Education Experts Slam LA Times Teacher Assessments


Posted on 19 August 2010

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly versionSend by emailSend by email

By Robert Cruickshank

There's a reason why a newspaper should not be making public policy on its own: their interest is in getting eyeballs and readers, not in providing policy tools that are actually useful.

At right is a short but very effective and informative video from Daniel Willingham, an education policy expert, explaining how the method used by the LA Times to evaluate teachers - known as "value-added measures" - is deeply flawed as a basis of comparing teacher effectiveness. The LA Times acknowledged these shortcomings in their Sunday article, but blew right past those concerns and used the flawed method of analysis anyway:

No one suggests using value-added analysis as the sole measure of a teacher. Many experts recommend that it count for half or less of a teacher's overall evaluation....

Nevertheless, value-added analysis offers the closest thing available to an objective assessment of teachers. And it might help in resolving the greater mystery of what makes for effective teaching, and whether such skills can be taught.

In response to this, Willingham explained further why the LA Times was wrong to use "value-added measures" and offered his own thoughts as to why the Times did it despite the widespread concerns from education policy experts about the usefulness of such data:

I think their reasoning might be revealed in the story's subheadline: "A Times analysis, using data largely ignored by the LAUSD, looks at which educators help students learn, and which hold them back." LAUSD is the Los Angeles Unified School District.

I'm guessing that the editors at the Times are frustrated by the inaction of the LAUSD on teacher evaluation, (or on school quality in general) and they are trying to goad them into doing something.

This seems likely to me as well, though I don't think the Times was merely interested in getting UTLA and other teachers' unions to accept some sort of ranking system. They seem interested in promoting the idea of merit pay itself, as their Tuesday editorial on the issue made clear:

When one teacher's students improve dramatically while those of another teacher down the hallway fall back, and those results are consistent over years, schools are irresponsibly failing their students by placing them with ineffective teachers, and continuing to pay those teachers as though they contributed equally.[emphasis mine]

Predictably, President Obama's right-wing Education Secretary Arne Duncan praised the LA Times, and his shock doctrine-style "Race to the Top" program forces states to adopt these kind of unproven measures to be eligible to win federal education grants. Arnold Schwarzenegger's own Education Secretary added in the same article that this suited their ideological agenda of "creating a more market-driven approach to results."

Other education policy experts slammed the LA Times, including Diane Ravitch:

This has the odor about it of naming and shaming. It's going to create dissension on school staffs. It's going to have parents say, "I want my kid in the class of those who are in the top 10 percent," and I don't know how you squeeze 100 percent of the kids into the classes of 10 percent of the teachers.

Of course, that's the entire point of the whole merit pay and charter schools discussion - to introduce "market forces" that cause parents to demand exactly that - try to squeeze 100% of the kinds into the classes of 10% of the teachers. As with any "market force," you can then blame student failure on either themselves, their parents, or their teachers, for failing to win in the marketplace.

In the market, if you fail it's your own fault, and nobody should be expected to help you. When applied to public policy, this means governments can be let off the hook for needing to ensure every child gets a good education - and it also means private companies can start gaming the "education market" to make money off of those students and teachers who succeed, while ignoring the growing numbers of those who don't.

Which is exactly how the LA Times report is being used. Just look at this post on NBC's Prop Zero blog from Joseph Perkins:

What is needed by the parents of underachieving students mired in failing public is a financial assist from their state government in the form of a school voucher that can be used for tuition at non-public schools.

It is the best way to the level the educational playing field between California's haves - parents who send their kids to the state's best schools - ands have nots - those whose kids are least proficient on the state's standardized tests.

So it's back to vouchers again. And merit pay. And other right-wing policies designed not to help all children learn, but to destroy the public school system in order to impose their right-wing ideological agenda on California's children. It suggests this McSweeney's satire of parents demanding other kids follow Ayn Rand's sociopathic philosophy isn't far from the mark.

Willingham agrees that these policies are flawed. But he also believes that the teachers' unions cannot simply resist this, and should instead get out in front by offering their own solutions:

I have said before that if teachers didn't take on the job of evaluating teachers themselves, someone else would do the job for them. The fact that the method is they are using is inadequate is important, and should be pointed out, but it's not enough.

No one knows better than teachers how to evaluate teachers. This is the time to do more than cry foul. This is the time for the teacher's unions to make teacher evaluation their top priority. If they don't, others will.

He's probably right about the politics here. Still, I think teachers are better off making a stronger attack against the right-wing policy outcomes that these metrics are designed to produce. If they can turn the public against test-based pay, against vouchers, and against privatization, then they'll have a better chance of producing some sort of teacher evaluation process that is more holistic, less focused on the short-term, and less damaging to the quality of education in this state.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Robert Cruickshank is the Public Policy Director at the Courage Campaign. He is also a contributing editor at Calitics.com.