What exactly is an ‘ineffective teacher?’ California’s definition doesn’t include measures of performance

Even after years of debate and litigation over teacher evaluations and tenure, California has no official definition of what constitutes a bad educator — until now.

Under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, states must report on whether disadvantaged students have a higher proportion of ineffective, out-of-field or inexperienced teachers than their peers. But to supply that answer, California needed to define, concretely, what an ineffective teacher looks like.

On Wednesday, the Board of Education approved a profile that does not touch on teacher performance: An “ineffective” teacher is now officially one who is improperly assigned or does not have proper credentials.

In less than two months, the board must submit its plan to satisfy the federal law — which replaced the No Child Left Behind Act — to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Its members opted to address the requirement dealing with teachers Wednesday, but leave until later the completion of a formula for identifying low-performing schools, as the law also requires.

California’s new education ratings tool paints a far rosier picture than in the past »

What, exactly, is an “ineffective teacher?”

The state’s new definition mirrors language in the Local Control Funding Formula law, as well as a proposal from the California Teachers Assn. union.

Tom Adams, deputy superintendent of public instruction, said California was using it “because that’s the system we have in place.”

But some education advocates were critical of the decision.

“It refuses to consider teacher effectiveness … as something related to performance and impact on students,” the Education Trust — West, an Oakland-based nonprofit focused on closing the achievement gap, wrote in a letter.

Similarly, the Assn. of California School Administrators wrote that the definition misses “a teacher who is fully credentialed but ineffective in instructional practices.”

Some, including Carrie Hahnel of EdTrust-West, have suggested considering teacher turnover and absentee rates to get at how well they are performing — without using the controversial, quantitative evaluation systems that rely on students’ standardized test scores.

Board President Mike Kirst said that he was interested in some of those ideas, but that there wasn’t enough data to justify their use. One board member said the conversation gave her “heartburn.”

How does California identify underperforming schools?

Where No Child Left Behind used a strict system to reward and punish schools for their standardized test performance, Every Student gives states much less.

At the bare minimum, the federal law requires that states identify the lowest-performing 5% of their high-poverty schools, as well as high schools with persistently low graduation rates, and help them improve.

The state recently created the California School Dashboard, a website that uses a variety of metrics to analyze schools and displays the results in a color-coded scheme: red is the worst, blue is the best. A Times analysis found that it was possible to have more than half of students underperforming on standardized tests and still be classified as “good” under this system.

California plans to use the dashboard color ratings to identify its lowest-performing schools: Those deemed red across all measures, or all red with one orange category, will be flagged. But by using that method, experts say, the state will be able to identify only one-third of the number of schools it would need to reach the full 5%.

So the board Wednesday also voted on a motion that said it needed one more year of testing and dashboard data to figure that out, thus missing the federal deadline. After a January meeting, they plan to flesh out their strategy and send it to the government as an addendum.

Board member Feliza Ortiz-Licon voted no, saying she wasn’t convinced that the plan showed precisely how the state would close achievement gaps. And Children Now, an education advocacy group, said using the dashboard model was a bad idea because it collapsed nuanced information into blunt categories.

The whole ineffective teacher definition gives me heartburn.

— California State Board of Education member Ting Sun

What will California do to help low-performing schools improve?

The state has proposed letting county education officials take the lead on holding districts accountable.

The Equity Coalition, an umbrella group representing more than 20 California education advocacy organizations, wrote in a long critique that the state’s education plan “offers far too few details regarding how school improvements will occur.”

Kirst said the lack of detail was deliberate, and part of a long-running effort to not let the federal government direct California’s schools. “The state plan is essentially a contract with the federal government,” he said. “The more details we include, the less flexibility that we have to adjust.”

Times staff writer Howard Blume contributed reporting.

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Learning disabilities do not define us

I am an educator of educators. I teach others how to be the best teacher. But, I’m also different.

I have learning challenges.

As we celebrate the anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), I’m reminded of my personal journey.

My disabilities could have defined me. But they didn’t. I don’t consider myself dyslexic or learning-disabled.

I’m Jim. And here’s the story of how I overcame my challenges and found my life’s calling – and of the dedicated educators who helped me along the way.

This year the Americans with Disabilities Act celebrates its 27th anniversary.
Rainmaker Photo/MediaPunch/IPX/AP Photo

My disability

Born in 1970, I suffered a head injury as a young boy while roughhousing with friends. Maybe that led to my learning problems. Maybe it didn’t. Doctors aren’t really sure.

What I do know for sure is that in kindergarten, I couldn’t spell my name: James. That’s when I became Jim. Over a period of time, I turned Jim into Mij.

I didn’t like school. I decided it was about one thing: learning to read and write. I was poor at both.

I didn’t like myself.

James Gentry, the author, in second grade.

At the age of six, I was diagnosed with dyslexia or a minimal brain dysfunction with learning disabilities. At the time, awareness about dyslexia was so poor that my mother asked, “Is it contagious?”

Then something changed.

In 1975, Congress passed Public Law 94-142, now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This law provided special education services for all students with disabilities.

