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The LA Times Goes Astray

vonzastrowc's picture

Imagine you open your newspaper in the morning to find a story about dietary supplements. The story includes a throw-away line or two noting that supplements aren't subject to FDA approval and that the research on supplements is mixed. It then proceeds to extol their virtues, list the ailments each is said to cure, and offer links to discount suppliers. I'm guessing you wouldn't think very highly of your paper.

In some respects, the recent LA Times story on teacher effectiveness isn't all that different from my hypothetical story. The authors mumble a few words about problems with the methods it used to rate 6,000 L.A. teachers. They then launch into full-throated advocacy for the approach. They even publish names and pictures of the city's "worst" teachers.

"No one suggests using value-added analysis [of test scores] as the sole measure of a teacher," the authors write. They then proceed to use value-added analysis as the sole measure of 6000 real teachers in real schools. They brand one as "least effective," name him, and  print his picture in the paper. Then they supply a database of 6,000 teachers rated solely by test scores. A few words about the limits of value-added measures won't blunt the overall effect of the article. Those teachers have been marked.

The authors note that "ineffective teachers often face no consequences and get no extra help." While I'm pleased that the Times has considered the need to help struggling teachers, I'm sorry to see that thought get swept away so quickly by stronger, darker currents. Regardless of what the authors intended, their story offers far more humiliation than help. It's fodder for those who see teacher evaluation as a way to kick *ss and take names.

Even some strong supporters of value-added measures are a bit squeamish about the story. The paper shouldn't have published names. It shouldn't have relied so little on classroom observation. It shouldn't have glossed over big methodological challenges.

We still don't know what the fallout from this story will be. How many teachers will want to sign up for a job where they can be publicly tried and convicted on shaky evidence? How many mambers of effective teacher teams will start looking askance at each other? How many thoughtful discussions about teacher evaluation will go off the rails?

A few people are cheering the LA Times story. It will advance the cause, they say, even if the data are a bit shaky. I doubt it. Hype, carelessness and mass humiliation will serve no one in the end.

By the way: Robert Pondiscio, a former journalist, offers some very trenchant comments on the LA Times story here.


Ok. I hear ya, Claus. I'd

Ok. I hear ya, Claus. I'd even side with you about pitching all tests out the window if you like. But every business has some sort of standard. The taxpayer is the employer, however indirectly, and should receive some assurance of quality for the money they're putting in. That is why I'm not happy with testing for public schoolers, but can't say it's a hill I'm willing to die on. :)

So. I can't imagine you would side with people like Weingarten, who don't seem to see their way clear to firing any teacher, ever:

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/24/education/24teachers.html?_r=1&ref=ran...

I think we know we need some sort of standard for teachers. I'm *not* speaking of standard curriculum. I'm talking about standards such as showing up to work on time, respectful discourse with the students and clear teaching (for example, "Ya know like, sorta, the example shows right there," is not clear teaching, but "Jamie, see that? You forgot to carry the one into the tens column. Do that, and you'll likely get the correct answer," is clear teaching).

Now, I dislike the testing thing, but it seems everyone is pretty bent on that. But aside from that, what's the objection to printing names and schools? You could easily find reviews of college professors (grant you, not test score results. thankfully.). Why not kindergarten teachers? Why not have some reasonably *objective* way of evaluating whether a given teacher is right for your child, which "rate my professors" is not?

I think the good/bad teacher is relevant, but mostly that's not what's going on. One child needs the strict teacher and another the more gentle and slow guide-type. Are parents just to trust the computer the school sets up to plunk kids into classes?

I'm really wondering what you think would bring this all into proper balance. I don't think just test scores alone will do it, but without other information, how are parents to know what to look for in a teacher? And more importantly, do they even get a choice in most schools?

Again, you won't find many

Again, you won't find many teachers/people involved with education who don't think there should be any kind of accountability system. We just chafe when it is *only* with test scores...and then to publish those in the newspaper?!? Crazy.

I've held lots of different jobs in my life...and all of them had some sort of performance review...the results of which were kept private. If I was awful, I'd be let go...but it would never pop up in a newspaper (that sounds like something that might be an Onion headline...LOCAL DISHWASHER'S JOB PERFORMANCE DECLARED UNSATISFACTORY...FILM AT 11). If my current boss did something similar to me, I'd (to use the popular parlance now) grab two beers and bail.

I support merit pay and value-added measurements, but I think this article is pretty irresponsible, and I certainly wouldn't want to work in an environment where this sort of thing is promoted.

Mrs. C-- If we're going to

Mrs. C--

If we're going to start printing teachers' names and performance evaluations in the paper, then we have to start figuring out why any teacher would ever want to take the job. And if we think it's OK to print names and pictures of teachers who don't show well on a measure that most experts don't think is ready for prime time, then our standards have fallen very low, indeed.

