Putting teachers to the test

A Sunday Los Angeles Times article has sparked debate across California about whether teachers should be evaluated based on their students' test scores.

The article collected data over a seven-year span and analyzed more than 6,000 elementary school teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District. The findings showed a vast difference between how well teachers' students scored.

All of the information has been at the disposal of Los Angeles Unified but mostly ignored by the district, according to the report.

A.J. Duffy, president of the United Teachers Los Angeles, called for a massive boycott of The Times on Sunday in response to the article, saying the quality of a teacher cannot be determined by a test.

On Monday, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan spoke out in favor of releasing individual teachers' test scores. Duncan said he believes parents have the right to know how their children's teachers are performing.

Similar dissension has crept up in La Cañada.

"[Test scores are] something that should not be shared," said Rick Jordan, president of the La Cañada Teacher's Assn. "There are many other means for parents to get information on their children's teachers. We have never released an individual teacher's scores because it could be misinterpreted or inflammatory."

In La Cañada Unified, individual student test scores are available to teachers so they can make changes where they deem necessary, but a teacher's contract with LCUSD states that information cannot be made public.

La Cañada school board members Cindy Wilcox and Joel Peterson said the method used in The Times article could be a helpful tool.

Peterson said the board has looked at using such information but needs to see if it's applicable to La Cañada Unified, a much smaller school district than Los Angeles Unified. Teacher-performance metrics are a key goal the board has put in place for Supt. Jim Stratton, Peterson said.

Jordan fears using teacher-performance data to help evaluate teachers will shift too much importance on test scores.

"It's a very slippery slope to start putting too much emphasis on test scores," Jordan said. "They can be very easily persuaded."

The problem with test scores, Jordan said, is their unreliability because many variables affect how a class fares on a standardized test.

The time of day, learning level of the students and classroom conditions can all have negative effects on test performance, he said.

"Test scores, in and of themselves, are not the sole measurement for how well a teacher or student may be performing," Jordan said. "We have some kids who test well, others don't, and others just blow off the test."

Renee LaBran, a mother of a student entering ninth grade at La Cañada High School and another who graduated this summer, said she has been very happy with her kids' teachers and education in general.

She has seen "exceptional" teachers in La Cañada schools, but occasionally also unsatisfactory teachers, LaBran said. Her biggest frustration is the district's inability to reward teachers based on their performance instead of seniority.

"Great teachers need to be rewarded," LaBran said. "So let's get rid of the underperforming teachers who are a problem and find a way to reward the exceptional teachers."

Wilcox said it's difficult to terminate unsatisfactory teachers if they are tenured, which presents problems when trying to inspire improvement.

"We need to make it easier to fire teachers," Wilcox said. "If we fired a few teachers, we would get the undivided attention of so many more teachers."

La Cañada Unified teachers are evaluated and critiqued by an administrator. However, most teachers aren't observed annually. Non-tenured teachers or those with little experience are visited by an administrator each year, but in many cases teachers with seniority can opt to have it done once every four years.

Still, administrators have the right to observe a teacher when they believe it's warranted, with or without warning.

"We have tried to make the evaluations as specific and detailed as possible," Peterson said. "Our goal isn't just to find bad teaching habits but to also find excellent teaching habits so that we can then pass them on to other teachers. We are always looking for ways to help our teachers grow and improve."

If the district stumbles upon poor standardized test scores, officials don't automatically assume a teacher is to blame.

"It could be a deficient teacher, deficient resources for that teacher or just a cohort of kids that might have a deficiency in some area," Peterson said. "It's kind of a long answer."

Wilcox believes the current evaluation process is far from perfect.

"What frustrates me personally is that a teacher can appeal something negative put in their file from a principal and the appeal board will often rule to keep it out," Wilcox said.

The appeal board needs to change, otherwise teacher evaluations are meaningless, Wilcox said.

Administrator observations and test scores aren't enough for evaluating a teacher if used exclusively from one another, LaBran said.

"The classroom evaluations and test scores themselves can't be everything, but they are a valid piece of data that should be measured," LaBran said. "It would be interesting to see how test scores correlate with a principal's teacher evaluations."

Although the public cannot access a teacher's individual test scores, they can still get a broader picture of the district school's Academic Performance Index or see how they fair on the Standardized Testing and Reporting Program through the California Department of Education.

"Our students in La Cañada, based on a lot of different vectors, do very well," Jordan said. "We score very well on our tests, and they graduate to go onto some of the best universities in the country."

Jeanne Broberg, president of the La Cañada school board, said that the district "needs to have an appropriate way to monitor effective teaching," but that each school district needs to have the opportunity to self-govern because they all deal with different situations.

"We work as a district to create effective teacher evaluation instruments that are fair for our teachers and that allow the district to find and keep the best teachers for our students," Broberg said.

The district is constantly looking for ways to improve on how they assess their teachers, Peterson said.

"We understand the single most important thing for how well a child learns comes down to the quality, talent and dedication of their teacher," Peterson said. "We are very much about the business of making our teacher evaluation system better than it was in the past. There is no failure of will in our district."

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