In the past month, the story has become crushingly familiar. Pink slips arrive at LAUSD schools warning that more teachers are likely about to be laid off due to budget cuts.
To make matters worse, some of those teachers on the prospective layoff list are among the most talented and best liked instructors on campus. However, because they do not have seniority, the ax comes down as if wielded by a blind and clumsy executioner who whimsically grabs for beheading whomever is the nearest to hand.
In what other profession does talent and achievement have exactly zero bearing on job retention?
At Hamilton High’s well-regarded performing arts and humanities magnet schools, a couple of the campus’s most gifted teachers were on the pink slip list, as were the magnet schools’ two directors.
Similar stories surfaced all over the district.
In Sunday’s LA Times, education reporter Jason Felch writes about a a new and egregious instance of how the seniority system has dictated that yet another gifted teacher be placed in the path of the district’s job shredder.
The teacher in question, Miguel Aguilar, had rated well into the “most affective” range in the Times’ value added teacher rankings.***
In addition, students in Aguilar’s class seemed to thrive noticeably in ways beyond merely the test scores—so much so that other teachers wanted to know what Aguilar was doing right.
In short, Felch’s story of a great teacher whom the union hog-tied LAUSD system fails to value, demonstrates yet again why some kind of merit-based assessment must be put into place.
Here are a couple of representative clips:
In February, fifth-grade teacher Miguel Aguilar stood in the front of a class, nervous and sweating.
The subject — reading and comprehension — was nothing new. But on this day, his students weren’t 11-year-olds in sneakers and sweatshirts: They were 30 of his fellow teachers.
It was the first time anyone at Broadous Elementary School in Pacoima could remember a teacher there being singled out for his skill and called upon to share his secrets school-wide.
“A teacher coming forward … that hadn’t happened before,” said Janelle Sawelenko, another fifth-grade teacher.
Months before, Aguilar had been featured in a Times article as one of the most effective teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District at raising student scores on standardized tests. Many of his students, the article noted, had vaulted from the bottom 30% in the district to well above average.
When the article appeared — followed soon after by a database ranking about 6,000 Los Angeles elementary school teachers — it ignited debate nationwide. Educators, teachers unions and experts warned that publicly rating teachers would pit one against the other.
Seven months later, Broadous teachers and the principal say the opposite has occurred. They’ve noticed a new openness to talking about what works, an urgent desire to improve. “It’s encouraged them to collaborate,” said Eidy Hemmati, the school’s intervention coordinator.
Indeed, Broadous teachers — including Smith — have repeatedly sought out Aguilar’s help this school year, despite the potential for hard feelings.
The new experiment, however, may be short-lived.
After a particularly long day of teaching several weeks ago, Aguilar found a pink slip in his mailbox. He was one of about 5,000 district teachers notified that they might lose their jobs this summer, depending on the troubled budget.
Smith didn’t get a pink slip. In California and most other states, seniority, not performance, is the sole consideration when layoffs come.
Smith has been with the district 15 years, Aguilar eight.
On visits to [Aguilar's] classroom, Principal Stannis Steinbeck quickly concluded that Aguilar was not simply “teaching to the test” — a concern among critics of the value-added approach. He had an uncanny ability to connect with his students while commanding their respect.
When she learned later that Aguilar had devised his own method for teaching reading and comprehension, she asked for a demonstration. Steinbeck was impressed: Aguilar forced students to slow down and think before answering questions. Without dumbing down lessons, he broke down key concepts in a way that his fifth-graders, among the grade’s least fluent in English, could readily understand.
Steinbeck asked Aguilar if he’d be willing to lead a school-wide training session. Aguilar said her request “blew my mind.”
The demonstration to a classroom full of teachers in February was well received. So he went grade by grade giving sample lessons as the teachers looked on. Within six weeks, third-grade proficiency in reading and comprehension rose from 20% to 30%, Steinbeck said.
Read the rest.
** NOTE: At this moment, I am avoiding a discussion of the pros and cons of the Times’ decision to publish the rankings or of the methodology used to create the rankings. That controversy can be revisited another day.)
AND IN OTHER NEWS….
THE CAMPAIGN FOR YOUTH JUSTICE REPORTS THAT THE TIDE IS TURNING ON OVER-HARSH JUVENILE JUSTICE (EXCEPT NOT YET IN CALIFORNIA)
This NY Time editorial has the details.
HOW GENDER HAS BEEN PLAYING A BIG PART IN THE RECENT CONFLICTS OVER LABOR RIGHTS—BUT NOBODY’S REPORTING IT
Natasha Vargas-Cooper, who also happens to be my pal Marc Cooper‘s extremely smart daughter, has written a fascinating and perceptive Op-Ed for Sunday’s NY Times about the part women specifically have played in the labor battles in Wisconsin and elsewhere, yet weirdly the gender angle has gone all but unnoticed.
Photo by Michael Robinson Chavez for the Los Angeles Times