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San Diego isn’t exceptional in the fact that schools in low-income neighborhoods tend to get teachers with less experience. Now the Obama administration’s lighting a fire under state superintendents to flatten out inequities nationwide.

In a letter released Monday, the Department of Education advised states to get plans together by June to make sure “public schools comply with existing federal law requiring that ‘poor and minority children are not taught at higher rates than other children by inexperienced, unqualified or out-of-field teachers,’” The New York Times reported.

This isn’t the first time: States submitted plans to deal with inequities back in 2006, but data shows they haven’t been entirely effective.

From the Times:

The Education Department will send each state data collected by the department’s Office for Civil Rights showing rates of teacher experience, certification, absenteeism and salary by school as well as student access to taxpayer-funded preschool and advanced courses in math and science.

The administration is also urging states to look at teacher evaluations to determine whether those who receive lower ratings are disproportionately assigned to schools with high proportions of racial minorities and students in poverty.

But the only requirement of states is that they ensure that teachers are equitably distributed based on experience and credentials.

In San Diego, schools in affluent areas, which often benefit from plenty of private school foundation money, on average tend to get teachers with more experience.

Teachers in the Scripps Ranch High cluster, for example, averaged about 17.5 years of experience last year, according to data from California’s Department of Education. That’s three years more than San Diego Unified’s district average, and four years more than the average for the Lincoln cluster, which has a higher rate of low-income students. Here’s what Mario Koran found back in March:

Longer tenures don’t necessarily make for more effective teachers, but test scores indicate experienced teachers are doing something right.

Last year, the Scripps Ranch and La Jolla Clusters – whose teachers have more experience than the district average – earned the district’s two highest API scores, a composite score based on student assessments.

The Crawford and Lincoln clusters, in southeastern San Diego, earned the two lowest. Teachers at those two schools had less experience than the district average.

Having the state consult teacher evaluations for these plans, as the Department of Education suggests, might kick up some dirt in San Diego.

Revamping evaluations has been a major point of contention between San Diego Unified and the teachers union. Currently, the frequency with which teachers are evaluated depends on how long they’ve been with the district: They’re evaluated once a year for their first two years on the job, then every other year and then they may qualify to be evaluated once every five years if they make it to the 10-year mark and pass other benchmarks.

And the reviews themselves can be fairly laid back. The school’s principal visits a classroom to see how its teacher is leading, and fills out an evaluation form to rate performance. That’s if things play out as they should: Last year, four teachers at Lincoln High told us that the principal never showed for their evaluations. They were given “satisfactory” marks without any actual review. (Notably, this doesn’t violate any district rules.)

During contract negotiations in March and April, things came to a head when the district indicated it wanted to rethink the system. At the time, San Diego Education Association’s then-president Bill Freeman sounded spooked.

“That was the biggest disappointment for me,” said Freeman. “Any time you want to implement a system that’s top-down, that’s the quickest way to make something fail.”

Freeman said he was surprised by the sudden focus on teacher evaluations, and that the district has never indicated the current system was problematic.

But Lisa Berlanga, executive director of parent advocacy group UpforEd, said that changes are a long time coming. “I don’t think it’s changed in more than 20 years,” she said. “We’re very pleased to see this.”

The new union president, Lindsay Burningham, made clear when we talked with her in August that she didn’t see much need to change the evaluation process, putting any room for error on the administrator carrying out each review: “We’re not saying that we’re opposed to any changes to the evaluations, but whatever changes are implemented need to be something we decide together,” Burningham said. “It can’t be something that’s handed down by one side.”

The district’s original suggestion included parent and student feedback. Months later, San Diego Unified and the teachers union are back at the negotiating table, but that element was nowhere to be found in the union’s Nov. 4 proposal.

Catherine Green

Catherine Green was formerly the deputy editor at Voice of San Diego. She handled daily operations while helping to plan new long-term projects.

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