A lunchtime observation: Grading the Teachers

Over the weekend, the LA Times published an article where they analyzed and graded teachers in LAUSD. The goal was to measure teacher effectiveness, asking the question: why do some classrooms do better on standardized tests than others. The LA Times conclusion was that it was the teachers, and they decided to use this measurement to judge the teachers. Specifically, they used a statistical approach known as value-added analysis, which rates teachers based on their students’ progress on standardized tests from year to year. Each student’s performance is compared with his or her own in past years, which (the Times claims) largely controls for outside influences often blamed for academic failure: poverty, prior learning and other factors. They then plan to publish the data in a database, accessable to all, rating specific teacher performance.

Can you guess the reaction of the teacher’s union? I thought that you could.

The Union has called for teachers to boycott the LA Times. Specifically, the President of the union said, “You’re leading people in a dangerous direction, making it seem like you can judge the quality of a teacher by … a test.”

Read that statement again: “You’re leading people in a dangerous direction, making it seem like you can judge the quality of a teacher by … a test.”

Independent of the testing method, it seems a bit hypocritical to this parent that you judge our students with tests, but that the same approach—testing—isn’t acceptable for teachers.

Now, as I see it, there are some flaws in the LA Times approach. I don’t think it adjusts for the innate characteristics of the students—some learn better than others independent of the teacher; and the nature of the class (honors, AP) just isn’t captured and reflected. It doesn’t reflect other individualized teacher characteristics, such as motivational skills. But it is certainly better than the sole method used now: a short in-class observation.

In reality, the best method to judge teacher quality is a hybrid method. There needs to be quantitative aspects such as those used by the Times, with appropriate adjustments to focus the results specifically on the contribution of the teacher and remove the bias due to characteristics of the student. There needs to be qualitative aspect measuring more subjective items such as delivery, motivational skills, resource utilization, enthusiasm, discipline, etc.—this should be a combination of supervisor evaluation, peer evaluation, and student evaluation (as appropriate to the age level). There should also be some improvement aspects: the setting of individual goals by each teacher for the school year, and measuring the progress against those goals.

However, it is disingenous of the union to protest this move towards assessing teachers. It makes them look obstructionist, and as if they are protecting the bad teachers. The union should instead say: “What you did is a step in the right direction, but is flawed. We’ll have some of our AP Statistics teachers work with you to improve the numbers you are calculating to better reflect true teaching ability, and we encourage you to emphasize that numbers are just one aspect in judging overall teacher effectiveness, just as standardized tests are just one factor in judging student performance.” As a parent, I would be heartened if the Union led the charge to ensure that the LAUSD employs effective teachers, for I am sure that parents would support appropriate wages and benefits for a demonstrably high quality and effective teaching staff.