Managing The LA Times Teacher List Fallout

Reporters refuse to back down from publishing teachers' names with student test scores.

By Julianne Hing Aug 20, 2010

On Sunday the Los Angeles Times announced that it will publicize the ranked names of 6,000 Los Angeles public school teachers alongside their students’ test scores. According to the Times’ reporters Jason Felch and Jason Song, the project was done in the name of in the name of transparency. Felch and Song say that they evaluated data that the Los Angeles Unified School District keeps but does not use. But many disagree over the move to put these numbers in the paper.

So far as everyone can tell, the project is the first one of its kind; most districts compile, evaluate and rank data privately, even if school-wide test scores are published. And never are teachers’ names attached to those test scores. Predictably, an immediate uproar rose from every side of the education debate, and one Los Angeles teachers’ union demanded a boycott of the paper.

The database of third, fourth and fifth grade teachers’ scores hasn’t even been published yet–the LA Times says people can expect that by the end of the month–but the fallout is already here.

Nearly every aspect, from the data to the methodology and ethics, has been debated. At issue is a basic matter of privacy: does a city paper have the right to publish the names of teachers and grade their performance publicly–especially when most teachers have never been taught how to read data or evaluate their own performance with such methods? And, how reliable and sound is the number-crunching apparatus that the LA Times based its research on?

The LA Times project was done on a "value-added" analysis that tracks a student’s progress against their previous years’ test scores. The paper’s reporters say this is supposed to help control for mitigating factors like poverty, a student’s limited English ability or tumultuous home life. Research geeks have ripped into the methodology, but also said that a teacher’s performance cannot be divorced from the socioeconomic factors that influence a student’s life. On that, Felch and Song say that both stellar and disappointing teachers can be found at the poorest and the richest schools.

Southern California Public Radio reports the American Federation of Teachers’ head Randi Weingarten told a crowd in Watts this week: "Ultimately what this is, is some flawed methodology that’s not ready for prime time, which is single measure, which everybody agrees should not be the sole measure but effectively because of the way the LA Times has done it, it is indicting teachers based upon some flawed methodology." The LA Times reports that Weingarten believes the data should be made available to teachers–many who had never seen their scores before–and parents, but not to the general public.

The move from the LA Times reflects a national sentiment that it’s teachers who are the crucial linchpins, and therefore the prime culprits, in the grand scheme of the education system. Teacher evaluation has become a central part of the education reform debate: states who have won or advanced in the $4.35 billion Race to the Top federal grants program have passed laws that tie a teacher’s job security to their students’ test scores. In many states, as much as 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation can be based on how well their students perform, and a teacher can be fired with no recourse in two years if their students underperform. Washington, D.C. schools chief Michelle Rhee used this evaluation method to fire 241 teachers this summer.

Even though Felch and Song acknowledge that a teacher is much more than just their students’ test scores, they still clearly agree using the scores to measure teacher performance. When they sat down for an online chat with readers this week, Felch defended their project as one of altruism:

The question is: how do the legitimate concerns of teachers weigh against the concern of parents and children who are being assigned to ineffective teachers? And what about all of those incredible teachers who, like one we featured in the story, are eating lunch in their classrooms, unrecognized and unstudied? In the end, we came down on the side of publication.

The reporters say they have plans to also publish middle school and high school teachers’ scores in the future.