Defining “great” teachers

Since the publication of teacher rankings in the Los Angeles Times this past August, education stories have been a staple in the pages of the Times, Time magazine, The New York Times and other media.
LA Times Teacher Search
The Los Angeles Times opened a window of opportunity where anyone can search for a teacher and see his or her statistics, and now school and community boards are meeting, making decisions, and moving forward with urgency. The Nieman Lab viewed the publication of the teacher ratings as a moment of “great journalism,” but the effects in schools, at board meetings and on the Internet, prove that this series of articles is much more. The results are quite controversial and career-affecting, and it would be naive to dismiss the idea that the publication of the “list” is important to the Los Angeles Unified School District simply because of the attention it has brought to the education system. Have parents and teachers ever cared as much as they do now, regardless of whether they lean toward or away from the value added system?

One major cause of the divide between educators and board members is the actual process that the Los Angeles Times used to produce their results. The value added system, taking test scores from different years and evaluating a teacher based on the changes in scores, may be a bit flawed and limited in its scope, but it seems to be one of the few systems that has been put into action on such a large scale.

There are a few different arguments here. Deputy Supt. John Deasy of the Los Angeles school board introduced one perspective, claiming that the majority of the weight in a teacher evaluation should come from classroom observation. The problem that we see with this approach is this it leaves room for subjectivity to creep into the evaluation process. Yes, there are trained evaluators but is there any way to ensure that personal bias does not infect an evaluation? Deasy thought that there must be. He went as far as to say that eventually, student achievement could be completely ignored.

The California Teachers Association opposed the value-added method altogether, insisting that a teacher’s effectiveness cannot be determined by a test score. Their point is valid. However, the argument isn’t especially powerful because that isn’t exactly the way teachers are evaluated to begin with. There are more components to the score.

The benefits of the value-added analysis system, are that performance on standardized testing does not directly affect a teacher’s ranking, but rather, the changes in test scores from one year to another provide a more accurate scale of effectiveness for teachers.
Although the Times used seven years-worth of standardized scores, and even took into account whether a student was behind in a certain grade to begin with, there are more issues to acknowledge and there will always be exceptions to the rule. Circumstances will always change from one student to another and from one teacher to another.

The Rand Corp., the Santa Monica-based think tank, evaluated the leading approaches to the value added model of teacher evaluation, providing an informative, unbiased report that could be used for researchers and policy markers involved with the use of the value-added model.

Rand identified the need to take into account the the noneducational factors that may affect a child’s performance on scores, like family background. Some support the idea of teacher rankings because they may someday help us to fire some and hire more effective teachers, but a crucial step in between seeing the scores and layoffs is determining what the tangible differences are between the teachers that score well and those who don’t. If evaluators can point to specific differences and attributes in teachers that directly affect the ways that children score, then they would actually be able to make changes and begin to train teachers.
The problem with this idea, however, is that the focus is narrowed to one, very specific goal: making sure that all teachers get their students to score well. So, we must go back to the most basic question, should a high score define a great teacher?

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