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L.A.’s Interim Superintendent Looks to Liberate Principals in City’s Most Struggling Schools From Requirement That They Hire Teachers Sent by the District

By Laura Greanias | April 30, 2018

The principals of 227 struggling Los Angeles schools may be about to get a coveted freedom: the ability to hire the teachers they believe will best educate their students.

As commonsense as that sounds, it’s not currently the case at the LA Unified School District, nor at most school districts nationwide. Today, all LA Unified schools looking to fill vacancies are required to hire first from what’s known as the “must-place” list. These are teachers who have lost or stepped away from their positions at one school but have not been hired at another.

Many LA Unified principals say they are frustrated with being forced to fill vacancies with teachers from this pool, which as of last month numbered 224 teachers, according to the district.

Three-quarters of Los Angeles principals recently surveyed by the National Council on Teacher Quality, a research and policy group focused on teacher effectiveness, said they were unable to hire their teacher of choice because they needed to hire from the priority placement list. The same 75 percent of school leaders said that teachers on the must-place list are rarely if ever a good fit for their school.

The policy is also expensive. The teachers in the pool who aren’t placed into a classroom continue to collect their full salary and benefits. Last year alone, “must-place” teachers cost the district about $15 million, and an independent review panel urged LA Unified to end the pool. In New York City, a similar pool cost the district $150 million in salaries and benefits in 2016. In Colorado, teachers who aren’t hired after one year are placed on unpaid leave, a policy recently upheld by the state Supreme Court. Chicago has a provision in its teachers contract that ultimately allows teachers to be laid off if they cannot secure placements.

LA Unified is contractually required “to assign displaced teachers to vacancies that are appropriate to their credentialed area. All district schools must take the assigned teacher if the credential matches the vacancy,” a spokeswoman said. The district does not terminate any teachers who are on the list, but since July 1, 2017, a total of 113 priority placement teachers have retired, resigned, or separated from the district, she said.

The intention to give these schools a waiver from having to hire off the must-place list was announced by Interim Superintendent Vivian Ekchian at a school board committee meeting last month that presented a new “Student Equity Need Index,” which the board then adopted as a primary funding model for the district to ensure dollars designated for the highest-needs students actually reach them.

Ekchian called for the first set of schools, which at the time she said would be 50 schools, to be granted the hiring waiver along with the extra funding.

On Monday, the district released a memo listing 227 schools that will get the additional funds — from a total one-time investment of $25 million for the coming school year, as approved by the school board earlier this month. The schools were determined based on their ranking on the equity index, which factors in student demographics, the academic status of incoming students, and community indicators such as asthma and gun violence. The schools were to be notified Monday of how much they will receive, and the funds will be available starting in July. For a list of the schools that will receive funding, click here.

The memo stated that the 227 schools will also be given a “menu of options” as to how they can use the funds, which will be determined in coming weeks. Ekchian’s call to give those schools a waiver from the must-place list would likely be considered one of those options.

The allocation of funds required a vote by the school board, but giving principals a waiver from the must-place list likely would not require a vote, said board vice president Nick Melvoin. “I applaud what Ekchian is doing to pilot some urgency” to get help to underperforming schools, said Melvoin, who said he supports the waiver for its ability to help kids while not requiring more resources.

But he’d like to see the idea considered for more than just the most struggling schools. “Once we acknowledge certain schools need a waiver, let’s address the underlying policy.” Melvoin said that when he asks education advocates “how much money do you need to achieve equity, what other supports do you need, what always comes up is human capital. So what are the other waivers we can give?”

Requiring principals to hire first from the must-place list “is just a terrible, terrible way to staff a school,” said Daniel Weisberg, chief executive officer of TNTP, an education nonprofit that helps school systems address educational inequity. “There’s no school, no principal, no parent, no teacher who wants to be in a school where somebody is forced on them and may not want to be there and may not be a good fit for the school or the students or the community.”

But in attempting to fix the problem, he cautioned, “It’s squeezing the other end of the balloon. If you exempt [some] schools, those teachers are going somewhere.”

Kency Nittler, manager for teacher trends at the National Council on Teacher Quality, said the organization’s 2011 survey of LA Unified principals found that “the majority of principals in LAUSD were rarely or never satisfied with the teachers they were forced to hire from the must-place list. While it is good that principals have some choice, limiting their choices to this list limits their ability to find a good fit for their school and cuts off access to outside applicants who might be a better fit or more effective than the teachers on the must-place list.”

Kate Walsh, the organization’s president, said, “If you’re going to hold schools accountable for results, you need to make it possible for the leader in that building to decide who is going to work there. Anytime you introduce constraints on that important authority, you make it unfair. It’s simply unfair to say you are expected to produce XYZ results and we’re going to decide who your team is to get there. These are folks that the district for one reason or another is having a hard time placing.”

Walsh urged Los Angeles parents to “make some noise” over the issue. “Parents need to make their voices heard because it’s going to make real impact on their children. Look at the difference between an effective and an ineffective teacher. A really good teacher produces a year and a half of learning in one school year. An ineffective teacher produces only half a year of learning. You do not want your child assigned to the least effective teacher,” she said.

“We applaud Acting Superintendent Ekchian’s proposal to provide ‘forced placement’ waivers for LA Unified’s highest-need schools,” said Joan Sullivan, chief executive officer of the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, which manages 18 high-need schools in LA Unified. “Force-placing teachers is never ideal, and unfortunately under the current system these ‘forced placements’ occur predominantly at schools in our highest-need communities. These schools in particular need to be staffed by great teachers who have an affirmative desire to serve on these campuses. We will continue to work with the District to explore more equitable staffing models so that all our district’s amazing students thrive.”

Juan A. Flecha, president of the Associated Administrators of Los Angeles, cautioned that “there is an underlying assumption the employee is ineffective” if they are on the must-place list. He said those on the list include employees returning from a district-authorized leave or employees with tenure who have been bumped by a more senior employee. “Notwithstanding, an employee with disciplinary or performance issues can potentially be on a priority placement list,” he said in an email.

“It is always a promising practice when principals are able to select candidates interested in working at their schools. It is a win-win when an employee applies to a school, and is selected to work there. Both parties mutually agree this the best course of action for the school and the new employee. Therefore, principals will welcome the ability to select their staffs.”

In announcing her intention to grant the waiver to the schools, Ekchian said, “Our hearts are pounding and we know our kids are in need and we must make a change today.” She added, “If the same 50 schools would not need to take any [must-place] or displacement teachers, we are stabilizing the school.”

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