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Back in October and November, Dropout Nation reported on the lawsuit filed by a group of Southern California families organized by activist Alice Callaghan (with backing from the school reform group EdVoice) against the Los Angeles Unified School District, charging that the district had continually violated its obligations under the state’s Stull Act to adequately evaluate teachers and demanding the district to reform its teacher evaluation system. In the months since then, L.A. Unified has struck a deal with the American Federation of Teachers’ local that would allow traditional district schools to operate similarly to charter schools, with autonomy from district policies and the ability to use student test score data in evaluations. This deal, largely driven by the union regaining control of L.A. Unified’s board, came in exchange for essentially ending the effort to expand school choice and embrace the Hollywood Model of Education undertaken by current Superintendent John Deasy’s predecessor, Ramon Cortines. But the deal did not satisfy the Callaghan families’ demands (or even Deasy’s own push for overhauling teacher evaluations).

Which is why the families filed a Writ of Mandate petition last week in California superior court demanding that L.A. Unified immediately comply with the Stull Act — including making specific recommendations to teachers on their performance. Basing its argument off of information it gleaned from Deasy during a deposition, the Callaghan parents argue that the district has systematically evaded its obligation to evaluate teachers using student performance data — or to conduct proper evaluations altogether — under California’s Stull Act, which governs how L.A. Unified and other districts are supposed to handle teacher evaluations and performance management.

Under the law, newly-hired teachers are supposed to be evaluated every year until they earn tenure, while tenured veterans are evaluated every two years until they reach their 10th year on the job. Teachers have to be evaluated based on the Golden State’s curriculum standards, those evaluations must be put in writing in order to be valid, and corrective action must be required for those teachers who fail to make the grade. But as the families note in the suit, L.A. Unified is doing almost none if this because it has become servile to the AFT and the union that represents school principals. Declare the parents: “The problem is a District that has relinquished its obligations to the students in order to placate more powerful interests.”

L.A. Unified admits that it has the longitudinal student data needed to adequately evaluate teachers as required under the Stull Act, and can establish standards for student achievement as required under the version of the law amended in 1999 thanks to the efforts of then-California Assembly speaker (and now-L.A. Mayor) Antonio Villaraigosa. It isn’t as if L.A. Unified has never used student performance in measuring teacher quality. As the Callaghan brief notes, the district was doing this back in the 1970s and 1980s.

But since the 1980s, L.A. Unified has essentially evaded subjecting teachers to strong evaluations base on objective measures of student achievement, alleges the Callaghan families. Deasy admits this is the case. In his deposition, the superintendent states that “the current system doesn’t best serve adults or students” and does not focus on “the whole part if an education, and that is how students do.”

L.A. Unified has not creates a “uniform” process by which student performance is part of evaluations, nor has it developed a process by which teachers can gain feedback on performance. Even when (or if) the district moves to using student data in evaluations, it will be a challenge because the principals and assistant principals charged with doing the job “are not trained with any regularity or in any kind of uniform way” to either use such data or to even conduct proper evaluations as expected under the state law.

The families aren’t the only ones pushing for L.A. Unified to get its act together and stand up to the AFT and the principals’ union. L.A. Mayor Villaraigosa, who now runs several former traditional district schools as part of the now-defunct school choice effort, filed a friend-of-the-court brief also pushing for the district to fully comply with the Stull Act and revamp its teacher and principal performance management systems. Villaraigosa notes that L.A. Unified essentially admitted that its evaluation efforts were not helping to provide kids with high-quality teachers two years ago when it launched a commission that eventually proposed such an overhaul. The brief also points out that a quarter of all L.A. Unified teachers have said that they never received feedback on their performance from their principals, and 60 percent of those teachers who do get some form of guidance on their performance only find it to be “somewhat helpful”. This dovetails with the National Council on Teacher Quality’s 2011 report on L.A. Unified’s teacher evaluations, which found that just 40 percent of veteran teachers and 70 percent of new hires were evaluated by the district during the 2009-2010 school year. (Contradicting the arguments of the Callaghan parents, NCTQ does note that L.A. Unified’s evaluation procedures do follow the letter of state law, but argues that the district hasn’t made the evaluations more-thorough and of better use for teachers and principals alike, even though state law does allow the district to do so.) Villaraigosa’s decision to weigh in on this front isn’t all that surprising. He has long agitated for L.A. Unified’s overhaul, successfully teaming up with Green Dot Public Schools founder Steve Barr to force the district to embark on the now-abandoned school choice and spinoff plan, and unsuccessfully pushed to put the district under mayoral control.

If the Callaghan parents do succeed in their suit, it will force L.A. Unified to stop negotiating with the AFT local — which has steadfastly opposed the use of student data in evaluating teachers in spite of the trend in other districts throughout the nation and California to do so — and simply get to work on launching a new evaluation system. It would also follow up on a successful suit against L.A. Unified launched three years by the American Civil Liberties Union’s SoCal branch that led the district to abandon the use of seniority in determining teacher layoffs at its worst failure mills. Efforts to force teacher quality reform got a boost two years ago when the Los Angeles Times revealed the performance of the district’s 11,500 elementary school teachers — by name — during its powerful, controversial and much-needed series on the low quality of the district’s instruction. The move led Deasy to make additional moves, including unveiling a rating of schools based on Value-Added analysis of student (and ultimately, teacher) progress.

More importantly, it marks another step in parents forcing their way to the head of the table in education decision-making.

Even as efforts to pass Parent Trigger laws in states such as Florida (and a proposal in Colorado to allow the public to sit in on contract negotiations between districts and teachers’ union locals died in a state legislative committee), more families are demanding their say in shaping education. Using the courts to advance choice, Parent Power, and even teacher quality reform in the manner similar to torts launched by school funding advocates will also have to be part of the arsenal. It is quite likely that by year’s end, groups of families (in alliance with reformers) could file suits over teacher evaluations, either targeting districts or even states such as Connecticut where legislators beholden to AFT and National Education Association affiliates and refuse to pass proposals that overhaul teacher performance management and tenure.

Other lawsuits that may follow will surround the quality of the curricula used by districts. This will be an especially important issue as 45 states and the District of Columbia begin aligning curricula to the Common Core reading and math standards. As Brookings Institution scholars Russ Whitehurst and Matthew M. Chingos point out in a report released today, most districts are choosing curricula that have not been proven effective in improving student achievement (or have even been subjected to any form of rigorous, longitudinal scrutiny). As I noted last year in my column for The American Spectator on innumeracy, just one out of 63 elementary math programs surveyed by the U.S. Department of Education has been rated as having “potentially positive” effects on student achievement; even that rating is based on just one study that met the agency’s stringent research standards. Given the longstanding history of American public education subjecting kids (especially those from poor and minority backgrounds) to lackluster curricula and restricting access to strong, comprehensive, college-preparatory content — along with complaints from middle-class families about the low quality of such curriculum as Everyday Math — expect more families to file suit to force districts and states to provide curriculum that meets and even exceeds Common Core.

In short, what is happening in L.A. will likely become the norm throughout the nation.

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