Teacher grievances detail battle over evaluations, discipline

Teacher grievances detail battle over evaluations, discipline

Michele Ellson

School district officials have released dozens of grievances filed over the years Kirsten Vital has served as Alameda Unified's superintendent, documents that cast fresh light on teachers’ claims of a lack of respect from school administrators and on the reasoning behind new rules on teacher evaluations and discipline their union wants included in a new contract.

The grievances, which offer a sometimes unflattering portrait of Alameda's teachers and its schools, detail what until now was a largely behind-the-scenes battle over apparent changes in the way teacher performance is evaluated and addressed. In some cases, the union claimed that active members were targeted for retribution through the evaluation process, a claim district administrators have denied. They said the evaluation changes offer a better picture of the quality of the district's teachers.

District officials erased teachers’ names from the documents but other identifying details, such as the schools were the grievants worked, remained in some of the documents. One grievance had a handwritten note at the top saying it had been submitted by the four members of the union’s bargaining team, while a summary provided by the district named a school where the union filed a grievance on behalf of all of its teachers. A reporter was able to identify one other teacher using the information that remained in the documents and by reviewing a school website.

Alameda Education Association president Gray Harris declined to speak to specific grievances, saying she believes they are confidential personnel matters.

“It’s always been my understanding that legally, ethically, the only person who can talk about a personnel matter is that person,” Harris said. “The district is not supposed to be able to talk about personnel matters and neither am I, really.”

Vital said district officials released the documents only as a result of public records requests, including a query from this reporter about whether the documents were releasable.

“I do know that the misconduct described in some of the grievances relating to discipline is not at all reflective of the vast majority of our highly competent, thoughtful and valuable teachers and I believe that our parents and community know this as well,” Vital said.

The conflict comes as Alameda Unified, like other school districts across California and the nation, has faced increasing test score proficiency requirements and accountability demands. They have also come as Vital and her team have put new principals in charge of the majority of the district's schools.

The teachers union has proposed new contract rules that would limit the number of observations school administrators can make and the type of information that can be included in evaluations, and ones that spell out protections for teachers facing complaints. Those proposals do not yet appear to have been discussed at the bargaining table.

Seven of the 38 grievances issued since Vital arrived in January 2009 and released by school district administrators challenge methods used to evaluate teachers. Union leaders claimed that new methods being used to evaluate teacher performance violated the union's contract – a claim an arbitrator denied last June, documents show.

Harris said that prior to Vital's tenure as superintendent, teachers and school principals agreed on two of six state standards to focus on in evaluations and that the reviews were based on data collected on those standards during two formal observations. In his response to some of the grievances, Human Resources director Tom Rust wrote that teachers were evaluated on all six criteria “as required.”

Harris said that after Vital arrived, school principals began including observations from informal classroom visits, test score data, complaints and disciplinary issues in evaluations, instead of focusing on the agreed-upon topics.

“Now the district has decided that they don’t care about the goals you chose. They just come around looking for whatever,” Harris said. “It’s just become punitive rather than helpful. It used to be helpful.”

Vital said she's committed to a “fair and meaningful evaluation process” and that the use of the additional observations and data are a part of that.

“No employee should be evaluated on the basis of two isolated observations in a one year time period,” she wrote in response to an e-mailed list of questions. “It is hard for me to imagine how any site leader or supervisor could gain an accurate picture of a teacher or other employee based on two isolated observations.”

On June 28, 2010, the union filed a grievance claiming a school administrator improperly relied on informal observations to write a teacher's evaluation, and that they focused on issues outside of the areas the teacher and administrator agreed on. That grievance went to arbitration.

Eight months later, the union filed a grievance on behalf of all the teachers at Lincoln Middle School, saying they were improperly evaluated based on four observations instead of the two they believed were called for in the contract. That May, union leaders filed four more evaluation-related grievances, saying those teachers' evaluations contained discipline reports and complaints from parents, students and colleagues which union leaders called hearsay but district officials said had been substantiated by either school or district leaders.

Two of the grievances claimed teachers had been improperly placed or kept in the district's Peer Assistance Review program, which pairs struggling teachers – those who have received two “unsatisfactory” ratings or more on state standards included in their evaluation – with mentors in an effort to help those teachers improve.

Union leaders claimed the use of informal observations and additional data violated the teachers' most recent memorandum of understanding, but district leaders disagreed, saying the contract language established a floor for what could be included in reviews, and not a ceiling. Last June, an arbitrator decided the June 2010 grievance in the district's favor.

“(T)here is no reason to conclude the unsatisfactory evaluation was the result of animosity, improper motivation, or any other abuse of Article 11 (of the contract),” arbitrator Norman Brand wrote in his June 30, 2011 decision.

Eighteen of the grievances deal with the way school administrators disciplined teachers, though nine of those were associated with three teachers, a summary provided by district administrators shows. Most of the grievances claimed that administrators failed to offer progressive levels of discipline, skipping verbal warnings or other lower levels of discipline before writing teachers up or issuing formal notices that can be a precursor to dismissal.

