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Publishing Teacher Value Added Rankings: Shame on Whom?

The release of teachers’ VA rankings should not be viewed as an attack on teachers, but as a wake-up call for the rest of us.

The recent release of teachers’ value added (VA) rankings by the New York Times reignited a controversy which began when the Los Angeles Times did the same thing in 2010. The value added technique of rating teachers is “based on their students’ progress on standardized tests year after year. The difference between a student’s expected growth and actual performance is the ‘value’ a teacher adds or subtracts during the year.”

The imbroglio has two facets – the first being whether or not teachers can be accurately evaluated by how well their students do on a standardized test. As I wrote in January,

In perhaps the most in-depth study on the subject to date, three Ivy League economists studied how much the quality of individual teachers matters to their students over the long term. The paper, by Raj Chetty and John N. Friedman of Harvard and Jonah E. Rockoff of Columbia, tracked 2.5 million students over 20 years, and using a value added approach, found that teachers who help students raise their standardized test scores have a lasting positive effect on those students’ lives beyond academics, including lower teenage-pregnancy rates, greater college matriculation and higher adult earnings. (The authors of the study define “value added” as the average test-score gain for a teacher’s students “…adjusted for differences across classrooms in student characteristics such as prior scores.”)

The second and more contentious element of VA concerns itself with who should get to see the teacher’s ranking. Some think it should be just the principal who can use the data to help low performing teachers. Others think that parents should also be allowed to learn about the effectiveness of their child’s teacher. And finally there are those who demand that all people — especially taxpayers — should have access to them. The reasoning, of course, is that since taxpayers are shelling out for the teachers’ salaries, they have a right to know what they are getting for their money.

Unsurprisingly, the anti-VA charge has been led by the teachers unions which constantly demonize the whole process as unreliable and unfair. But that is just a front; their “philosophy” is that there is no such thing as a bad teacher, just one that needs more training to become a good one. The reality is that unions despise it when any teacher – good or incompetent – loses a job, because it means one less dues payer. In California, for example, one less teacher means $647 fewer dollars for the California Teachers Association. And the national and local union affiliates also lose money. So keeping every body in the classroom is imperative for them.

Even concerned reformers like Bill Gates and Teach For America’s Wendy Kopp are antipathetic toward the release of test scores to the public, using phrases like “a capricious exercise in public shaming.”

My take is that, while not a perfect measure, VA still should be used and made public. But at the same time, it should be stressed that other factors need to be taken into consideration when measuring a teacher’s effectiveness. Both the NY and LA Times, to their credit, acknowledged this and also allowed teachers to post comments with their scores.

However, there is a part of this story which has not been examined. Publishing a teachers VA rank is no more “public shaming” than publishing a baseball player’s batting average in the daily newspaper. It is what it is. But as any knowledgeable 5th grader knows, there is more to a baseball player than his batting average. Is the player a good base stealer? Can he field? Does he draw a lot of walks? Is he a team leader? Anyone who is interested in baseball knows this. The take-away then is not to hide test scores from the public, but for parents and taxpayers to become as interested and knowledgeable about education as they are about baseball and demand more from the educational establishment.

So if there is any shame to be identified, it is that, as a country, we are more informed about the intricacies of baseball than about how best to assess the people who are educating the next generation of Americans.

If nothing else, the posting of teachers’ VA scores has opened a Pandora’s Box which the American public must deal with sooner rather than later.

About the author: Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.

Fake Teacher Evaluation Racket is Busted in Los Angeles

Parents sue the LA school board and teachers union, forcing them to obey a law that they have ignored for 40 years.

There is nothing new about unions bullying weak-kneed school districts, but this may be the mother of all abuses– for forty years, school districts and unions have collaborated to break the law in California. According to the Stull Act (Section 44660 of the state’s education code), part of a teacher’s evaluation is required to include a student achievement component, but this has not happened anywhere in the state. Last week, after consulting with EdVoice, a reform advocacy group in Sacramento, parents of some students in Los Angeles Unified School District sued the school district and teachers union for what amounts to a dereliction of duty. While the lawsuit is aimed at LA, it will have state-wide ramifications.

Originally enacted in 1971, the Stull Act, named after State Senator John Stull, was amended in 1999 to include,

“The governing board of each school district shall evaluate and assess certificated employee performance as it reasonably relates to:

The progress of pupils toward the standards established pursuant to subdivision (a) and, if applicable, the state adopted academic content standards as measured by state adopted criterion referenced assessments….”

In other words, a part of a teacher’s evaluation is supposed to be contingent on how well his students do on state mandated tests. This is hardly a radical notion, as half the states in the rest of the country now evaluate teachers in part by student performance on these tests.

But in California, what are laughingly referred to as “teacher evaluations” are anything but. A “Stull” is typically a very rare and brief visit from a principal who helps plan the lesson they will observe and lets the teacher know exactly when the observation will be. And all the while, the teacher is prepping his kids to be at their absolute best when the principal steps into the classroom for the evaluation. Invariably everything goes swimmingly. So consistently good are the results of these Potemkin Village-style “evaluations” that over 99 percent of teachers get a satisfactory rating.

Teachers unions think that linking student performance to a teacher’s evaluation is a grave injustice and have always fiercely opposed it. (In reality, holding a teacher accountable for student learning is about as unjust as holding a chef responsible for the food he cooks.) This may be an understandable position for teachers unions which have never demonstrated any real concern for students, but what about the folks who sit at the other end of the bargaining table? What is the excuse for the school boards? Are they all that easily cowed by union bullies? Or are they part of a club that has forgotten their mission? Are they corrupt? Can they be ignorant of the law? Some or all of the above?

In any event, with judicial lights shining brightly, the jig is up…sort of. What the education code does not stipulate is how much weight to give the student performance component. Therein lies the rub. Without doubt, the teachers unions will negotiate to minimize it to near zero, with little or no consequence for the bottom performing teachers. (To the unions, there is no such thing as a bad teacher, and they’ve rigged the system so that getting rid of a stinker is about as prevalent as the occurrence of Halley’s Comet.)

If the intent of this lawsuit is seriously embraced, it could have a major impact in California, where a third of all students drop out before completing high school and a great majority of those who do graduate and go on to college need remediation. Will school boards finally man up and take action to reverse a forty year shame? Or will they cower and cave, yet again, to union demands and turn their backs on the children of California.

About the author: Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.