By Tim Brown
I am a teacher, and as you might imagine, a number of my friends, family and colleagues have asked me for my reaction to the LA Times “value added” statistical analysis of math and English scores to estimate teaching effectiveness.
I have also been asked whether I think it is appropriate to publish the information. I see these as two completely different issues, so I will first offer my opinion on assessing teaching effectiveness.
Teachers do not assemble products that have common characteristics. They cultivate the minds of human beings, which are extremely diverse. Objective measures (almost any statistical analysis) used in isolation can reasonably compare two or more things that are more alike than different. However, when you are talking about children whose intelligence, academic preparedness, cultural values, socioeconomic status, and health make it almost impossible to determine what is typical, any measure used by itself to estimate performance will produce, at the very least, an inconclusive result and at worst misleading information.
For example, it is common to find students with varying reading ability within a single school and possibly within a single classroom. A student in fifth grade who reads at the sixth grade level will not advance as far in one year as a student who may be in the same school or classroom but who starts at the second grade level.
This phenomenon distorts the difference between the projected performance and the actual performance crucial to calculating the “value” when comparing results.
Also, standardized tests of any kind are only one measure of student learning. For instance, many students experience test anxiety that is only amplified with the inflexible administration of a standardized test. Tension will inhibit performance on these. In addition, there are many physical and environmental factors that dramatically affect student learning that are completely out of the teacher’s control, such as disability, nutrition, or abuse to name just a few.
To the second issue – whether parents should be made aware of the results of a reliable assessment of teacher performance – I believe they should be. We are able to gather performance information on other professionals, such as doctors, lawyers, and accountants – who, by the way, are not paid with public dollars.
In my view, there is no single responsibility an adult assumes that is more important than raising a child. Education is compulsory in our society and parents should be able to make informed choices about who will guide the learning of their children. Other than a child’s parents, few people have the ability to influence the future of a child more than a teacher.
So how did we get to the point where journalists take it upon themselves to conduct an analysis of data collected by a school district and publish the results? Teachers unions have been able to create a system that effectively shields a teacher from facing the consequences of poor performance. The unions, despite pressure from legislators, accrediting agencies, and even the federal government, have refused to address the problem of school districts being forced to continue to employ teachers who cannot or will not improve their instructional techniques. When you simply refuse to take the necessary steps to address a problem that everyone admits exists, someone else will take those steps for you and that is what I believe has happened here.
So, on a recent Sunday morning, there was a wake-up call to teachers unions across the state to work with their local school boards and administrators to craft a reliable and comprehensive performance evaluation that uses multiple measures to assess student learning, effective teaching, provides for ample support for teachers to improve performance where improvement is needed, and if performance does not improve, provide districts with a fair and impartial process for termination.
There are too many good teachers not to do this.
Brown is a former chair of the city’s Parks, Beaches and Recreation Commission, an associate professor at Riverside Community College, and principal of Tim Brown and Associates, Educational Consultants.