Critics Cite Flaws in Los Angeles Times Teacher Ranking

A child is more than a test score, but according to one metro newspaper, his teacher isn’t.

The Los Angeles Times this week touched off a firestorm with a piece announcing it would publicize a searchable database of all L.A. Unified School District teachers, ranking them by name on the basis of a researcher’s methodology known as “value-added estimates.”

So-called “value-added” analysis judges a teacher based on how much or how little a student advanced from a previous year’s test results. It’s a trendy concept in education reform that critics say (and even some proponents acknowledge) unfairly throws out everything else that goes in the classrooms of good teachers — creativity, passion, engagement with students, and learning that may not be quantified on any one test.

Almost immediately after the Times piece, “Grading the Teacher: Who’s Teaching LA’s Kids?“, hit newsstands and the web, education experts from across the ideological spectrum began questioning the paper’s logic and motives.

The president and CEO of the Center for Teaching Quality called the paper’s decision “god-awful” in an interview with the Christian Science Monitor. On his own website, Barnett Berry said the Los Angeles Times plan was “rife with huge problems — most notably the fact that value-added data on teacher effectiveness is far too unstable to use a sole arbiter of who is an effective teacher and who is not.”

And on washingtonpost.com today, University of Virginia researcher Daniel Willingham said the Times writers were “either uninformed or disingenuous” about the current views on “value-added” analysis held by the research community. “When it comes to value-added measures, teachers and unions are right. The models aren’t reliable enough to evaluate individual teachers. But right now that doesn’t matter much.”

Even Rick Hess of the conservative American Enterprise Institute called the Los Angeles Times guilty of poor judgment. In his blog post on Education Week, Hess said he was “increasingly nervous at how casually reading and math value-added calculations are being treated as de facto determinants of ‘good’ teaching.” And Hess pointed to the unfair and mean-spirited gotcha game being played by the paper publishing the names of teachers and calling them mediocre or worse based on one data set:

“…there’s a profound failure to recognize the difference between responsible management and public transparency. Transparency for public agencies entails knowing how their money is spent, how they’re faring, and expecting organizational leaders to report on organizational performance. It typically doesn’t entail reporting on how many traffic citations individual LAPD officers issued or what kind of performance review a National Guardsman was given by his commanding officer. Why? Because we recognize that these data are inevitably imperfect, limited measures and that using them sensibly requires judgment. Sensible judgment becomes much more difficult when decisions are made in the glare of the public eye.”

David Sanchez, president of the California Teachers Association, called the Times’ actions irresponsible and disrespectful to the hard-working teachers of Los Angeles.

“This LA Times model oversimplifies what defines an effective teacher and is based solely on one set of student test scores — tests, I might add, that were never designed to measure teacher effectiveness or even student growth,” Sanchez said. “It is impossible to fully separate out the influences of students’ other teachers as well as school conditions, classroom assignments, and student attendance. Parents know their child is more than a test score and so are teachers.”

Public school educators around the country were crestfallen by the piece, which they view as only the latest unfair attempt to blame them alone for the problems facing education. This time, that it would be because of one piece of possibly unreliably data, it was a particularly hard blow.

“Test scores are but a snapshot of a child on a given day at a given hour and hardly attest to a teacher’s effectiveness,” wrote Janet Knoeppel on the Speak Up for Education & Kids Facebook page. “Let’s judge teachers based on multiple measures, not just one that is questionable at best!