It's  odd that you should choose Randi Weingarten as the example of someone who's standing against change. She has been making teacher evaluation a priority of her time at AFT. She supports peer review of teachers. Studies show that teachers are harder judges of their colleagues than principals are. Her choice of Ken Feinberg to help mediate in discussions of teacher evaluation was greeted by her critics and supporters alike as a very bold move. 

As for other measures of a teacher's effectiveness.... We can use student work, classroom observations, and any number of other metrics.

In the end, I have to agree with Matt--Who the heck would want to work in an abusive environment where your career and reputation could be ruined in such a public way? When did public humiliation become the motivational technique of choice? That's just management 101. Those are real people, and their names are being muddied on the basis of very slender evidence. 

I'm *REALLY* confused. I

I'm *REALLY* confused. I thought teachers were happy with testing!! Didn't they sign on, knowing that the tests were everything? And that being so, wouldn't it make SENSE that that would be a major factor in whether a given teacher is seen as being "effective?"

And further still, given that public money is being used and the public thinks the tests are important, and "numbers" are floating around for the public to look at, wouldn't it make sense that someone somewhere would rig up some sort of article like this eventually? That test results, being as important as God Himself, are now applied to the teachers as well as the children?

Ordinarily one takes a test for oneself, for a grade or to demonstrate mastery. But under NCLB entire DISTRICTS are penalized for students' poor performance on a test... but not individual teachers? The rationale being...?

I mean... I agree this destroys reputations. Standardized testing has already destroyed the reputations of entire school districts. It has destroyed the self-esteem of I don't know how many children who have done their best work and still received poor scores. How could teachers possibly escape the same pain these tests inflict?

But do I see teachers refusing to administer said tests? Um... no.

I'm really, really, really confused, Claus. Because on a personal level, I think the tests should be pitched into a bin and all schools should figure out what they want to teach locally, and NEVERMIND what they are doing in the next town or even the next classroom over. Give the teacher power. But if teachers know they're entering into the testing factory when they sign up, it seems odd to complain that someone gets hold of the numbers.

I GET that real people and their "reputations" are hurt by this. I submit to you that it is only because they have bought into the lie that the test truly, truly means anything. And I can feel sad for them that thye are undergoing such public scrutiny, but did they not sign up for this "testing?"

Obviously the unions are not fighting for local administrative control and the obliteration of the standardized test. I'm not seeing teachers fighting it, either.

I'd be more than happy to see OTHER information about schools, teachers and student portfolios. In fact, most parents would be very happy to share their child's schoolwork in an evaluation process or even a newspaper account in exchange for a bit of privacy.

I guess I'm flabbergasted. I could have told you a million times over how evil these tests were. How they should never rank students by race or income level (how demeaning!).

But apply it to an individual teacher, and only THEN it's wrong?

I know I don't get a vote in any of these processes (call me disenfranchized), but it seems a rather inconsistent viewpoint. Maybe mine is too in that I disagree with the testing process, but understand that since EVERYONE ELSE seems to like it or at least tolerate it (as in, not FIGHT it, not FIGHT any and all standardized tests in public schools), that it ought be perceived as a fair evaluation.

I myself took no standardized tests except those crazy "gifted" tests and the SAT during my public school education. And I am not that old.

Can we go back to those days yet? Has anyone else had enough?

So how is it that someone

So how is it that someone that was on a Fullbright Fellowship the last year and wasn't even in the country gets rated by this system? I suppose "there were mistakes made."

Teachers DO refuse to administer tests from time to time. Ad ex: In the UK this summer, head teachers (aka principals) of elementary schools.

Perhaps the most problematic attitude I can see evident in your post is what I think of as a traditional administrative attitude toward the sacrifice of "troops" where they "sign on" a "mission" to do something and the administrator sends them out under ruinous conditions.

Yes Mrs. C, there is a clear and evident parallel between school district leadership and Stanley Kubrick's movie "Paths of Glory".

The movie puts the culture of leadership in strong contrast to the reality of war and the needs of its country's citizens. I urge you to watch the movie to appreciate the utter cruelty of a soul-crushing process that takes advantage of people that thought they were doing something noble but instead are called upon to throw themselves onto the enemy so that their leader can get a desk job where he doesn't have to listen to the screams.

When I watch it with my kids, I am reminded of another movie Kirk Douglas was in with Peter Lorie where Lorie looks at Douglas and says, "But Ned, I thought you were my friend." Clearly it is not surprising that someone rigged up a system made of common sense, sticks, and nails. However as citizens we generally don't like it when our leaders prove to be inhuman bastards.

