Teachers, by the numbers

The Los Angeles Unified School District has done an admirable job of collecting useful data about its teachers — which ones have the classroom magic that makes students learn and which ones annually let their students down. Yet it has never used that valuable information to analyze what successful teachers have in common, so that others can learn from them, or to let less effective teachers know how they’re doing.

For the record: This editorial says the federal Race to the Top grant program pushed states to make students’ test scores count for half or more of a teacher’s performance evaluation. Although the program has encouraged this by awarding its first grants to states that promised to do so, it has not formally required it.

If it weren’t for the work of a team of Times reporters, this information might have remained uselessly locked away. Now that the paper is reporting on the wide disparities among teachers, the public is getting its first glimpse of some surprising findings.

For example, despite the outcry from such reformers as the Obama administration and the Education Trust, it does not appear that low-income and minority students are stuck with teachers who let achievement slump. It’s also time to drop the myth that better teaching necessarily goes with more years of experience or extra education. Highly effective teachers, the ones who consistently and dramatically raise their students’ scores, are fairly evenly distributed among schools and across different levels of experience and education.

The data also undermine the insistence of United Teachers Los Angeles leaders that test scores cannot be used as a valid measure in teachers’ performance evaluations. When one teacher’s students improve dramatically while those of another teacher down the hallway fall back, and those results are consistent over years, schools are irresponsibly failing their students by placing them with ineffective teachers, and continuing to pay those teachers as though they contributed equally.

Standardized test scores don’t tell us everything about learning, and we have never supported the push of President Obama’s Race to the Top grant program to make them count for half or more of a teacher’s evaluation. But they can provide valuable insights. Students cannot attain high scores without knowing the material; conversely, students with dismal scores clearly haven’t learned the basics. Not only that, the reporters found that high-achieving teachers had certain things in common: They maintained high standards and classroom discipline; they commanded their students’ attention.


Union leaders would rather ignore those realities and call for a boycott of The Times for its ongoing examination of teachers who get the job done right and those who don’t. UTLA’s position is understandable; it exists to protect teachers, including the bad ones. Fortunately for parents and the public, a newspaper exists to give them information that would otherwise be withheld.