California earns an overall teacher policy grade of D+ from the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) and ranks 51st nationally for progress in strengthening those policies over the past few years. When it comes to identifying—much less firing—ineffective teachers, California earned a grade of F from NCTQ. This is nothing new.

A national consortium of education experts headed by Stanford University researchers found back in 2007 that the biggest barrier to improving student achievement according to both California principals and superintendents—a bigger barrier than money and class size—was “the difficulty in dismissing ineffective teachers.” (p. 4. See also here, pp. 4 and 12; and here, p. 3). Things haven’t gotten much better according to a recently-released follow-up. (See also here, pp. 17ff.)

A new court ruling could change all that. As the Los Angeles Times reports:

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge James C. Chalfant upheld contentions by a group of Los Angeles parents that the district was violating a 40-year-old state law, known as the Stull Act, which requires that teacher evaluations include measures of how well pupils are learning what the state and district expects them to know each year. The law was amended in 1999 to specifically require the use of state standardized test scores as one measure. Chalfant said the law required the district to use California standardized test scores to determine how well students have mastered state-required material. …The ruling, while preliminary, lends significant legal clout to a growing movement to use students’ test scores as part of a teacher’s performance review. Several states have begun incorporating them into teachers’ reviews and the Obama administration is also pushing school districts to use them. Bill Lucia, president of EdVoice, a Sacramento-based educational advocacy group that brought the lawsuit on behalf of the unidentified parents, said the ruling would clear the way for more effective evaluations that will help students and struggling staff. “It’s more likely we’ll be able to identify struggling staff members and give them the help they need to improve,” he said. “This will be better for kids.”

But not the teachers union. As the Times continues:

Warren Fletcher, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, reiterated the union’s opposition to using test scores in performance reviews and said any changes in the evaluation system needed to be negotiated. “UTLA will not negotiate an evaluation system that creates an incentive to degrade instruction or narrow the curriculum,” he said. “As always, UTLA will obey the law. But it is our job, the district and union together, to negotiate and devise an evaluation system that supports instruction.”

Supports instruction? As of 2010, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) received nearly $15,000 per student. Starting teachers earned almost $40,000 and experienced teachers earned close to $80,000. Principals earned more than $100,000, while the superintendent earned $250,000. Of course, that’s not even for a full work year. Annualizing those respective salaries looks like this: starting teacher, $58,000; experienced teacher, $115,000; principals $135,000 to $146,000; and the superintendent, $294,000. Throw in another 30 percent on top of that for average benefits, and we’re talking some real money—especially by California standards where the statewide median household income is $61,000 and $49,000 for Los Angeles.

Still, for all that money, a majority of LAUSD students—across sub-groups—is not proficient in reading or math. And, barely one out of 10 LAUSD high schoolers test college ready on the state’s Early Assessment Program. [All data are from the California School Finance Center database I developed with the Educational Results Partnership.]