I have a difficult time

I have a difficult time believing that what the Times is doing is even legal. My guess is that the court will issue an injunction forbidding the paper from publishing the teachers' names on the basis of possible test invalidity. Do those reporters even know that those tests are lying around the school for days before they are administered by the classroom teacher? It's conceivable that the "best" teachers are the ones giving the kids the answers. We really don't know.

Also, there are the issues of privacy and libel. What if the paper wanted to list all their journalists from the best to the worst, could they do that? In addition to everything I've said, it's just plain mean.

One thing is for certain: A country that treats its teachers this way can forget about having an outstanding educational system.

Mrs.C, if I understand

Mrs.C, if I understand correctly, are you insinuating that teachers (as a body) support this testing system, and if they didn't, the reasonable thing to do would be to refuse to give them, right?

You don't see teachers refusing to administer said tests because they would be fired (or fined) if they did. I really don't see how that would be a reasonable thing to expect.

Um, I'm opposed to selling

Um, I'm opposed to selling pornography. You will NEVER find me taking any job in which I am expected to sell pornographic materials. It won't happen. I'm not saying that standardized tests are equally repugnant, but I AM saying that if teachers were TRULY unhappy with the tests and the educational system itself, they wouldn't take the job. It is a reasonable expectation.

I don't see zillions of news stories about teachers themselves putting the pressure on the unions, their administrations, and their representatives on this. Teachers have gone on strike en masse over benefits and wages before... but not over administering standardized tests to my knowledge. I'll happily take my word back if you show me where I'm wrong. Show me the zillions of news stories. Show me the teachers walking out, the letters, the protests.

I see a couple grumbly blog posts here and there, but no one STANDING UP.

I guarantee you that if our state government tried to impose mandatory standardized tests on us homeschoolers, there would be OUTCRY. There would be rallies. There would be political action. HSLDA would be way richer by the end of the month.

Tell you what, we wouldn't sit there and wait for our names to be in the paper on down the road. We wouldn't. The stopping point is a back a bit further for most of us. And have you seen the homeschoolers fleeing Germany because they feel THAT STRONGLY about educational freedom? They lost everything. It's that important.

Grant you, people like us are a small minority and we can be trampled on at any time. Whip up the voters on a "let's ban homeschooling" frenzy after some nutball keeps her kids home from school and kills 'em, and we're toast. (It happened in DC.)

Teachers and their unions have MUCH more political influence and power than we do. But they're not using it.

I'm not trying to be snide, or mean, or condescending. I'm trying to be rational here. I don't see an outcry... so... logically, it's either ok with most teachers or falls into the category of, "things I don't feel the need to fight about."

I would like you to show me concrete evidence to the contrary. Links to MASSES (not just one!) teachers who have lost their jobs over this issue. Strikes. Letters from AFT or NEA presidents, written during the course of their duties as representatives of their organizations, speaking of all national standards, standardized tests and federal interference in any educational matter as being tyranny.

Ok. I'm ready. Shock me. :)

"While I'm pleased that the

"While I'm pleased that the Times has considered the need to help struggling teachers, I'm sorry to see that thought get swept away so quickly by stronger, darker currents."

These "stronger, darker currents" would never have arisen but for the unbelievable negligence and malfeasance in the unions preventing anybody from looking at or using this data before now. They've tried for so long to protect teachers' jobs at all costs, including the cost of miseducating children, that now it's like a dam bursting. It's unfortunate that some people get swept away when a dam bursts, but the real problem is the people who tried to dam up a river that should never have been dammed.

John Doe, I challenge you to

John Doe,

I challenge you to grasp this truth: many teachers are dutifully implementing bad curricula and bad methods because they're told to by their education professors and principals. There are a lot of dumb-but-fashionable ideas about education out there that the "experts" embrace. Who should be held accountable then --the good soldiers who implement the strategy, or the generals who devised it and gave the orders to use it? My principal is a "constructivist". He opposes my system of firm discipline, quiet classroom, lots of whole class instruction, minimal differentiation, embrace of memorization --in short, traditional methods. For what it's worth, STAR history test scores have gone up significantly year after year for my students. I know I would be much less effective if I were more obedient and followed his suggestions (e.g. more think-pair-share, or more faithful use of the Prentice Hall textbook). But I don't think many teachers are as obstinate as I am. They have (misplaced but understandable) faith in their leaders ideas, and so they end up teaching badly.

Teachers should be held

Teachers should be held accountable as in any other profession. I agree with that, but to publicly humiliate on the basis of a "test" that may not even be valid is ridiculous. I believe that teacher evaluations need to have at least three "prongs" - student/parent evaluation of the teacher, leadership/peer evaluation of instruction and management and finally test scores. There are too many things that go into being a good teacher to say one measure can tell us everything. We must look at the whole child and teach beyond the test and when we evaluate a teacher we must look at the whole teacher, not just scores on standardized tests.