluated during the year. It was time to make decisions about whether these new teachers would be offered employment for the coming year.

The council comprised both administrators and teachers; by agreement there was one more of the latter, but no one could remember a time when labor and management lined up against one another.

As the meeting continued with cases of stellar young teachers who were performing at expected levels, a routine was established. The supervising teacher would present the case. Administrators would nod assent, and the file folders would be closed with the incantation of the magic words “meets district standards.”

This scenario was repeated several times until a teacher said, “meets district standards...but something bothers me.” Heads rose from the file folders, and the consulting teacher added, “This (24-year-old) teacher is like fine wine that has begun to go to vinegar. She teaches like someone over 60.”

A remarkable discussion followed. The district’s evaluation form modeled after a then-popular Madeline Hunter lesson plan, did not mention joy, enthusiasm, or engagement in teaching. The district had trained its teachers be able to reproduce what Hunter’s research showed to be an effective lesson. Around the state, districts, including Poway, had trained their teachers and administrators in Hunter’s method.

The district evaluation form did not consider situational adaptivity or receptivity to new information. But teachers and administrators on the review panel all agreed that these qualities were necessary for good teaching. In effect, the criteria for being a good teacher changed that afternoon.

During the following year consulting teachers coined the phrase, “in, through, and beyond Madeline Hunter.” New teachers were supposed to demonstrate the basic craft of a good lesson, and they were also expected to create classrooms as interesting places of inquiry—not merely to repeat the rote lesson form, however well prepared and executed that might be.

This vignette, which appeared in the 1993 book, A Union of Professionals, a series of case studies on labor relations reforms that Julia Koppich and I edited, provides some lessons for how to consider and evaluate the new California legislation.

The Proposed Legislation

The proposed legislation, sponsored by Assembly member Patrick O’Donnell, D-Long Beach and Sen. Carol Liu, D-La Cañada-Flintridge, would ditch the four-decades-old Stull Act, which is universally thought to be outdated. Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, and Senate President pro Tempore Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, are co-sponsoring the bills. (Alternative legislation proposed by Republicans was defeated in committee.)

The proposed legislation is built around the six criteria in the California Standards for the Teaching Profession, adopted in 1997, and would add a teacher’s contribution to student academic achievement as an additional criterion.

Historically, teacher unions favor expanding the scope of bargaining, bringing more subjects to the table where they have voice and influence. School boards and administrators, on the other hand, oppose encroachment into education policy making, which they consider their exclusive domain. This division is playing out once again, as John Fensterwald reports.

Bill Lucia, CEO of the ed reform advocacy organization, EdVoice, called evaluation criteria a non-negotiable “bright-line” issue. Meanwhile, the unions are nervous because the proposed legislation also mandates including student performance on statewide tests in teacher ratings.

History also shows us that attention to these hot-button issues obscures both why we need this type of legislation and why it’s not enough.

The Fictional Bright Line

First, the bright white authority line between unions and management is largely a fiction. As the Poway story illustrates, unions have engaged in evaluation for a long time. And where they are, they are pretty good at it. Nationwide, about 300 school districts have negotiated some form of peer review and assistance. The teachers involved tend to be pretty tough-minded about their peer’s performance.

Even where teachers don’t spell out the evaluation criteria in the contract, they can greatly influence it by negotiating the procedures for evaluation, which current law allows.

For example, several years back, United Teachers Los Angeles successfully ended the practice of “learning walks,” a form of professional community creation where teachers visited one another’s classrooms. They argued that the information gained might be used to form an opinion about a teacher’s performance. Only administrators, who visited at specified times using approved protocols, were allowed to do that, they said.

And any evaluation system requires time and resources, changes in assignment and calendar. All these are routinely negotiated, as they were negotiated in Poway.

Reform Epidemic Not Spreading

Second, even though it is possible to point to districts where teachers and their unions have been heavily involved in evaluation, the practice hasn’t spread rapidly. Indeed, what we’ve called professional unionism and others call reform unionism, hasn’t made much of dent in the bulwark of teacher unions. The Teacher Union Reform Network, formed three decades ago, is still small and not terribly influential, although the California branch, CalTURN, has picked up a good bit of steam over the last couple years.

Mostly, teacher unions do what is required of them under the law. They negotiate contracts, fulfill their statutory responsibility to represent teachers whether they are members or not, grieve when the contract is violated, and raise a little hell. Union activism began before a young Gov. Jerry Brown signed the collective barging law in 1975. But it spread only after there was a law.

So, if we want unions and managements to act differently than the 1975 law requires, we should look to the law and ask whether it is logical to see the pending legislation as enabling a switch from unionism based on industrial work to professional work.

When school administrators speak of a teacher as being a professional, they usually refer to individual selflessness and dedication, often exemplified by staying at work longer than the contract requires. But as Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan point out in their book Professional Capital, you can’t be a professional by yourself. A profession is an institution that sets and enforces standards, disciplines its own members while advancing their interests, and is as concerned with protecting the public as it is with its members.

Where The Current Legislation Fails

The efficacy of the Lui and O’Donnell bills lies in their ability to professionalize teaching—not just in expanding the scope of bargaining for industrial unionism—and hence the bills’ shortcomings.

There’s no model, no training, no infrastructure to get evaluation right, either for labor or for management. Instead, there is a huge zone of wishful thinking that districts from around the state will imitate the districts and unions who have already created interesting evaluation techniques.

The Long Beach model is fascinating, but it has not been widely copied. Ditto Poway, San Juan or San Diego. I may be missing something, but I haven’t seen a California Teachers Association statewide conference to train its professional staff in how to work with districts to achieve similar results. The first large scale conference on labor-management cooperation in California is to be held this weekend.

When the CTA began to advocate for collective bargaining in the 1970s, it knew what to do. There was a body of tradition and technique about how to negotiate a contract and what to negotiate. CTA staff was hired and trained in how to help their member districts. Seminars and boot camps were held as unions sought recognition and contracts after the California law went into effect in 1976.

Norms were established. Quickly, union activists came to distinguish between weak contracts and strong ones, between good negotiators and those who needed not to be part of the bargaining team the next time around. There was copying and imitation from district to district, largely because it was spread by the union staff.

All this was supported by a revolutionary culture that had taken over the CTA. Where the California Federation of Teachers and its national parent the American Federation of Teachers had always believed in collective bargaining and considered itself as part of organized labor, unionism was a new civil religion for the CTA.

The Cautionary Lesson of History

It’s possible to say that the leading locals will figure out how to do evaluation right, and the rest will follow. History proves otherwise.

The legislature’s efforts should be amended to provide the means to get evaluation right; enough templates and funds for training to create a corps of teacher leaders and other educators that can make professional-level evaluations possible, attractive, and normative. A new culture for a new labor revolution.

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