In one instance, the union protested a Notice of Unprofessional Conduct – a precursor to dismissal – for a teacher accused of failing to properly supervise students on an Alameda High School Leadership trip in 2010 where several students ingested alcohol and marijuana, the summary says, including one student who was rushed to the hospital for alcohol poisoning. In another, a teacher at Lincoln Middle School received a similar notice after telling a student and her parent that “African American students have a hard time with math” and that other teachers at the school “can't handle minority students,” the summary says.

Union leaders filed three grievances on behalf of one teacher at the Woodstock Child Development Center who received a Notice of Unprofessional Conduct and a written reprimand for a host of infractions that included referring to the school's special education students as “toxic,” putting plastic bags and garden stakes over the center's garden to protect it and leaving a child unsupervised, an act that resulted in a citation from the state licensing department.

In that case, the union called on an unnamed party to “cease and desist from any/all retaliation against the Grievant for her union activity and advocacy.”

The union is asking for new contract language that would set ground rules for the number of state standards to be applied in an evaluation and would bar the use of complaints, hearsay, discipline and prior year information in writing an evaluation. The union wants want anonymous complaints to be tossed, and its leaders want teachers to have the right to try to work out any problems that are raised directly.

Harris said many of the teachers receiving unsatisfactory reviews have never received one before despite many years of teaching in the district – and that many of those teachers have been active in the union.

“One teacher in particular has been evaluated by 10 different administrators, many of whom are still in the district,” Harris said. “If they're not good evaluators, I would question why they are still doing evaluations for this district.”

She said that in a typical year, four to five teachers were sent into the district's Peer Assistance Review program. This year, Harris said she's heard about 17 teachers being placed into the program.

“It’s seeming like it’s not being used for what was intended. So there will be more grievances,” Harris said. She said the union has filed 43 grievances so far during Vital's leadership – compared to the half-dozen they filed under her predecessor, Ardella Dailey.

Vital said the district has increased its support for teachers by adding a new teacher program, math coaches and training and spent “thousands of dollars” on training teachers who end up in Peer Assistance Review. Harris said the district has eliminated teachers' ability to choose their own professional development opportunities and that part of the superintendent's bonus is predicated on the successful implementation of the district-selected strategic instruction model.

The superintendent said she hasn't directed school leaders to target teachers for union activities.

“I can say that I have never directed nor condoned any form of retaliation against any employee for any reason, including their participation in union activities,” Vital said. “I believe that if Human Resources were able to substantiate an allegation of retaliation, the department would have brought it to my attention immediately and it has not.”

Harris said that these and other disputes used to be resolved informally, but that principals are now reluctant to settle them that way.

“It never got to the paper phase. People just talked,” Harris said.

But Vital denied that this is the case.

“My expectation is that all complaints would be resolved at the lowest possible level and I have not ordered any change in practice,” she said.


Submitted by Jen Laird O'Rafferty on Tue, May 15, 2012

Thank you for looking deeply into this issue, Michelle.

Basing an evaluation on two observations and on only two standards seems ridiculously inadequate to me. In my organization, I must nominate at least 3 people to speak about my performance throughout the year, based on any and all observations and based on a long list of performance expectations. My supervisor interviews those three people and anyone else she choose. She also incorporates her personal feedback and writes a summary. I can contest any of that feedback by submitting a memo that is included with my summary review. The process is not perfect, but I appreciate the feedback from a wide variety observations. As someone who is asked to comment on the performance of about a dozen people a year, I believe it contributes to a healthy, successful organization.

Such a process may not be easily transferable to a district, but I think the larger issue is that that the review process that AEA is fighting for seems designed to allow bad teachers, who I believe are in the extreme minority, to continue floating under the radar. How does this raise respect for and perceived professionalism of teachers as a group?

Speaking of extreme minority... how many teachers are in the district? That would be helpful to put the 4 versus 17 teachers refereed to Peer Review in context. I think anyone who has worked in any type of organization would admit that there will always be some (small) portion of employees who are not performing satisfactorily. Sounds like Peer Review is designed to give this small minority support in improving. Many organizations wouldn't offer support. They'd let the employee go. I'm not recommending that instead of Peer Review, but I do think AEA is hurting itself in the eyes of many community members by their position on teacher evaluations.

Submitted by Michele Ellson on Tue, May 15, 2012

Hey Jen,

To answer your question about the number of teachers, I believe AEA represents over 500 teachers. And I'll cede the floor on the rest.

Submitted by Sylvia Gibson on Tue, May 15, 2012

I like the idea of a peer review as part of our teacher evaluation-- I think it would make it more balanced.

One thing I notice as I read over the greivances on the AUSD website is that a significant amount have to do with a lack of communication. I have heard from an AUSD principal that they do not receive ongoing training about how to hold hard conversations with their employees. It takes finesse to discuss a perceived problem in a way that leaves the employee feelling respected and improved. I think that our principals deserve more training and that this could keep future molehills from turning into mountains.