LocalTeachers Investigation

How to fix a system that one teacher calls 'a joke'

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Steve Franklin, a middle school teacher in L.A. Unified, had some issues with The Times series on teacher evaluations, so he fired off a letter to the editor. It read, in part:

"When somebody can prove that high test scores produce good citizens, critical thinkers and productive members of society, then and only then can we say the teachers who taught those kids were 'good.' "

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I thought. Test scores aren't always the best measure of students or teachers, but without them, how do we judge the performance of either?

Under Franklin's letter, he was identified as a teacher at Sun Valley Middle School and as an LAUSD and L.A. County teacher of the year in 2004-05. All right, so he must know a thing or two. I called to see if he'd like to talk about teaching, The Times series and the state of education, and he said sure.

Franklin is 37 and went to Chatsworth High, followed by Cal State Northridge. For graduate school, he went to USC and got a master's in public policy with an education focus, but he almost didn't get in.

Why not?

"I'm not a very good test taker," he said, and he'd scored low on the GRE exam, which was required for admission. But he did well enough on other parts of the application process to make the cut, and of course to go on and become a teacher of the year despite being mediocre at standardized tests.

I could understand: I was a lousy test taker myself.

Franklin said The Times series by Jason Song, Jason Felch and Doug Smith had teachers buzzing. At his school, he said, teachers didn't necessarily disagree with the thrust, but there were hard feelings about individual teachers being singled out by name as being more or less effective based on their students' test scores.

Understandable. But the series has forced a conversation about something I've written about often: We need better ways to evaluate teachers, so we can reward the best ones, help the less effective and dump a corrupting system in which job security and pay are based largely on time served.

The Times dug up data readily available to both the district and the teachers union but not fully analyzed by either. What's the point of paying the cost of standardized tests, and building curriculum around them, if the information isn't put to use in ways that help students learn and make teachers more aware of their own standing among peers?

I was mildly surprised when Franklin said he "absolutely" agreed. He stood by his claim that multiple variables determine how students and teachers perform, and said unmotivated students with disengaged parents bring huge challenges into classrooms. But he called the current system of teacher evaluation "a joke."

A principal or assistant principal will drop in on a classroom at an announced time and date, he said, spend as little as 10 minutes and give the teacher either a "satisfactory" or "unsatisfactory."

Franklin agreed that the "value added" system the Times series focused on -- judging teacher proficiency in part by whether students' test scores rise or fall -- ought to be one piece of an evaluation. I reminded him that our series had made clear that value-added analysis provided only a piece of the picture. But there is a national trend toward evaluating teachers, in part, by how their students do on standardized tests, and districts that fail to do so -- often because of pressure from teachers unions -- risk losing federal funds.

I suggested that value-added stats should account for one-third of the evaluation, with a peer-review system counting for the rest of it. Franklin wasn't comfortable choosing percentages but said he thought a peer review team ought to be made up of union reps, fellow teachers, administrators, retired college professors, parents and former students.

"We are public servants," he said, and the task is no menial one. "I think we owe it to the children to try anything that might work. Try it and if it works, implement it. Period."

Because he is a seventh-grade social studies teacher and leadership instructor for all three middle school grades, standardized tests don't apply directly to Franklin, nor do they measure the work of, say, art or P.E. teachers. But he said teachers are aware which instructors seem to have better control of their classes and good instincts for relating to their students, yet little is done by anyone to help the struggling teachers or tap the brains of more effective ones.

And what makes him teacher-of-the-year material?

Some of it is indefinable and perhaps not teachable, Franklin said. But he starts with this principle:

The students don't care how much you know until they know how much you care.

Six times he has taken his leadership students to the White House. Seven times he has taken them to Philadelphia for history lessons.

Next year, the plan is for his students to watch fireworks on the Mall in the nation's capital.

Last week, Franklin and most of his Sun Valley colleagues attended a voluntary professional development seminar studying, of all things, ways to put student evaluations to better use in the classroom.

There is great talent, he said, among L.A.'s teachers, administrators and union leaders, but they all need to do a better job of working together for the welfare of the students.

I walked away thinking I'd be honored if, one day, my daughter were in Franklin's class.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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