Los Angeles Leads the Way on Data-Driven Reform With Teacher Scores

The city's schools are increasingly the frontline in the battle over business-style reforms for public education.

By Julianne Hing Apr 13, 2011

Move over, D.C. Watch out, Newark. Los Angeles has taken center stage in the national education reform debate. On Tuesday, the Los Angeles Unified School District released its controversial "value-added" measurements of teachers’ performance. The data was aggregated to show whole schools’ performance; individual teachers will receive their own scores confidentially next month. It’s the first step in several aggressive school reforms planned for the district, which was spurred to release the school-level data after the Los Angeles Times published the scores for 6,000 individual teachers, alongside their names, last year.

The scores are now available for math and reading in elementary and middle schools and 9th grade reading on the LAUSD website. Value-added measurements track an individual teacher’s performance over time by following individual students’ progress through the years. Using a complicated algorithm, teachers are evaluated based on students’ improvement on standardized tests. Supporters hail value-added measurements as reliable teacher evaluations because they compare students to themselves, rather than each other, and thus theoretically control for poverty, race and English proficiency, which affect kids’ standardized test scores.

School districts are increasingly considering the evaluation method.

In Los Angeles, anticipation is building around the district’s plan to confidentially inform its teachers of their own value-added scores next month. The city’s teachers union has opposed the system and the release of the data, arguing that the numbers will be used punitively instead of constructively.

These high-profile moves are part of Los Angeles’ march toward an aggressive brand of market-driven school reform that is sweeping across the country. The policies that are being adopted reflect a popular idea that individual teachers are the decisive factors in a student’s education, and therefore the prime culprits in the failing U.S. school system. What’s needed, school reformers argue, is a system that demands accountability from teachers by rewarding those who can raise student test scores and punishing and eventually firing teachers who can’t.

The Obama administration has latched onto this narrative–Education Secretary Arne Duncan backed the Los Angeles Times’ decision to publicly release the teacher data last year–and has pushed policies that tie teachers’ jobs to their students’ improving test scores. Schools that don’t improve their test scores adequately get shut down for dramatic overhaul. Charter schools are invited to take over some schools, while others get split up and, in one of the Obama administration’s more drastic overhaul options, a school’s entire faculty and staff are fired en masse, and no more than half may return.

Critics argue that the singular focus on standardized testing, and the faith in test scores as an accurate measurement of student learning and teacher performance, are distracting educators from the actual work of educating kids. They argue, too, that such reforms ignore the many other structural forces that influence a child’s educational opportunities.

Los Angeles is pushing aside those criticisms for now. Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is set to focus on education in his State of the City address today. Villaraigosa, who supports the Obama brand of school reform, has frequently criticized the city’s teachers’ union for being the "one unwavering roadblock to reform." Villaraigosa is expected to make education reform a top priority before he leaves office in 2013. With this week’s release of Los Angeles schools’ value-added scores, he just got a head start.