The Los Angeles Times has just entered the national education reform debate in a big way. Later this month the newspaper will publish the names of 6,000 third, fourth and fifth-grade Los Angeles public school teachers next to scores that measure their success in the classroom. The rankings will be based on students’ test scores from the past seven years.
On Sunday the paper announced the kickoff of a series it commissioned to evaluate and publicize the effectiveness of thousands of Los Angeles Unified School District educators. The LA Times says that they crunched data that the district keeps, but doesn’t evaluate.
Money for the project came from a $15,000 grant from the Hechinger Project, a non-profit education news organization at Columbia University, and the paper commissioned Richard Buddin of the Rand Corp. to run the tests. Buddin evaluated the scores of more than 600,000 students taught by 18,000 teachers in 520 LAUSD schools between the 2002-2003 and 2008-2009 school years. Reporters Jason Felch, Jason Song and Doug Smith write: "In Los Angeles and across the country, education officials have long known of the often huge disparities among teachers…But rather than analyze and address these disparities, they have opted mostly to ignore them." Later, Felch, Song and Smith write that the paper will publish the scores because parents often have "no access to objective information" about individual teachers, and little say in who teaches their children.
By engaging in this project the paper is not just jumping into the national conversation, it’s also tacitly endorsing the Obama administration’s education reform model that calls for similar test score-based evaluations of teacher effectiveness. Much of states’ ability to win Race to the Top federal grants hinges on their adoption of so-called "teacher accountability" mechanisms that tie a teacher’s job evaluations to their students’ test scores. Already, many states have overhauled their education laws and now allow teachers to be fired within two years if their students’ test scores are unsatisfactory. Unsurprisingly, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan loves what the LA Times is doing.
LAUSD chief Ramon Cortines issued a statement yesterday defending his teachers. "We reject the implication that test scores alone form the basis for designating a teacher as ineffective," Cortines said. "Would a person be diagnosed with diabetes solely on the basis of a high blood pressure reading? No. Multiple tests or measures are necessary to determine the health of an individual or in our case, the effectiveness of a teacher or teacher leader."
It’s a bold move bound to win the LA Times more readers, but imagine a newspaper trying to pull shenanigans like this with members of another profession. Cops, for instance, are also on the public payroll and work in a system where the racial disparities in day-to-day patrols, arrests, convictions and sentencing are well-documented. Why not look up the shooting incident reports of every police officer in Los Angeles–the LAPD does use data-tracking systems–and publicize those in the paper? Would that help us achieve more accountability for those in law enforcement? It very well might. Or it might achieve nothing of the sort, and just piss off cops across the board. The bigger question is, would police stand for departmental reforms via this kind of public shaming?
Teacher unions, meanwhile, are predictably livid. They’ve threatened a boycott of the already struggling paper. United Teachers Los Angeles president A.J. Duffy spoke to the LA Times:
Duffy attacked the reliability of standardized tests in general, but then defended the performance of his members in part by pointing to the rising graduation rates and Academic Performance Index scores at many campuses. The API is a separate statistical measure for schools which, at the elementary and middle school level, is entirely based on standardized tests.
And there’s the catch. Because of the unavoidable primacy of test scores in education, few alternatives exist to objectively evaluate teacher effectiveness. (Certainly none that lend themselves so easily to such rituals of public crucifixion.) But regardless of the paper’s position in the education debate, both the LA Times and the federal government ought to know that education reform depends on much more than just vilifying the teaching professionals who need to implement those reforms. Meanwhile, the search for answers to the thornier questions of what makes for a good teacher, and how we go about quantifying, evaluating and encouraging those qualities continues.
LAUSD third, fourth and fifth grade teachers who’ve taught more than 60 students between 2002 and 2008 have until noon on Thursday, August 19, to preview and comment on their scores before they’re published at the end of the month.