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Newton: Teacher ratings and the public's right to know

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There's a shocking disconnect at work these days in the relationship between the public and government workers: The public is demanding greater accountability, and public employees — social workers, police, teachers, even state legislators — are finding ways to avoid it.

Legislators contend that they should be allowed to conduct budget deliberations in private. Police unions are fighting forcefully to protect the names of officers involved in shootings or other uses of force. Social workers are fighting to keep dependency court hearings private. And the Los Angeles Unified School District, in the sway of its unions, has said it won't release the so-called value-added evaluations of teachers it has prepared as part of an attempt to analyze which teachers are most effective.

There are differences of opinion about whether value-added analysis is an accurate measurement of a teacher's performance and about how much weight to give such scores. But L.A. Unified clearly puts some stock in them; in fact, the district argues that the scores illustrate how teacher performance, as its own lawyers put it, "impact the academic growth of students."

It's hard to imagine a measure of more compelling interest to parents than scores that might predict the ability of teachers to help students grow academically, but the district has refused to turn over the names of teachers connected with the scores. Such disclosure, it argues, could be "embarrassing and painful." As district lawyers argued in a truly breathtaking letter explaining their refusal to disclose this information, "Imagine how the teacher would feel coming to school knowing that not only do their peers know how LAUSD rates their performance as a teacher, but their students and parents also are aware of their ratings."

Rarely have I seen a sentence that better captures the perfectly enclosed logic of bureaucracy. Insight might embarrass employees, but the answer is not to help those employees improve or show them the door. Rather, it's to cut off insight.

Imagine the parent whose child missed a chance to learn to read because the school district saddled her with a bored or incompetent teacher. Isn't that parent's right to advocate for his or her child more important than the potential for embarrassment of the teacher?

These same arguments run through the responses of police and social workers — and their unions: Imagine the danger to a police officer if members of the public knew that she had shot and killed a suspect. Imagine how devastating it would be for a foster-care employee to have it known that he left a child to be brutalized by his parents or foster parents. Imagine if the public really knew how the Legislature deliberated over the state budget. The bureaucracy's answer: Cut off the information.

But you have to wonder about any solution that requires deception or secrecy. I have been writing about police for almost 20 years; the vast majority of officers I've met are noble, brave men and women. They would thrive under close scrutiny. But police, like social workers and teachers, work for the public and must answer to it.

Yes, it can be embarrassing to have one's peers know about a bad test score; surely teachers understand that. But there is such a thing as a social compact. Students are required to attend school, and teachers are entrusted with their care and learning. In return, parents are entitled to know that their children are being well taken care of and are being educated by teachers who know what they're doing. The district's position basically boils down to this: It's more important to protect teachers from embarrassment than it is to inform parents about the competency of the teachers to whom they're entrusting their children.

By a margin of more than 2 to 1, Californians — whose taxes pay for public schools — disagree. A USC/Times poll last week found that 58% of Californians want the value-added scores made public; just 23% opposed the idea. That means Los Angeles' public school leadership is allied with its teachers union against the vast majority of the public it serves.

Supt. John Deasy is a major force for good in this community. He has a serious educational mission and a genuine dedication to the lives of Los Angeles students. On this issue, though, he's flat wrong. He needs to be reminded of his fundamental duty, which is not to teachers but to students and their parents. Teachers, like it or not, are accountable to the public.

jim.newton@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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