LAUSD Board Frees Principals of Struggling Schools From Having to Hire Teachers Sent to Them by the District

This article was produced in partnership with LA School Report.

About one-fourth of LA Unified schools have just won a coveted freedom: the right to hire the best teacher for the job.

However, the majority of Los Angeles schools are still shackled by a longtime districtwide policy that forces principals to hire from a “must-place” list of “displaced” teachers.

But that could soon change. Board members have directed the new superintendent to “work to eliminate the pool of teachers who are displaced one year or more.”

Teachers are “displaced” if they are forced out of a school either because they are deemed ineffective or are bumped by a more senior employee, or if they are returning from a leave of absence and have not yet been hired at a school site.

The displaced teachers continue to draw full salary and benefits, and the district keeps them on the rolls indefinitely, unlike some other districts nationwide that terminate teachers’ employment if they haven’t been hired within a certain time frame, such as a year.

There are currently 708 displaced teachers on LA Unified’s payroll, and 211 of them have been on the list for more than a year, the district reported Wednesday in response to a public records request. Last year, the “must-place” teachers cost the district about $15 million, and an independent review panel has urged LA Unified to end the pool.

The new hiring freedom came through Tuesday’s unanimous school board approval of the “Close the Gap” resolution, which seeks to ensure that all students, particularly those with high needs, can meet state academic standards and qualify for a four-year in-state university. The resolution also seeks to strengthen school improvement plans, and it requires the district to start reporting its graduation rate in two ways: the percentage of students who graduated meeting state standards, and the percentage of those eligible to apply to state colleges.

• Read more: Los Angeles’s graduation rate will now be reported in a second way to reveal how many students are actually eligible for state universities

The primary focus of the resolution is improving the district’s lowest-performing schools, so those are the schools that are getting the hiring freedom.

The resolution states: “No teachers who were displaced one year or more should be assigned to schools in the lowest performing band of schools based on the School Performance Framework or the high and highest need schools based on the Student Equity Needs Index 2018.”

Together, those schools are estimated to be roughly a quarter of the roughly 1,000 district schools. LA Unified also has 224 independent charter schools, which are not bound by the district’s hiring restrictions.

Nick Melvoin, the board’s vice president, asked why only a portion of the district’s schools should get the hiring freedom.

“What is the purpose of not placing these teachers in the lowest-performing quartile [of schools]? The same logic would apply to all classrooms and all students,” Melvoin said during Tuesday’s board discussion. “I’d like to see us work to not have them in any schools.”

He proposed adding language that would give all schools the freedom, but board member Kelly Gonez objected because of possible financial implications. So a compromise was crafted. The amendment states, “The Superintendent will work to eliminate the pool of teachers who are displaced one year or more, via training, help with replacement, or exit from the District.”

“The logic of my amendment is, If it’s not good enough for some kids, it’s not good enough for all kids,” Melvoin said in a phone interview Thursday. “The biggest thing this is about is mutual consent in hiring. Teachers and principals shouldn’t go where they aren’t excited to go, and school communities shouldn’t have teachers and principals they’re not excited to have.”

He said he will continue to push for all schools to be included. “I will hold him [the superintendent] accountable for that and see what we can do in bargaining. I’ll also continue to raise these concerns at board meetings when colleagues want to create more exceptions, which I think will continue to happen, especially when principals and families reach out about equity.”

At Tuesday’s meeting, board member Scott Schmerelson called for adult schools to be included. He said, “I don’t want us to put displaced teachers in continuation schools.”

Board President Mónica García said Thursday that she “welcomed Mr. Melvoin’s amendment. Again, in working to close the gaps, the resolution did not solve all district challenges. When SENI [the Student Equity Need Index] passed, we understood that was dealing with money and change in policies that is being highlighted now. Bottom line: I would stand with every parent that expects every member of our school staff to be qualified and able to do their job well.”

‘Can you help my principal’

Melvoin said, “One of the things that led to my amendment is, now having visited every school in my district, parents are so excited and grateful for the amazing teachers that their kids have. And yet they’re frustrated when they’re in a class with a teacher that’s less than excellent or they hear from their principal the difficulty in hiring the right teachers. When I usually hear from parents, it’s parents calling saying, can you help my principal, because we can’t get this teacher, or we’re losing this great teacher, or we have to place this teacher.”

