The LA Times Goes Astray
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.
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