LocalTeachers Investigation

Parents have the right to know

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SACRAMENTO -- Grading teachers based on how much their students learn should be a no-brainer.

In fact, state law for more than three decades has required that pupil progress be one of the factors in evaluating teachers.

But, as it turns out, when someone actually does that -- measures teachers against their students' test scores -- it becomes highly contentious.

It's also groundbreaking and revolutionary, a potentially long leap toward substantial reforms in California education.

And it's inevitable.

We're well into the 21st century. New technological toys are invented every week. Students take year-end standardized tests designed to measure their progress. That's public information. It doesn't take a Bill Gates to match those test results with the teachers to help gauge their effectiveness.

When the Los Angeles Unified School District declined to do that, some Times reporters did, using a Rand Corp. researcher to analyze seven years of math and English scores in third through fifth grades.

The newspaper plans to publish a database with the names of more than 6,000 teachers ranked by their ability to improve the students' test scores.

And teachers' unions are incredulous.

They're still living in the old, mimeograph-machine millennium. If they didn't want something to happen then, it usually didn't. Many school boards long have been dominated by members indebted politically to the unions. The unions have resisted tying teacher evaluations to standardized test results in California, so it hasn't been done.

Using old-school labor tactics, the president of the L.A. teachers union, A.J. Duffy, has called for a "massive" product boycott of The Times. That won't help the teachers or the students.

What union leaders and school administrations should have been doing is devising some fair, practical way to evaluate teachers, at least in part on the test results. Finally Friday, there were signs they soon may be doing that in L.A.

"We have to make it work," says state Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell. "It's coming. It's real. It's here."

Publishing the teachers' names will make some of them uncomfortable. It also will make some proud. But most important, it will make the public more informed.

"I'm a believer in transparency," O'Connell says.

I called former Gov. Gray Davis, who significantly upgraded student testing to meet new California academic standards.

"I think the taxpayer is entitled to have that information," Davis said of the teachers' data. "I don't think it's the only factor by which teachers should be measured, but I think it's the most important factor.... Teachers need accountability.

"A teacher can be the most interesting, scintillating person in the world, but if that teacher's students don't demonstrate any improvement from the previous fall, what's the point?"

Bonnie Reiss, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's education advisor, says: "Maybe in the private sector there's some expectation of privacy. But if you're in the public sector and supported by taxpayers, the people have a right to know."

As a teacher "would I love it? No, but I'd think it would be fair," she adds. "When kids are put in the care of someone, there's even more reason for that person to be the subject of public scrutiny."

The most influential teachers' union lobbyist in Sacramento is Joe Nunez of the California Teachers Assn. He contends that The Times is "completely misusing the test data." The tests originally were designed merely "as a dipstick" to gauge the effectiveness of California's academic standards, he argues.

That's certainly what the unions were told and why they allowed the testing to be approved by the Legislature. But it doesn't mean the tests shouldn't also be used now to size up teachers.

Nunez agrees they could be. But he says pupil progress should be only one of several factors considered in evaluating teachers. And the data, he maintains, should remain with the principal and the teacher.

Assembly education guru Rick Simpson, a former Davis aide and CTA lobbyist, brings up a good point: The students have no motivation to score well on the state standardized tests.

"I speak to hundreds of students every year and I ask them," he says. "They don't care how well they do. It has no impact on their grades, whether they get promoted, whether they get into college. Why would the kids give a rip if it has no effect on them?"

And he asks: "Should we be using low-stake tests for students to make very high-stakes decisions on the grown-ups?"

Probably not. So make the tests high-stakes for the students too. Require them to pass the tests to be promoted.

Another problem with making the teacher ratings public: Parents will demand that their kids be taught by only the best teachers. Fine, says Sen. Bob Huff (R-Diamond Bar), vice chairman of the Senate Education Committee. "That will put pressure on schools to improve the effectiveness of their teachers."

O'Connell says, "We shouldn't be afraid of data. This shouldn't be a gotcha."

Linking test scores to teachers can help identify those who need more training, he and virtually everyone agree. Schools can learn which teaching methods work and which fail.

All true.

But the public has about exhausted its patience with all government, including the school system. It's the most expensive item for California taxpayers, with the lion's share of the cost being teachers' pay. The public doesn't want to pay for any laggards.

The parents' children are being graded. Their teachers should be too. And the parents should see all the scores.

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george.skelton@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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