A breed of new educators – called special education teachers – came to my school in East Texas. They developed a curriculum tailored just for kids like me. The curriculum provided reading and writing experiences using specialized learning strategies. My teacher helped me learn to read books by looking at pictures, acting out stories and reading text.

Left, right, tar

A crucial event occurred in my second year of first grade that helped crystallize the visual cues I was being trained to see.

It was the summer of 1977. The roads of my small town were being resurfaced with asphalt and tar and I did what any inquisitive young boy would do: I stepped right into the middle of the warm, gooey stuff.

Predictably, it stuck to the side of one of my shoes.

The next morning, I lined up the shoes so they stuck together perfectly. Next, I slid my feet into the correct left and right shoes.

In the ’70’s, they didn’t have cute stickers to help me figure out which shoe was which.
Shoezooz, CC BY-ND

I was elated.

For the first time, I was able to place my shoes on the right foot using that sticky tar as visual and kinesthetic cues that my teacher had taught me. I was independent.

This was the beginning of understanding visual cues to learn to read, write and tell left from right. Even though it still took a while, I learned to make the connections.

For example, when one of my teachers told me I needed to write on the correct side, I still didn’t understand. I asked, “What’s the correct side?” She said, “Write from left to right.”

I asked what is left and right. She took my paper, moved the holes of the paper to one side of my desk and said, “The holes face this way, left.”

I looked in that direction and saw these huge windows.

I still remember thinking, “This is like my shoes and that tar.” I knew it was unlikely the windows would move, so every time I began to write, I moved the holes of my paper toward the windows.

I learned to adjust to my visual landmarks if my desk moved by asking people what was my left.

I never write on the wrong side again.

Legs, loops, letters

Once I understood spatial relationships, I made new discoveries with letters and numbers, finding that some had “legs” and “loops” that faced the holes in the notebook paper while others faced in the opposite direction.

For example, letters and numbers like a, d, 7, 3, and Jj face the holes, while Bb, L, Ee, Ff, and Cc face away from the holes. There were confusing ones like Zz, 5, Ss, and 2 that had loops and legs that faced toward and faced away from the holes on the notebook paper. I had to memorize or review them each time.

For people with dyslexia, learning letters and numbers can require special strategies.

As I learned to write, I learned to read better too. I could call some words out orally and use pictures to fill in the missing parts.

Using visual cues and working with my peers and teachers were the solutions to learning, reading and writing. Also, I can persuade peers to read to me, and piece the meaning together like a puzzle.

Later, using visual cues helped me play football and drive a car. And it all started with tar and some teachers holding my hand.

College and beyond

The author, James Gentry, in his college graduation photo.

Learning with learning challenges is never easy. But higher education proved to be an even greater challenge.

Spelling often seemed to me to be an insurmountable challenge. Professors required me to type my papers, but the end result resembled drywall patchwork thanks to the amount of white correction tape I used to correct misspelled words.

That’s when I discovered something that was as life-changing as the tar-on-my-shoes experience: the invention and availability of the personal computer.

I purchased an IBM clone with a word processing program that would review and check spelling. Once I used the word processor to complete various written assignments for college, I was like a caveman who discovered fire. I can turn in clean documents without worrying about handwriting legibility or the letters facing the wrong direction.

A personal computer – with word processing and spell checking software – helped me overcome dyslexia and become a writer.
Wolfgang Stief

I was free. I could be a writer.

I completed my bachelor of science degree in psychology with a 4.0 grade point average. Later, while working as a schoolteacher, I completed my master’s degree in special education and my doctor of education degree in curriculum and instruction, again with a 4.0 grade point average.

Making a difference

I’m now a teacher. And as an associate professor at Tarleton State University, I work with students and their parents to focus on their abilities and not their disabilities – just like my teachers did.

And I still face the same learning challenges that I did as a young boy.

My experiences and challenges have enabled me to listen to my students more. I model every day the value of building relationships and collaborative learning. My school days taught me that learning occurs best when done together.

In 2016, the students at my university selected me as a speaker for Tarleton’s “Last Lecture” speaker series. I shared my story. I wanted our students with disabilities to know, “You are not alone!”

In 2016, James Gentry was asked to deliver a lecture about his experiences as a disabled professor.
Tarleton State UniversityCC BY-NC-ND

Since this speech, I’ve had numerous students and professors come up to me to describe the various learning challenges they’ve endured for most of their lives. Many of them are still working to overcome these challenges today.

This experience has helped me to discover that we’re all working to do our best with the challenges we face. Hiding or ignoring learning challenges is lonely and sad. We all – humans, I mean – have challenges in common. If anything, sharing and overcoming them together is the new reality.

We’re all different, and that’s a good thing. Remember that you have something to offer the world: a thought, a story, a new way to do something or some creation that may change the world for the better. Please be brave and overcome that challenge. We need you. You belong. You’re not alone.

The Americans with Disabilities Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act before it have given me and others like me the opportunity to thrive.

And what a difference that has made in our world.

This is an updated version of an article originally published on July 24, 2015.