Why not a Sunshine Portal for teachers?
Usually this time of year in Southern California it’s the Santa Ana winds that fan regional fires along the dry inland coastal areas, causing emergency-response havoc.
This year, it is the recent release of a series of articles by the Los Angeles Times examining the use of student test scores to estimate the effectiveness of district teachers that has set off a controversial conflagration between parents, teachers, teacher unions and reform advocates.
Why do some students in the same school, studying the same lessons, sitting in the same classroom size, outperform students just down the hall?
Seeking to shed light on the problem, the Los Angeles Times obtained seven years of math and English test scores from the Los Angeles Unified School District and used the information to estimate the effectiveness of L.A. teachers – something the district could do but has not.
Six thousand elementary school teachers in Los Angeles have found themselves under scrutiny this summer after the Times published a series of articles about their performance, including a public-access searchable database on its website that rates them from least effective to most effective.
Working with an education economist from the Rand Corporation, the Times used a statistical approach known as “value-added analysis.” Proponents of the value-added approach say it identifies and can predict the effectiveness of a teacher by looking at the test scores of the teacher’s students over time. Each student’s past test performance is used to project his performance in the future. The difference between the child’s actual and projected results is the estimated “value” that the teacher added or subtracted during the year.
In statistics, it’s called “predictive modeling.” For example, if a third-grade student ranked in the 60th percentile among all district third-graders, he would be expected to rank similarly in the fourth grade. If he fell to the 40th percentile, it would suggest that his fourth grade teacher had not been very effective, at least for him. This would mean the fourth grade teacher “subtracted value” from the student’s level.
Conversely, if the student rose to the 80th percentile in the fourth grade this would mean the teacher “added value” to the student’s level.
The Times examined the performance of more than six thousand third- through fifth-grade teachers for whom reliable data were available. Among the findings:
- Highly effective teachers routinely propel students from below grade level to advanced in a single year.
- Contrary to popular belief, the best teachers were not concentrated in the most affluent neighborhoods, nor were the weakest instructors bunched in poor areas.
- Although many parents fixate on picking the right school for their child, it matters far more which teacher the child gets.
The Los Angeles teachers union president is less than sanguine about the Times doing the report and posting a database of its findings. In fact, he is downright livid. He is currently organizing a “massive subscription boycott” of the Times.
“You’re leading people in a dangerous direction, making it seem like you can judge the quality of a teacher by a test,” said A.J. Duffy, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, which has more than 40,000 members.
Duffy said he would urge other labor groups to ask their members to cancel their subscriptions as well.
Not ready for prime time
Ellen Bernstein, president of the Albuquerque Teachers Federation, was sharply critical of the Times project also, and said that the value-added approach to measuring teacher effectiveness is premature and “not ready for prime time yet.”
Nevertheless, the use of value-added modeling is exploding nationwide. Hundreds of school systems, including those in Chicago, New York and Washington, are already using it to measure the performance of schools or teachers. Many more are expected to join them, partly because the Obama administration has prodded states and districts to develop more effective teacher-evaluation systems.
Albuquerque Public Schools has the same type of information the Los Angeles Times used to calculate teacher effectiveness, but not for as long a period of time. And the APS’s information is kept in different databases.
Since New Mexico adopted the newest Standards-Based Assessment in 2007, the district has logged student scores on the test. It also has records of each of the student’s teachers, but in a different database.
One way to think about the Los Angeles Times project is as an understandable overreaction to an unacceptable status quo. For years, school administrators and union leaders have defeated almost any attempt at teacher measurement, partly by pointing to the limitations. Lately, though, the politics of education have changed. Parents know how much teachers matter and know that, just as with musicians or athletes or carpenters or money managers, some teachers are a lot better than others.
In recent years, there has been a big push for transparency in government throughout New Mexico. The Rio Grande Foundation and the Foundation for Open Government, along with a large and bi-partisan group of legislators, have generated some major successes.
This initiative has been driven in part by new technologies that make information more accessible to the average citizen such as the upcoming Sunshine Portal. It has gathered particular support in New Mexico because of rampant corruption and the realization that “sunshine is the best disinfectant.”
Why not a Sunshine Portal for teachers in New Mexico such as the L.A. Times project?
After all, just one of four state schools in New Mexico this year met Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) as set out in the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act. New Mexico fourth-graders ranked 49th among the states in the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading test.
We can all agree we want the very best, the very most effective teachers in the classroom teaching our children.
I think a teacher Sunshine Portal to track student performance over time is just one idea among many needed reforms that could become a ray of sunshine and help create a brighter future for our children’s education.
Molitor is an adjunct scholar at the Rio Grande Foundation and a regular columnist for this site. You can reach Molitor at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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