Melvoin said contract changes will likely be necessary to extend the hiring freedom districtwide.

“I say this as a former teacher: I think we should have a contract that respects teachers as professionals and also kids as the most important actor in the system, and I don’t think our current contract does that. I think that it doesn’t put kids first, and I also don’t think that it’s respecting teachers as professionals. Because if I’m told that I have to go to a school that doesn’t want me, or I can’t stay at a school that wants me, that’s devaluing my service as a teacher, and that has to change. And I think that’s actually going to be the way that we attract better teachers, is by treating them as professionals, and our contract does not do that right now.”

García noted Thursday that the local teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles, “will have an impact on our ability to negotiate and address systemically” the district’s hiring policies.

Ben Austin, a school reform advocate and executive director of Kids Coalition, which aims to give students and their parents legal rights in decisions about their education, agreed that the district should end the practice of forcing principals to hire from the list of displaced teachers.

“Must-place teachers are Exhibit A for why the LAUSD needs to translate ‘Kids First’ from a hashtag into a civil right,” Austin said by email Thursday.

‘Dance of the lemons’

The practice of districts shuffling ineffective teachers from school to school is known as “the dance of the lemons.”

In 2010, after a five-month investigation by LA Weekly, then-Superintendent Ramon Cortines announced that “the district plans to substantially cut back on granting lifelong tenure to inexperienced teachers.”

But that hasn’t happened.

The displaced teachers are different than teachers who are facing allegations of sexual or physical misconduct; however, they too receive full pay and benefits while they are out of the classroom, which has been estimated to have cost the district more than $300 million in recent years.

But the far larger problem, LA Weekly reported, is one of “performance cases” — the teachers who cannot teach yet cannot be fired. From 2000 to 2010, district officials spent $3.5 million trying to fire just seven of the district’s 33,000 teachers for poor classroom performance — and only four were fired, during legal struggles that wore on, on average, for five years each. Two of the three others were paid large settlements, and one was reinstated. The average cost of each battle was $500,000.

During the same time period, when LA Unified fired four failing teachers, 800 to 1,000 underperforming civil-service-protected workers were fired at City Hall, LA Weekly found.

The cost of ineffective teachers

An effective teacher is widely seen as the most important factor in a child’s success in school, and even more so for disadvantaged students and those in minority groups.

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.”

Many LA Unified principals say they are frustrated with being forced to fill vacancies with teachers from the “must-place” pool.

Three-quarters of Los Angeles principals 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.

Kency Nittler, manager for teacher trends at the National Council on Teacher Quality, said their 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.”

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.”

Legal attempt to address ineffective teachers

A lawsuit filed on behalf of LA Unified students in failing schools sought to make it easier for schools to get rid of ineffective teachers.

A ruling by a Los Angeles Superior Court judge in 2014 in the caseVergara v. California, found that the state’s tenure and seniority systems, which can protect ineffective teachers, harmed all students, but especially poor and minority students, leading to outcomes that “shocked the conscience.” The case ended last year when the California Supreme Court declined to review an appellate court ruling.

The intention to give Los Angeles’s high-needs schools a waiver from having to hire off the must-place list was announced by then-Interim Superintendent Vivian Ekchian at a school board committee meeting in March that presented the new “Student Equity Need Index,” which the board then adopted in April as a primary funding model for the district to ensure that dollars designated for the highest-needs students actually reach them. This week, Ekchian was named deputy superintendent.

At that same April meeting, board members voted to create an assessment framework that will allow parents to more easily compare schools as well as select the measures by which to evaluate them.

Katie Braude, executive director of the grassroots parents organization Speak UP, noted afterward that the district should report how many must-place teachers are on a school’s staff.

The assessment framework, which Gonez said could lead to school report cards, could “shine a light on things we don’t have any information on at all,” Braude said, such as “looking at teaching staff, how long teachers have been at a school, how frequently they are evaluated, how many substitutes a school has for a year, how many must-place teachers are on staff.… It gives parents an opportunity to make good choices.”

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