On the Media: Analyzing The Times’ teachers series

The police officer disciplined on the job. The foster child killed by a caretaker. The city manager drawing a pension after a long career. And the teacher putting students through their paces.

Do we really have to see and know who these people are? Journalists would generally say yes. But in each of those cases, and many more, reporters confront an old dilemma: What’s fair when private and public interests collide?

Teacher rankings: The On the Media column in the Sept. 4 Calendar section supporting The Times’ decision to publish so-called value-added rankings of teachers said rankings derived from student test results “presumably would remain confidential, as required by state law,” if such information ever went into teachers’ personnel files. Although some teachers have made that argument, the California Supreme Court has held that not all information in a personnel file is confidential and that public information placed in a personnel file does not make it a confidential record. —

The question has become ripe again in recent weeks because of the Los Angeles Times’ decision to publish a series of stories that rank 6,000 elementary school teachers based on how much their students improved on standardized tests.

Many of the teachers and school administrators aren’t happy. They feel ambushed and unfairly exposed because the newspaper pushed on to the front page, and on to an online database, information that had been held confidentially by the school district for years.

The Times has taken a lot of heat, including a call by the Los Angeles teachers union to boycott the paper, but it’s also been praised by education reformers and parents, who say they have a right to know what impact teachers appear to be having on students.

As painful as the results might be, the paper’s stories have done their job: They have forced a discussion of teacher effectiveness and evaluation methods that many educators preferred to put off until another day.

No one should soft-sell what The Times, led by reporters Jason Song and Jason Felch, did in these stories. It embraced and adopted as its own a methodology for evaluating teachers that, while growing in popularity and accepted by much of the education establishment, still has serious detractors.

The paper hired its own expert to crunch data that followed individual students from one grade to the next, using past performance to predict the students’ future results and then comparing that prediction with actual test results. In this “value-added” system, teachers are held accountable for the gain or loss in math and English scores.

The Times then bunched 6,000 elementary school teachers into five blocs, from the 20% whose students faired the poorest on the tests to the 20% whose students made the biggest gains.

As far as anyone knows, no other paper in the country had gone to these lengths — not just releasing information, but tracking individual teachers and ranking them in comparison to their peers. Previous coverage had tended toward analysis of “value-added” systems compared to other forms of teacher evaluation.

Doubtless some of the teachers’ complaints have merit. The rankings don’t account for every statistical anomaly. As my former colleague Bill Boyarsky, one-time city editor at the paper, argues in his blog, it would be easy for readers to miss an explanatory essay by the paper that acknowledges the margin of error built into the ratings.

And what about the myriad variables in classrooms and schools? The rankings wouldn’t give special notice, for instance, to a teacher whose students made little progress in the first years but then surged to new heights in the final years of the seven-year cycle that The Times examined.

Even though The Times’ stories included caveats, it’s not hard to imagine that some parents will obsess over the teacher rankings and do exactly what the stories urged them not to do — view teachers based on the rankings alone.

Although I wasn’t involved in the production of the series, I’m told that supervisors all the way up to Editor Russ Stanton reviewed the stories and considered whether they needed to single out teachers by name. Would the stories tell enough, some at the paper wondered, if they rated teachers only by school and grade level, but did not name them as individuals?

Under that scenario, for example, the public might have learned that the third-grade teachers at Hypothetical Elementary weren’t pushing up test scores as much as their peers. Those teachers would have an incentive to work together to help each other pull up their scores, without singling out any of them for disdain.

“I think that if we had just took the analysis to the grade level, without naming specific teachers, a lot of parents would have been justifiably angry with us for withholding data from them,” David Lauter, The Times’ metropolitan editor told me. “That is public information that I think people do have a right to know.

“We have the opportunity to shine a spotlight not just on ineffective teachers but also on very effective teachers,” he added. “Not doing that would be a cop out.”

It’s impossible to judge The Times’ series without acknowledging a sharp political divide: Many academics, reformers and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan insist test scores can be used as one way to measure teacher performance. Unions don’t like the idea of using tests and don’t seem in a big hurry to change a system that relies mostly on seniority and lumps the vast majority of teachers together as good enough.

The Times’ stories have undoubtedly pushed that divide into the open and put the onus on teachers to explain why testing shouldn’t be at least one factor.

Public rankings might be painful. But teachers now realize that the only way to assure that the rankings don’t get published annually might be to allow them to be reviewed privately. If student testing were used in annual teacher performance evaluations then it would go into district personnel files, where it presumably would remain confidential, as required by state law, and beyond the prying eyes of any journalist.

The Times could have waited for a better teacher-rating system. It could have singled out schools, not teachers. It could have published a lengthy treatise of the pros and cons of value-added analysis.

Instead, the newspaper took the road less traveled. There might be a few more accidents along that way. But it also appears to provide a shorter route to something we all want — a better way to figure out who is good at teaching and who is not.

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