California earns F grade on teacher hiring, evaluations and retention

The National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) gave California a D+ on the state’s 2017 teacher policies. NCTQ looks at nine different areas from general teacher preparation to retaining effective teachers. Although the report highlighted some positive aspects — like teacher salaries — one of the three areas that earned an F grade stood out against the others: teacher and principal evaluations.

The NCTQ recommends that both teacher and admin evaluations in California schools be adjusted and that both are observed more frequently — but Lodi USD is headed in the opposite direction. The Lodi Education Association (LEA), the teacher’s union of LUSD teachers, just worked with the district to extend the time between evaluations for most tenured teachers from every two to five years. Although technically tenured teachers are supposed to be evaluated every four years, the time between evaluations could stretch to five years based on the school year and the teacher’s Social Security number.

“Tenured teachers who are in good standings… are now evaluated every four years, if the administrators agree,” Principal Hillary Harrell said.

Teacher evaluations are negotiated as part of the teacher union contract and the process differs for probationary and tenured teachers.

Probationary teachers are observed for a whole class period, and following their lesson administrators ask them a series of questions such as their objective for the day’s lesson. After the observation, the administrator writes the evaluation using the codes in theCalif. Stds. for the Teaching Profession (CSTP) rubric. Oftentimes a teacher only receives a feedback of what standard was observed and 3 categories of competency: Satisfactory, Needs Improvement, and Unsatisfactory.

“[Teacher] maintains a suitable learning environment for [their] students,” reads a comment from a teacher’s evaluation sheet under “IV. The Establishment and Maintenance of a Suitable Learning Environment.” This is an example of the unhelpful feedback that is given to teachers; the comment essentially summarizes the title of the criteria and does not provide much analysis of the teacher’s skills.

The evaluation process is the same for tenured teachers.

“The evaluation process is contractual, negotiated and very scripted, with specific rules [that] I am bound by the job to follow,” Harrell said.

Harrell has experience with evaluation processes that she believes worked to develop a more complete understanding of a teacher’s work, but is confined to what Lodi USD has negotiated with LEA.

“There needs to be a process where the observer is able to collect data from the teacher through constant observations and assessments, not 1-2 visits for an hour,” Harrell said. “[I’ve experienced processes that] really permit the teacher and the evaluator to have an ongoing conversation; the observation actually captures what the teacher is doing in an authentic way [which] really reflects the teachers’ work in a comprehensive way.”

Many believe that teacher evaluations are not made frequently enough.

“I think you should be evaluated every year and new teachers every six months and with help,” teacher Ms. Jones — who asked that her name be changed for this article — said. “When the evaluator comes in, we should feel safe, like we’re just gonna get feedback. It should be, let’s do it with your most challenging class so you can get feedback to make it better, not that you should be afraid. I feel like our administration is like that now with Ms. Harrell.”

“I don’t think [one hour] is enough, because, usually what happens when I’m in classes that get evaluated, is the teachers act totally different on those days,” senior Rashad Lazkani said. “I think [extending the time between teacher evaluations] is making a bad problem even worse because I think even two years is too little for them to be doing it. I think it needs to be more often.”

Administrative evaluations are performed by district members and by school principals.

“Administrators are to be evaluated every year,” Asst. Superintendent of Secondary Education Dawn Vetica said in an email response. “I evaluate the principals, the principals evaluate AP/VPs.”

Administrators are assessed on areas included in the California Professional Standards for Education Leaders.

“Included in the principals’ evaluation are staff survey results (certificated and classified), and school achievement data,” Vetica said.

Although this evaluation process differs among districts, as a collective the state received an F in the teacher and administrator evaluation category. To better the process, NCQT recommends that teachers be evaluated annually and observed multiple times within that yearly period.

To raise its score, NCQT suggests that California offer appropriate training, have improvement plans for teachers and distribute teacher talent among schools. NCQT also calls for student surveys to be considered when evaluating teachers and student growth, a process which some may view as out of the ordinary.

“[There are] no evaluations in public schools where there is any kind of feedback from students,” Harrell said, though she believes that suggestion is an “interesting idea.”

“I think they should definitely think about what students have to say because usually they see most of what the teacher is like, and that would probably be the best evaluation of the teachers,” Lazkani said.

At Bear Creek, Harrell and Vice Principal Sera Baysinger split the evaluations among themselves. This school year, Bear Creek hired 17 new teachers and now Harrell and Baysinger must determine if the teachers are qualified and eligible to eventually gain tenure, which they may receive if they’ve had at least two years of consecutive satisfactory evaluations.

“People are hired with the intention of being here for the long haul, to become Bruins,” Harrell said.

For both new and experienced teachers, the formal observation is limited in that it only provides information on one particular lesson, which is a common problem. Administrators who are in charge of these evaluations do not provide substantial feedback in their comments because they cannot necessarily adequately assess a teacher’s effectiveness with only an hour of watching them work.

Those teachers who don’t meet teaching performance objectives are supposed to be placed under on a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP) and are given specific goals to achieve. Currently there isn’t much being done by the district to help struggling teachers because the LUSD has largely focused its efforts on establishing support for new teachers rather than helping better those with tenure.

Jones recalls when former Principal Daryl Camp put her on a Personal Improvement Plan (PIP), claiming that she needed improvement. Camp evaluated Jones after he came into her classroom and saw textbooks on the floor by a wall because the shelf had broken.

“He said that I need to improve, that’s all he said,” Jones said. “And he said ‘various reasons’ [to explain], he never gave me the exact [reason]. Then when he came and observed me, he fell asleep in the back of my room and wrote back a negative thing for it. He was asleep for half the lesson.”

Being put on PIP has, in previous years, been a struggle, especially when teachers don’t know the specific areas they need to improve or how to do so.

“It affected part of my self-esteem, most of all,” Jones said. “I felt like I was doing everything I was supposed to be doing, and he just picked me like a bullseye. I was very worried, like I was going to lose my job. There was no feedback and no help for what I was doing wrong.”

Harrell observes that class time is dominated by teacher talking instead of student production. She wants teachers to be able to center their lesson around a big objective and have the students understand the significance and application to real world and to themselves. It is hard for Harrell to see if teachers are adapting to her feedback because of the reality of being an instructional leader. There is not enough time for her to be able to do frequent observations. If possible, she would speak informally with strong teachers about their teaching throughout the year. If there are teachers that are struggling, she would try to see them more often.

Vetica says that Lodi USD should not be held responsible for the entire state’s score.

“I think California is a very large state and it is unfair to lump all the school districts together,” Vetica said. “Los Angeles is such a large school district that they alone would heavily influence any report done about the state.”