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Testing the system

Education leaders and professionals share their opinions on the value-added approach to evaluating teachers.

August 22, 2010

Last weekend, the Times launched its "Grading the Teachers" series, which presented the concept of a value-added approach to evaluating teachers. Individual test scores were scrutinized over several years as students moved from one teacher to another. The scores were analyzed to see which teachers consistently raised the test scores of their students and which lowered them. Later this month, the paper will post the data on its website. Times editorial writer Marjorie Miller spoke to a variety of education leaders and professionals about the pluses and minuses of this method of evaluating teachers. Their remarks — or writings — have been edited for clarity and length. In coming days, we'll feature the voices of classroom teachers.

Stephen Krashen
Professor emeritus, USC's Rossier School of Education

Value-added evaluations of teachers assume that higher test scores are always the result of teaching. Not so. Test scores are influenced by other factors.

We can generate higher scores by teaching "test preparation" strategies for getting higher scores without students learning anything. We can generate higher scores by testing selectively, making sure that low scorers are not in school the day of the test. And of course we can generate higher scores by direct cheating, sharing information about specific test questions with students.

Teachers who prepare students for higher scores on tests of specific procedures and facts are not teaching; they are simply drilling students with information that is often soon forgotten. Moreover, research shows that value-added evaluations are not stable year to year for individual teachers, and that different reading tests will give you different value-added scores for the same teacher.

If The Times is serious about helping children, don't bash teachers, address poverty. American children from high-income families do very well on international tests, but our children of poverty do much worse, and nearly 75% of LAUSD students are poor enough to qualify for free lunches. Our overall scores are mediocre because the U.S. has such a high percentage of children living in poverty (25%, compared with Denmark's 2%). We need to protect children against the negative effects of poverty with better nutrition, better healthcare and more access to books. They do not need more standardized testing.

Ted Mitchell
President and chief executive, New Schools Venture Fund

One part of the crisis in education is our inability to use data to make decisions. We are driving blind, making decisions on the basis of hunch and anecdote. The data we need are data about teacher effectiveness. Unlike a static measure such as how well kids did on a single exam, value-added analyses put the emphasis on taking kids from wherever they are and doing all you can to help them improve. Such analysis gives a good sense of how a teacher is doing over time. It's a way to give credit to teachers who are moving the needle.

Value-added analysis is not perfect, of course, but we should embrace the data we have while trying to make improvements in our data system. I think this kind of analysis should be a part of a teacher's evaluation, and as we improve the methodology, it should grow in importance. What's key is to get started using it now.

As for making value-added data public, I'm all for it. One of the big problems in public education is the lack of transparency and public trust. This is the first step in rebuilding that trust. It is about true transparency. Now the system will have to respond. In the last five days, we have been having more spirited conversations about teacher effectiveness than we have in the last 10 years combined.

Steve Zimmer
Los Angeles Unified School District board member

If you are to give validity to the value-added approach to measuring a teacher's performance, the prerequisite is that the standardized test is a valid measure of a student's learning and knowledge, and that in itself is controversial. To say it is the most important, or the sole measure, is without any validation in the mainstream academic conversation on teacher effectiveness. It invalidates every other piece of teaching and has consequences that extend far beyond an individual teacher's accountability. If test score are determinant, and if you want to keep teaching, then you have to alter the place standardized testing assumes in your instructional priority. Not because the school board says so, or the principal says so, or because you think so, but because The Times says it's the most valid measure and it's what is published.

There's a legitimate discourse about the accountability of public servants. I favor families having access to information about a school's performance and even to aspects of a teacher's performance, but I have reservations about whether this should be played out in public. We don't publish a database of every infraction a police officer has, or the attendance records of our firefighters.

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