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Analysis

Newspaper Uses Student Test Data to Rate Los Angeles Teachers – Union Leaders Howl

August 19, 2010

Last Saturday, the Los Angeles Times published a lengthy article headlined “Grading the Teacher” – the first in a proposed series   that has stirred up a tempest.  The LA Times obtained seven years of math and English test scores from the Los Angeles Unified School District and then used the test score results to estimate the effectiveness of some 6,000 Los Angeles Unified School District teachers.

Within hours, the leader of the teachers union in Los Angeles Unified was bitterly criticizing the article’s methodology, and calling for a boycott of the newspaper.

"You're leading people in a dangerous direction, making it seem like you can judge the quality of a teacher by … a test," said A.J. Duffy, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, which has more than 40,000 members.

Duffy said he would urge local labor groups to ask their members to cancel their subscriptions to the newspaper.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan soon entered the fray as well – essentially supporting the newspaper’s publication of the data. The Los Angeles Times quoted Duncan as saying "What's there to hide? . . . In education, we've been scared to talk about success."

Duncan (who is part of a Democratic administration) said “We can't do enough to recognize (these teachers), reward them, but — most importantly — to learn from them.”
California Secretary of Education Bonnie Reiss has likewise indicated that state government, under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (a Republican), will encourage districts to develop and release value-added scores for teachers.
“Publishing this data is not about demonizing teachers,” Reiss said. “It's going to create a more market-driven approach to results.”

Reiss said the data would give school district administrators a better idea of which instructors need professional development. Reiss acknowledged that a statewide system for this data would take time to develop, but indicated that some districts, especially the larger ones, should be able to move quickly.

David Sanchez, president of the California Teachers Association, was quick to condemn the Los Angeles Times article.  “Publishing the database assembled by the LA Times as an accurate measure of teacher effectiveness or even as a 'value-added' assessment model is irresponsible and disrespectful to the hard-working teachers of Los Angeles. This LA Times model oversimplifies what defines an effective teacher and is based solely on one set of student test scores -- tests, I might add, that were never designed to measure teacher effectiveness or even student growth. The California Standards Tests are designed to measure grade-level standards, not student growth from the beginning of the school year to the end of the year. So trying to use that single test to create a value-added model in Los Angeles is impossible. In addition, all education research has concluded that using value-added models as a primary measure for evaluating teachers is not appropriate as the measures are too unstable and too vulnerable. It is impossible to fully separate out the influences of students' other teachers as well as school conditions, classroom assignments, and student attendance. Parents know their child is more than a test score and so are teachers.”

But Duncan took the position that something could be gained from publishing the statistics.

“In the 6,000 teachers (the newspaper) studied, you have a minimum of 1,000 amazing teachers that are beating the odds every single day,” Duncan told The Times. “This is an extraordinary opportunity to take teaching in L.A. to another level — to identify those who year after year are getting great results in difficult circumstances.”

Using a single test as a measure of student achievement, and by extension the teacher performance, is troublesome. The Los Angeles Times writers have themselves recognized and acknowledged that fact in their article. Interestingly, they have chosen teachers in only grades 3-5, effectively side-stepping more complicated issues of secondary grades, mix of remedial and college preparatory classes, and students clustered based on language proficiency, disabilities, special needs and other factors.

We find the endorsement, and cheering, of this rather simple approach and methodology used in the newspaper’s “analysis” by the U.S. and California Secretaries of Education even more troubling. The far-reaching policy issues needed to cure deep-rooted problems cannot be designed based on popular sounding political agendas.

However, the union leadership has to realize that a fair and robust system of evaluating teacher effectiveness must be designed without any further delay to help provide an acceptable system of accountability. The old-fashion and trite practice of limited classroom observation, walkthroughs and evaluations based on a single criterion (or two) must be abandoned to allow California to respond to the students’ needs. Simply refusing to accept this reality and the routine tendency of fighting everything that has anything to do with “evaluating” teachers is not an option anymore. If unions do not accept the responsibility to partner in devising needed solutions, they may find themselves in a position of having to live with a system designed by someone with even less experience than a group of newspaper reporters.

Source:   EdBrief staff, Los Angeles Times.