A conversation with A.J. Duffy


Ordinarily, when someone cancels his subscription and organizes a protest outside The Times, I don’t go and knock on his door to talk him into subscribing again. But I have a soft spot for A.J. Duffy, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, and I know he’d be a smarter, better-informed leader with a Times subscription, particularly since we’ve started a much-needed conversation on how to better serve hundreds of thousands of students.

The last time Duffy and I broke bread was last summer, when I wrote a column suggesting he and his union have missed a chance to lead the way in education reform. Duffy then wrote his own column, for the UTLA newsletter, and let’s just say it wasn’t to thank me.

I think it’s fair to say we have a love-hate relationship, and I looked forward to rekindling it Friday morning as I drove to Duffy’s house in the Palms neighborhood for a cup of coffee. I wanted to discuss his cranky reaction to the Times series on teacher evaluations.

On Duffy’s front door, I found this sign:

“An Old Bear and His Honey Live Here.”

The honey is Duffy’s lovely wife, Carol, a retired special-education assistant. Carol said she misses The Times, especially the Sunday edition. Now that her husband has stolen this pleasure from her, I’m thinking of calling Carol on Sunday and reading the paper to her while the Old Bear eats his porridge.

So why is Duffy so riled this time? As you must know by now, The Times used a so-called value-added formula to examine student test scores and see which third- through fifth-grade teachers were best at improving their scores. The paper then published a database of its findings, naming names, which was understandably painful for some.

Nationally, there’s a trend to use this kind of analysis as one component of teacher evaluations. In California, the state Board of Education has endorsed the idea, as has the L.A. Unified School District. Even Randi Weingarten, national president of the American Federation of Teachers, told The Times she has negotiated 54 contracts with teacher unions that include some form of value-added analysis, and she said parents have a right to know if teachers got satisfactory reviews.

And Duffy?

He chose to kill the messenger, bringing his minions to march around our building with signs accusing the paper of teacher-bashing.

“What did you accomplish?” I asked in his living room.

“We accomplished what we wanted to accomplish,” he said, which was to “get the attention of the media” and offer the union take.

There’s a lot Duffy and I agree on. He says it’s difficult to accurately rate teachers because there are so many variables, and he’s right. He says standardized tests are imperfect and ought to do be revised to better measure critical thinking, and he correctly says value-added formulas aren’t perfect. He says teaching colleges need to do a better job of training teachers, and that administrators and parents need to up their game. And he says that California should be ashamed about ranking near the bottom nationally in spending per pupil. Amen.

“Have we educated people,” he asks in criticizing current educational philosophy, “or have we taught people how to take tests?”

Fair question. But here’s another: Why is UTLA resisting evaluation reforms rather than leading the way?

The Times study identified hundreds upon hundreds of teachers who are doing terrific work under difficult circumstances. Isn’t that worth celebrating?

Sure, any value-added formula has flaws, but if one fourth-grade teacher routinely raises student test scores while another doesn’t, shouldn’t the latter teacher get some training?

If that teacher gets help, wouldn’t it help the fifth-grade teachers?

More importantly, wouldn’t it be better for the students?

Duffy doesn’t give many direct answers to questions like that. But he did say at one point that a strong administrator ought to know who needs help.

“You know who the good teachers are,” he said, and I almost fell off the sofa, because it often seems that Duffy is opposed to any acknowledgement that one teacher is better than another.

In fact, teachers and administrators often do know who the stronger teachers are, and yet they’re not rewarded, nor do the lower performers have much incentive to improve. Meanwhile, an astounding one half of L.A. Unified students don’t graduate on time.

Duffy said the union is studying teacher evaluation formulas all over the country and is willing to consider some of them. He likes the idea of peer review, in which teachers and administrators observe and grade teachers, with training provided to those who need it. He agreed that the current system, in which an administrator floats into a class briefly and rates a teacher satisfactory or unsatisfactory, is pretty useless.

I asked if he’d agree to a system in which peer review accounted for 70-80% of a teacher’s evaluation, with the remainder based on a value-added rating.

Again, no direct answer. He’s open to discussion, but skeptical about whether there’s a reliable value-added formula.

Here at The Times, we’re trying to lead that discussion. I think taxpayers, and the nearly 700,000 students whose educations they’re paying for, would benefit from having a man of Duffy’s experience participate rather than protest.

As for Carol, hang in there, honey. And tell the Old Bear that if he comes around on the subscription, I will personally deliver the paper to your door for a week.